It is well known that the institution of Shabbat is one of the best inventions God ever came up with. It no doubt qualifies Him to receive the Nobel Prize for innovative thinking, and the venerable judges in Sweden should sincerely consider bestowing this honor on the Lord of the Universe. Now that most of the world has adopted the concept of a weekly day of rest, the time has come to act. The idea is nearly 6,000 years old; a Nobel Prize is long overdue.
That we all need a weekly rest is common knowledge. What is much less known is that the Jewish tradition believes such rest should not only consist of refraining from strenuous labor, but also from any kind of work that presents human beings as having dominion over the world. One day a week we are asked to return the world and all its potential to God and, instead of being creators, acknowledge that we are also creatures in God’s eyes – not much different from a flower, a leaf, or a small bird. By refraining from cooking, writing, creating electricity, driving cars, flying airplanes, and other such activities, we learn that the world has already been created and will no doubt survive without us. As Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out, “The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (Farrar Straus Giroux, July 2005), p. 13)
Shabbat is a day when we stop worshipping technology, money, and power. Instead, we focus on our internal lives and our families – learning Torah, singing songs, and creating an inner palace of tranquility. Shabbat is holiness in time, when we allow for personal conversations with friends, reading a book, playing games with our children, and ungluing ourselves from the cell phone, iPad and computer. Shabbat means living in full liberty, which is paradoxically achieved by heeding prohibitions. We free ourselves from all sorts of activities that often disturb our internal balance. What can be greater than abandoning the cell phone and suddenly discovering that we have a spouse and children? We find an island of stillness in a turbulent sea of worldliness.
Yet there is one law that, while rarely applicable in Israel and large Jewish communities around the world, really sums up the whole message of this remarkable day: the prohibition against carrying any object in the public domain, besides our clothing and jewelry. Today, many cities are surrounded by an eruv (*), so as to permit people to carry some of their items for reasons of convenience. But it is really this prohibition against carrying that captures the essence of the Shabbat rest, and it is a pity that its message has been nearly forgotten. What is the secret behind this law?
The Buddha (c. 560-480 BCE) and Master Furong Daokai (12th century, China), both great Eastern philosophers, really hit the nail on the head when they made the following remarkable observation: “The green mountains are always walking…If you doubt mountains’ walking, you do not know your own walking.” (See: Sutra on the Establishment of Mindfulness, or Satipatthana Sutta. I thank Prof. Yehudah Gellman of Yerushalayim for bringing this to my attention.)
What did they mean?
There are two reasons for walking – one is to reach a destination, and the other is for the sake of strolling (le-tayel in Hebrew; spazieren in German). When someone walks to something, their goal is outside themselves: they have to be at a business meeting, or need to bring a package to a specific place. But when people take a stroll, the walking itself is the goal. It is not a means but das ding an sich, the thing itself. Every step is its purpose. At such a moment, people are connected with their very being. They are walking with themselves in peace and in complete harmony. They carry only themselves.
Green mountains walk in the sense that they, in an existential way, stroll with themselves. They need not do anything but be mountains. Nothing outside themselves disturbs them in being mountains. They need not go anywhere; therefore they just stroll.
People must know how to carry themselves. They should know that their inner being is the goal of their life. It is their internal life that needs to spiritually and morally grow. Their happiness depends not on outside circumstances but on their attitude toward those conditions. The rare and simple pleasure of being themselves will compensate for all their misery. If they meet their family or friends, they will not want to own them as objects but rather relate to them in a mode in which they stroll with them, accompanying them while spiritually growing. They realize that being is becoming.
No longer is the goal of life about obtaining an object, or being somewhere for the sake of proving oneself, achieving external goals, or making money. They refuse to be the slaves of their own inventions, whether it is their car, computer, or cell phone. What one acquires on Shabbat is a way of life that brings the joy of tranquility or, as Spinoza calls it—sub specie aeternitatis – a perspective of eternity.
When we are told not to carry in the public domain on Shabbat, we are essentially being asked not to see our life goals in the public sphere, where life is about getting somewhere. While for livelihood one no doubt needs to go places, that activity remains a weekday endeavor; a means to something, but never das ding an sich.
On Shabbat we turn our outer mode into a being mode, and for one day a week we become people who by just carrying ourselves, and nothing else, are able to deal with a world that has little knowledge of the soul’s needs. On Shabbat, we stroll even when we go to synagogue. Only then will we realize how great we are and that nobody can make us inferior without our own consent.
In a world where we refuse to take notice of what is beyond our sight, where we turn mysteries into dogmas and facts, ideas into a multitude of words and routine, we Jews are asked to surpass ourselves by being ourselves; we are summoned to discover another world.
Refraining from carrying is an act of protest against the shallowness of our world. And while today we are permitted to carry outside our homes if an eruv is in place, we should never forget the great symbolic meaning inherent in the prohibition against carrying on Shabbat, which can advance us – both spiritually and morally – further than anything else.
Our society stands on the precipice, and one false step can plunge us into the abyss. We have, for the most part, become a civilization of notoriously unhappy people – lonely, anxious, depressed, destructive, and dependent – people who are glad to kill time that they are trying so hard to save.
Shabbat is a day of truce in the midst of the human battle with the world. It teaches us that even pulling out a blade of grass is a breach of harmony, as is lighting a match. And while we need to carry objects on weekdays, so as to physically survive, one day in the week we are taught that what really counts is our ability to carry our own selves. Shabbat teaches us that the survival of the human race depends on a radical change of the human heart.
The time has come for all of humankind to observe Shabbat – whether on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. The Lord of the Universe has told us to do so, and we Jews owe it to our fellow human beings.
(*) The Talmud (Eruvin 21b) teaches that King Solomon instituted the setting up of an eruv (a symbolic enclosure), which turns a public area into a private domain by surrounding it. The eruv has been adopted in cities all over the world, including parts of London, Amsterdam, New York, and, of course, Jerusalem and most other cities in Israel. It allows people to carry objects that they need, as well as in situations when Shabbat observance would become counter-productive —for example, by preventing young couples from attending synagogue because their children are too young to walk. This is a typical example of how the Halacha has to work with two opposing spiritual values. As in secular law, it suggests what legal philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin calls a trade-off for the sake of the realities of life.