Shabbat has two aspects. One is subjective, personal and anthropocentric. It is God’s gift to us humans, a way to emulate the creator of the universe by resting once a week after working hard to build and make things. In this sense we become like God, the center of everything. We are reminded once a week that we stand free from and above work, toil and necessity. Shabbat liberates us from servitude to desires, drives and compulsions. We belong to no one, certainly not to an employer. Shabbat comes to remind us that, like God, our true self, our authentic being is free and self-sufficient.
Shabbat’s second aspect teaches us, contrarily, that we humans are not special. We stand back one day a week from activity and doing not for our own sakes — or not for our sakes alone. Shabbat, the Torah states, commemorates the creation of the world (Gen. 2:1-3; Exod. 20:7-10). More than a symbolic nod to the immense world that cradles us, however, shabbat provides the world a recurring temporary break from us and our meddling. The world needs its rest, too. The trans-species community of living beings — work animals, for instance — cannot be pressed constantly; the social hierarchy, whose differentiation between those at the top and those at the bottom results from human behavior, cannot survive endless demands (Ex. 23:12; Deut. 5:14). The Bible connects the weekly sabbath to the seven-year cycle of the sabbatical year (Ex. 23:10-12), regarding which we are told explicitly that the land itself desires to rest (Lev. 26:34-35). The natural world has a voice and we are not free to ignore it.
In addition to the wonderful benefits that shabbat offers us, then, the day of rest offers us a chance to benefit our physical environment and the other species when we refrain from tinkering, “improving,” extracting and producing. The traditional Jewish framework of the kinds of activity forbidden on shabbat makes an excellent guideline for us today for environmental reasons, whether or not one believes in God or cares for organized religion.
Basing themselves on the biblical text and oral tradition, the ancient rabbis saw in the sabbath day not merely a symbolic reflection of God’s resting after having created existence as we know it, nor as a mere metaphorical form of imitatio dei. From the biblical description of the construction of the mobile desert Tabernacle they derived 39 types of labor, all of which they prohibited on the sabbath under the general biblical commandment to refrain from working on that day (Ex. 20:10-11, 23:12, 31:14-15; Deut. 5:14). Thus the Mishnah, Judaism’s earliest extant legal code, edited (ca. 200 CE) by Rabbi Judah Hanasi, forbade
sowing, ploughing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, sorting grain, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, cleaning it, beating it, dyeing it, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying, untying, sewing two stitches, tearing in order to sew two stitches; hunting a deer, slaughtering it, skinning it, salting it, curing its hide, scraping it, cutting it up, writing down two letters, erasing in order to write two letters; building, taking down; extinguishing a fire, kindling a fire, striking with a hammer, carrying [something] from one domain to another (M. Shabbat 7:2).
For the rabbis, close readers of the earlier priestly sources, the Tabernacle stood as a human-built microcosm of the natural macrocosm that is God’s creation. Therefore, any kind of labor that contributed to the erection of this human mini-cosmos was to be avoided on shabbat, a means of emulating God’s refraining from the work of creating nature on the seventh day. Rest means cessation from work, leaving the world as it is without human intervention, since work means transforming what is given, what exists. The repeated emphasis in this Mishnah on the number two shows that for the rabbis the leap from one to two reflected a leap from nature as unity to the multiplicity of culture. On the sabbath day, like God resting, Israelites/Jews are to stop changing the world around them.
Note that this is not a call for extreme or total asceticism, for absolute withdrawal from the world. For six days a week we are invited, indeed commanded, to work (Ex. 20:9-10, 23:12, 31:15; Deut. 5:13), that is, to transform, to manipulate the world for our own sustenance, to (hopefully) improve the world both for its sake and ours. But not always, not incessantly. Sabbath in this sense is meant to be a healthy, holy balance of worldliness and withdrawal. Just one day out of seven we are asked to control our creative craving to, our anxious worry that we must do and make.
Our sabbath days can — must — become a time of active avoidance of environmental vandalism, a time for programmatic congregational and individual reflection on how we are undoing creation. Like all steps social, political and spiritual, whether a sabbath is lip service or a radical environmental act (radical, that is, getting to the root of a problem) depends on how it is implemented. Shabbat can and must be a radical ritual within which we can digest anew the biblical prophets’ warnings against the corruption of the rich and powerful, the oppression of the poor and the self-centered pursuit of short-sighted pleasures, understanding how relevant such warnings are to the ecological devastation wrought by hypercapitalism. Sabbath properly practiced offers a weekly interruption of the suicidal econometric fantasy of infinite growth, a weekly divestment from fossil fuels, a weekly investment in local community. As Greta Thunberg reminds us, we already know what the solutions are for our environmental crises. Sabbaths observed for the sake of our planetary home will provide a recurring greenhouse for incubating the required collective consciousness and willpower — the ultimate renewable energies — to make the solutions reality. Sabbaths observed with the world in mind will constitute both a model of the desperately-needed ecologically-sane world to come and an actual foretaste of it.
Imagine if most of the world’s monotheists, those who come from traditions that profess to observe a weekly sabbath, along with anyone else who cared to, chose for one day out of seven to essentially eliminate their own harm to the environment on a consistent basis. This could prove to be the one of the cheapest environmental solutions at humanity’s disposal. In theory, more maximal shabbat observance could produce a 14.3% reduction in carbon emissions without additional spending, new technologies or unintended environmental consequences — one day out of seven where emissions are nearly eliminated. Observing a truly full weekly shabbat, “doing nothing,” as it were, offers an effective action that one can take now to help heal our environment. Judaism and Christianity call the sabbath an obligation. If we really believe that radical change in our behavior is necessary for environmental reasons — I certainly do — then don’t these reasons make sabbath, along with all other environmental solutions, an obligation?
Please check out the Green Sabbath Project website (www.greensabbathproject.net) for more information on how to turn shabbat into a true weekly rest for the world.