Social distancing for love of Shabbat/weekend

In his classic essay The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, R’ Abraham Joshua Heschel beautifully described the the Jewish people and the Shabbat as a love affair:

There is a word that is seldom said, a word for an emotion almost too deep to be expressed: the love of the Sabbath. The word is seldom found in our literature, yet for more than two thousand years the emotion filled our songs and moods. It was as if a whole people were in the love with the seventh day….. The Jewish contribution to the idea of love is the conception of love of the Sabbath, the love of a day, of spirit in the form of time.

This may seem like hyperbole.  But ask any Shabbat-observant Jew and you’ll find that Heschel’s words resonate powerfully.  Such Jews– myself among them– swoon over how they could not live without Shabbat– as a respite, as a recharge, as a time to reconnect.

While the Jewish Shabbat experience (in its varied forms) is unique, our love affair with the Shabbat is not actually as foreign as it may seem to those who don’t observe the Shabbat.  That’s because everyone “observes”– and loves– the weekend.

As my sociologist colleagues Cristobal Young and Chaeyoon Lim show in their research, everyone (the average American, in any case) is happier on the weekend. In particular, while you might think that unemployed adults would be just as unhappy on the weekend as during the week (they’re not working either way), they are happier too, owing apparently due to the increased opportunity to reconnect with others; and perhaps they also feel a greater bond with others because their idleness does not stand out. They are again living by the same rhythm as everyone else.

These two love affairs– between the Jewish people and the Sabbath and between the world and the weekend– are no accident: the latter evolved from the former.  The seven-day week– a completely human cycle that isn’t observed by any other organism– was unknown outside the Jewish community until it began to be adopted by non-Jews in the Roman world and then was eventually brought to the world by Christianity, Islam, and Western imperialism (there’s an extensive literature on this but the best source remains Eviatar Zerubavel’s classic The Seven Day Circle).  But while many exports of these religious and political enterprises were rejected and others are now resented, the week– or more accurately the weekend (again, in its varied forms)– seems beloved everywhere.

Over that same period, the Jewish love affair with the Shabbat has itself evolved and deepened.  Central to that love affair now is the annual “parsha” cycle of readings of the Pentateuch (Torah/Chumash, or first five books of the Hebrew Bible), which is divided up into weekly portions that are read in synagogues throughout the world. Among the reasons the parsha cycle is beloved is that it’s an incredibly powerful communal experience for so many people to be reading the same text together, to be sharing questions and insights– even troubling ones!– about it. A sense of this experience can be seen from the outpouring of enthusiasm that was expressed in the Jewish world recently, when one Daf Yomi (7.5 year cycle of daily Talmud study) ended and a new one began.  As such, while all of the world is in pain right now due to its inability to celebrate the weekend (and even experience the usual difference between the weekend and the week in our accustomed way), the Jewish pain is perhaps most acutely via in our inability to come together to read and discuss the parsha on Shabbat.

But this brings us to one of the most difficult questions concerning this Shabbat.  It just so happens that last week’s parshaKi Tissa— introduces several new ideas about the Shabbat, including an extremely troubling one: it says twice (Exodus 31:14-15) that desecration of Shabbat is a capital crime.  And if that weren’t enough, this is repeated at the very opening of this week’s parsha, Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-3):

Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day (emphasis added).

My sense is that few Jews are troubled when they read these lines, likely because they’ve never heard of capital punishment being applied to Shabbat violators (by contrast, public sabbath desecration is the classic basis for removing someone from a Jewish community). But if the Torah is not serious about it, why is it there? Moreover, capital punishment apparently was applied!

Numbers 15:32-35 tells the story of a man who was found gathering wood on Shabbat. He’s brought to Moses and Aaron, who consult with God. God directs Moses to have the people to stone the wood-gatherer. And that’s precisely what the people do. Shocking!  Barbaric! How can we stone a man just for gathering wood on the sabbath? This is the foundation for the world’s love affair with the weekend?

More to the point: Why would an institution that can be sustained through love have to be enforced via a regime of fear?  The implication would seem to be that Shabbat was a very fragile institution such that a single desecration could unleash a chain reaction and thereby destroy it.  But how?  True love affairs are surely more robust than that!

In two Lehrhaus essays (here and here) drawn from my book project on the emergence of the seven-day week, I suggest that the key to unlocking this puzzle– one with profound implications for our understanding of how the Shabbat/week emerged and its significance– is to consider a thought experiment.  This thought experiment is very challenging in normal times, but it is unfortunately much easier right now, during the coronavirus pandemic.  Here goes:

I would like you, dear reader, to imagine for a moment that it’s not Shabbat.  Let’s say it’s a Tuesday or a Thursday.  Better yet, try to imagine a world that has no week at all (and therefore no weekend) because there was in fact no week anywhere in the world back then: The Torah is in part an account of the week’s invention (see my essay “Three in One” and R’ Aryeh Kaplan’s wonderful essay, Sabbath: Day of Eternity).

OK, now I would like you to imagine a scenario in which you might get very angry– murderously angry even– simply because you discovered that someone had gathered wood.  Can you imagine such a scenario?

You can’t?  Well then you’re not trying hard enough.

Some consolation is in order: I have asked this question to various audiences over the past few years and few people have volunteered answers.  Perhaps they were afraid to say the wrong answer.  Or perhaps they knew the right answer but were afraid of what it might reveal about themselves.  One person did answer the question though, and very confidently.  He was an Israeli man in the audience at Ben Gurion University and he said (in Hebrew):  “I know!  It’s when someone parks on the lines in the parking lot!”  “Bidiyuk!” (Precisely!) said I.

What were we talking out about? Tragically, it should be a lot clearer to many readers today than it would have been just two weeks ago.  The man and I both had in mind two things: a) that the resource in question (wood in Numbers 15 or parking spaces in his example) is very valuable (due in part to its scarcity); and b) that it didn’t belong to the person who took it; rather, it belonged to everyone.  This problem is known by modern social science (see the work of Garrett Hardin and Elinor Ostrom) as the “tragedy of the commons.”  It is the challenge of disciplining ourselves so that we don’t hoard scarce resources such that there will then be nothing left for others who need it.  Tragically, countless examples come to mind during the coronavirus pandemic: toilet paper, hand sanitizer, eggs, and even just being out in public.

Getting angry about the last example would have been unimaginable just a short time ago, but now we see police arresting a man on the street for violating quarantine and many of us are apt to cheer the police on.

Aided by our perspective from the current crisis, we can see why the wood-gatherer was such a threat.  Everyone was resting in their tents and what did the wood-gatherer do?  He took advantage of the situation to grab wood for himself!  During the very first week recounted by the Torah (Exodus 16), the very same instinct is on display: first people go out and hoard manna even though they were told not to; and then on Shabbat, they go out to gather even though they were told it wouldn’t fall that day.  In that case, their hoarding was not such a threat because miracles occurred to nullify the effects of hoarding (the stored manna spoiled and they received a double portion on the sixth to tide them over to the seventh).  That may be why that first Sabbath-desecration only occasioned a divine tongue-lashing.

But there were no miracles to protect the people from hoarding another precious, public resource (see Numbers 13:20!): wood (used for fuel and construction).  As such, wood-gathering is a dagger thrown at the heart of the community.  The wood-gatherer threatens to unleash a mad scramble for resources that not only will destroy the fledgling institution of the Shabbat/week but social order more generally.

We can now see the need for strict enforcement of Shabbat-desecration, especially when the Shabbat/week was young.

Still, we don’t seem need a similarly harsh level of enforcement to preserve the Shabbat today. Indeed, we hope and pray we don’t because many of us are rightly nervous about the powers that governments are assuming during the current crisis so as to manage the assorted tragedies of the commons that threaten to engulf us.  Why do we sometimes seem to need strict enforcement (a “Leviathan” in the famous words of Thomas Hobbes) and sometimes we don’t?

In short: Knowiedge of the value of cooperation.

A necessary (but insufficient) condition for resolving commons problems is that community members recognize what they’ll get from cooperation. The fisherman knows the value of a sustainable fishery. The herder knows the value of maintaining a commons stocked with grass. Refraining from overgrazing or overfishing is hard not because they don’t get why they shouldn’t but because it’s hard to do it if you can’t be sure others won’t.  As Israelis say, “why I should I be the freier?”

This logic is pernicious, but it can be at least partly overcome if everyone knows the value of cooperation.  And so that’s why not all fisheries are overfished and not all commons are overgrazed.  And that’s the main reason why the vast majority of us (even the young, who face little risk from the virus) have agreed to stay home these days at great social and economic cost to ourselves: we have come to understand the value of this form of cooperation.

In this regard, we should all be incredibly grateful for modern science and communication technologies (and even our governments however incompetent has been many of their initial responses) for teaching us about the importance of “social distancing” and “flattening the curve” (which like 99% of people on this planet, I knew nothing about just a couple of weeks ago) and a capacity for acting on this counterintuitive “Torah” of cooperation.

But imagine if  we didn’t appreciate the value of such cooperation. Our self-sacrifice would be unthinkable.

And that was the challenge when Shabbat was new.

Everything that’s the basis of the “love affair” today– our knowledge of the value of cooperation in “keeping” the Shabbat is the product of thousands of years of cumulative social experience. But ex-slaves (who knew nothing but endless toil and a brutal fight for their lives) in the wilderness would have had no such frame of reference for it. And even when they entered the land of Israel and were the only people in the world to observe the seven-day week, how could you convince them to close their shops on Shabbat (Nehemiah 13:15-22) or leave their crops in the field during the plowing or harvesting season (Exodus 34:21)?

By contrast, for us today, even though we are experiencing the awful experience of a world in which our Shabbatot are spent all cooped up, do you have any doubt whether we will remember the value of the Shabbat and the weekend?  Now that we are facing the misery of having our days blend together and our social (and thus, personal) rhythms thrown off, do you doubt whether we’ll want to re-embrace the Shabbat?  Do you think we will continue to make do with the (beautiful and inspiring, to be sure) ersatz community-building activities we are all engaged in?

To the contrary: just as absence of a loved-one “makes the heart grow fonder,” this will certainly be true for the Shabbat. And this is why the Sephardic Chief Rabbi could issue a decree, making it permissible to leave smartphones on over Shabbat so people can be apprised of Israeli Health Ministry updates.  Not only does this exemplify the rabbinic principle of piku’ach nefesh docheh shabbat (one must violate the Shabbat to save a life) but it also reflects his confidence that there is no slippery slope here: he knows that our love for the Shabbat, rooted in deep, multi-generational experience, is so powerful that little is at risk.

So this Shabbat– like last one– and very likely the next– but hopefully not many more– will not be so bad.  We can make a beautiful Shabbat, just us.  We can draw on all that experience in our homes.  And we can be sustained by our knowledge of all the other households are feeling very much the same way (as in the very first Shabbat, when no one could leave their “places”!), and they too are looking forward to what is surely around the bend: the first Shabbat after we can be out in our communities together.

Imagine how joyous and festive it will be– like nothing we’ve experienced in our lifetimes.  There will be an outpouring of love for the Shabbat (and the weekend, which is an echo of the Shabbat) and for one another that will resound across the globe.  Perhaps that parsha will be one we will mark for years to come.  I’m getting excited already and you should too!

Shabbat shalom!

About the Author
A sociologist, Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan is deputy dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management, where he is Alvin J. Siteman Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy. In addition to his academic writing, he has written opinion columns for the Jerusalem Post and essays on Hebrew Bible at the Lehrhaus. During this crisis in particular, he is available to (video) lecture (especially on his book project on the emergence of the seven-day week) to interested communities. Ezra's opinions are personal views and do not speak for any institution.