The Ongoing Human Project: Why and How I Keep Shabbat

How does one determine the proper way to keep Shabbat? I get that question regularly from Jews who do not follow halachah traditionally, but who do not consider it irrelevant, and want a means of deciding such things as whether to write or ride or use electricity then. Their dilemma arises particularly in this week’s reading, where the classic commandment to observe Shabbat is found.

Because that commandment is adjacent to discussion of building the desert sanctuary, the Rabbis interpret Shabbat work to include all items connected with that sanctuary’s sacrificial cult – 39 activities in all, including sowing and ploughing; kneading, and baking; spinning and tearing; slaughtering and writing; kindling or dousing a fire; and so on (M. Shabbat 7:2).

Liberally minded Jews often wonder about these things. Kindling fire was difficult work back then, they say, but flicking an electric switch is hardly backbreaking labor. They miss the point. While they may well decide that turning on lights is permissible for them on Shabbat, that decision can hardly be based on the amount of actual toil involved. The Rabbis’ concept of work goes much deeper than that.

The 39 forms of tabernacle work fall into four categories: baking bread (for the priests); preparing fabric (for the tabernacle’s curtains); preparing a scroll (for writing); and building (the tabernacle itself). These four, however, are part of a larger category: they are all part of the human project of building and preserving culture.

This insight arrives by applying an insight from anthropologist, Claude Levi Strauss, who noted that every human society cooks food, mandates clothing, builds and decorates homes, and transmits learning from generation to generation. This insistence on converting raw nature into cuisine, style, art, and a historical record are what make us fully human.

The rabbinic forms of work, then, are no mere laundry list of random items. They are all exemplifications of the grand human project of transforming nature into culture.

“Work” is not just going to a job or doing the housework, therefore. It is the ongoing human effort to leave our mark upon the world. This human project inevitably engages us, because it is the means of staking out our worth and, in the end, what we will be remembered for. It’s what gets us up the morning.            But at the same time, it’s what we lose sleep over. Shabbat, therefore, is the day that provides a break from the ongoing task of advancing the human project; as if God says, “I hold you responsible for perfecting my world – but not today.”

So here is how I, a liberal Jew, make Shabbat decisions. I consult halachah with seriousness; I then measure my life by its principles, but not by all its specific regulations. One such principle is to take time off from the human project. So anything connected with that project’s work and worry gets put on hold.

On Shabbat, therefore, I do not (for example) write my books, articles and columns; but I do email personal notes to friends and family. Shabbat reading can be about anything – but not connected to my research. I study Torah, but not any section on which I am writing an article. I do no errands; but I drive to synagogue, simchahs, and leisure-time activities that enhance life’s fullness.

On Shabbat, I cherish the gift of family and friends; I fill my soul with music and art, love and laughter, nature and nurture, both solitude and community. My responsibility for the human project will return soon enough, when Shabbat is over.

I have the highest regard for Jews who follow the traditional halachic guide to keeping Shabbat. But imagining just that single path to proper Shabbat observance puts Shabbat beyond the reach of those who find its halachic details unpersuasive, but who nonetheless want to honor Shabbat in a reasonable and satisfying way. This underlying principle of the Ongoing Human Project can be compelling guide to making Shabbat matter in our lives.

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