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The Shabbat Experiment

The Shabbat Experiment


So consider this (and I mean really take a minute and think this through): No e-mails. No telephones (yes, that includes cell phones). No TV. No iPods or laptops. No driving. No radio. No electronics whatsoever. Period. For 24 hours. Imagine giving up everything with an on-off switch. Could you do it? And why would you want to? Would it restrict or release you?

Well, a few months ago I opened my big mouth and admitted to the entire town of Marblehead that every once in a while, I fantasize about chucking all the devices and gadgets in my life just so I could remember what real life feels like. Not permanently, just sort of a reboot for the soul.

We're constantly refreshing, updating or checking somethingEver since I put it out there it's been on my mind. I wanted to make it happen, but the timing never seemed to be right. Plus, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little intimidated by the thought of giving everything up. It sounded great in theory, but when you think about the actual ramifications, it ends up looking like a pretty outrageous idea, especially considering how most of us live our lives day to day. We're constantly refreshing, updating or checking something, and if we're not doing that, we're chauffeuring someone somewhere or making a call or using a gadget that's supposed to make the quality of our life better.

But does it?

So when the e-mail came in from my daughter's Chabad Hebrew school a few weeks ago inviting people to take The Shabbat Challenge, I knew someone was sending me a sign that this was my shot. So I took it.

For anyone who doesn't know what's involved in "keeping Shabbat," it means that every week, from sundown on Friday to nightfall on Saturday, Jews all over the world unplug. Fifty-two weeks a year. And for those 24 hours, they stay unplugged. They eat, they rest, they reflect, many pray; they spend time with family and friends, and they recover physically and spiritually from their week.

Chabad picked the weekend in late January, and they spelled out the rules: driving, not OK; board games, OK; power, not OK; walking, OK (it's a long list). So for one full day my family would flip the master breaker and go completely dark. And we decided that if we were going to do it we were going to go all in which, for a Reform family that practices the most liberal form of Judaism, was way in. The fact that it was temporary definitely took the edge off. But it was still intimidating no matter how you looked at it.

So we picked which lights would stay on for the full 24 hours; we unscrewed the light bulb in the fridge so it didn't go on when we opened the door; we cooked everything before sundown on Friday night; we unplugged every device; we picked out all our board games and books. And then it came.

And it was painless.

It became shockingly obvious that we all carry around a very misplaced sense of urgency Without really even noticing, Shabbat settled in and the vibe of our whole house shifted. It was a quietude that was defined by the fact that we knew it would last, even for only a day. All the pressure was gone. The anticipation of rushing or fussing or preparing had disappeared. Once we committed to the challenge, everything was surprisingly easy. And it became shockingly obvious that we all carry around a very misplaced sense of urgency — when there's actually very little that we can't do without.

My brother-in-law gave me the best analogy right before sunset. He said, "There's a beauty created in the quietude of the Shabbat that's difficult to describe or capture otherwise. You need to focus on that quietude rather than on the things you might otherwise be doing."

Then he put it in terms that I could really understand. He said that my sister-in-law made some amazing salsa the other night and also some homemade tortilla chips with a hint of lime. He said he noticed the hint of lime when he ate the chips without the salsa but then forgot all about it once he started dipping into the fiery salsa. After the salsa was gone, he said he started eating the chips dry again and realized how much he liked that subtle hint of lime that was undetectable in the context of the salsa. He said the same thing goes for the Shabbat. Enjoy removing the noise to find the quietude that's always there, waiting to be revealed.

We stayed in our pajamas until 4 in the afternoon, getting dressed only to walk down to Preston Beach to see the sunset. And by that point, even the sound of the cars on the road seemed a little intrusive because we were used to such a comfortable quiet. It was a little surreal, at least for me, feeling so far away from home even though I was right there — probably because everything felt so different.

In the end, the 24 hours flew by and we all ended up with much more than we bargained for. It gave us a clarity and peace that would be tough to duplicate any other way. And it changed each one of us somehow, too. My girls said they were shocked at how fast the time went by and how "not boring" the experience was. And my husband, who would sleep with an earpiece in if he could, said he felt amazingly liberated to shut everything down and just walk away. And for him that's big.

We all ended up with much more than we bargained forNow this doesn't mean we're going all in and making this a weekly thing, but it definitely gave us all something to think about. It showed us that there's a place we can always go to get away — far away, like a "staycation" for the spirit. And those are in right now, aren't they?

So it's ironic: After all that, the real challenge was letting the Sabbath go. Who knew?

This article originally appeared in The Marblehead Reporter.

Lisa Sugarman is a Marblehead, MA, resident.
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Anonymous Baltimore November 20, 2010

moved me to tears From someone whose kept Shabbos her whole life--it never gets old!

Great to hear your perspective--it was a beautiful article, moved me to tears! Reply

AM Bronx, NY April 25, 2010

Great piece What a lovely piece. I've had many skeptical non-Jewish friends over for Shabbat meals and definitely, your last sentence captures it the end, there's a very real sense of not wanting Shabbat to end. Reply

Anonymous Raleigh, NC via April 23, 2010

Shabbat Thanks for the article. I would like to see the full "list" that you received from the day school on how to keep the Shabbat. Can it be shred through pdf or do you have to retype the whole thing? Reply

Alan Cohen Revere, MA April 19, 2010

My Thoughts I wrote a short article about the concept of Shabbot, going a day untethered to the information grid. Here's the link. Reply

Tone Lechtzier Brothers, Or US April 19, 2010

Shabbat... Shalom,
A profound "reward" for keeping Shabbat is that the following week goes much easier. We recharge & reboot on Shabbat ~ spending a day with G-d.
I used to work seven days a week ~ still unable to "catch up" ~ when I returned to keeping the Shabbat ~ some 20 years ago ~ every day feels as yet another continuation. Blessings Reply

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