The Dark Side of the Sabbath: When Rest Becomes Work

This is ‘book’ 18 in the series The Impossible Books of Keith Kahn-Harris. The cover was created by Gus Condeixa. For more on this series, read the introduction here.

What sort of book is it?

This could work as a collection of personal essays by various authors together with more scholarly contributions. It could also work as a short, polemical book.

This is a book for a Jewish audience, hopefully including an orthodox Jewish readership. For that reason, the use of ‘The Sabbath’ rather than ‘Shabbat’ in the title may seem odd. The simple reason why I used it is to allude to ‘The Dark Side of the Moon.’ I’m not one to resist a snappy, if obvious, title.

How likely is it that I will write the book?

I’d quite like to be the book’s editor.

Am I happy for anyone else to write the book?

If someone did, I’d love to contribute!


[Much of the following is less of a synopsis so much as a summary of the kind of argument I’d like to offer in the book — it may well work as a short polemic in its own right]

Huge claims are made for the value of Shabbat in Jewish life. This is understandable, given its centrality in the biblical text and in the subsequent development of Jewish law and theology. Shabbat is a ‘taste of the world to come’, a time of ‘Menuchah’ when one possesses a ‘second soul’. One can easily see how on Shabbat, in the pre-modern age, the often-oppressed Jewish people may have grasped hold of the Sabbath as a blissful relief from the drudgery and trials of daily existence.

In traditional Jewish thought, the claims made for the value of Shabbat are as much metaphysical as they are to do with the material pleasures it offers. What makes Shabbat so special and so holy, is the God-given transformation of time that it affords. The nice food, special clothes and rest from work may reflect and honour the holiness of Shabbat, but they do not in and of themselves produce the sacredness.

Recent decades, however, has seen the emergence of what I call ‘Shabbat propaganda’, in which the claims made for Shabbat have grown. In everything from the celebrated writings of Rabbi Heschel, to outreach-oriented websites, to writings by environmentally-minded Jews, to proponents of ‘unplugging’, we find claims being made that go beyond the mere holiness of the day. Reform, orthodox and even secular Jews today seem to be engaged in an effort to proclaim the social value of Shabbat.

The propaganda message may differ according to who is doing the propagandizing but at the heart of it is a core message: Shabbat offers an opportunity for rest and recuperation from the stresses of modern life, it offers the possibility to step back from the materialism and aggression of modern capitalist accumulation. Shabbat isn’t just (or even) a metaphysical state, a religious duty and a gift from God — it is something socially valuable.

I’m sorry but I don’t buy it.

It’s not that I’ve never enjoyed or found beauty in Shabbat. It’s not that I don’t see the value of rest, of unplugging and stepping back from the world. It’s not even that I don’t respect the metaphysical claims made for the Sabbath.

No, the problem with Shabbat is that the inflated claims made for it simply do not match up to the reality.

Part of the problem is that Shabbat involves work — and the more intensely you observe it, the harder that work is. Preparing for Shabbat involves arduous work and a rushed and stressful Friday (and let’s not forget that it’s often women who have to do this work). Celebrating Shabbat involves getting up early, wearing uncomfortable clothes, rushing to services, standing and up and sitting down in stuffy rooms for hours praying; and after synagogue there is the visiting and the hosting and the lack of time for oneself.

In fact Shabbat can involve intense mental and physical suffering. I remember when my wife was in hospital recovering from the Caesarian birth of our first child, she shared a room with an orthodox woman. It was Shabbat and none of her family lived near the hospital. She was left to deal with a crying new-born baby on her own while recovering from the birth. Where was the beauty of Shabbat then?

Shabbat does not represent the liberation of the material cares of everyday life so much as their disciplining and exacerbation. Shabbat propagandists often point to the tradition of sex of Friday evening and sleep on Saturday afternoon. But the fact that they have to programmed tells its own story. There’s nothing radical or visionary in having fixed times for sex and sleep. In fact, their corralling into the Sabbath actually represents a pacification of the dangerous unruliness of the libido and the desire for sleep.

In the pre-industrial age Shabbat may have been radical. Today, in an era of mass leisure Shabbat is actually a force that upholds the drudgery of work — it ensures docile subjects are prepared for a life of labour. What would really be radical was to spread sleep, sex, indulgence, holiness and rest into the fabric of everyday life, rather than imprisoning it in the iron cage of Shabbat.

This isn’t actually an argument against Shabbat observance though. Rather it’s an argument against some of the claims made for Shabbat.

In the same way, The Dark Side of Shabbat will aim not to argue against Shabbat observance, but to encourage non-propagandistic writings about the realities and difficulties of Shabbat. It will provide a space for those who find Shabbat difficult or impossible, for those who suffer every week for 25 hours, for those who feel alone amidst the groupthink and propagandizing, for those whom Shabbat excludes.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this Impossible Book, why not browse through the rest of the series here?

Also, please recommend and share it on Medium or elsewhere. I would love to read your comments too.

Many thanks!

Finally, here’s an alternative cover: