In recent years, a variety of pundits and self-help gurus have touted the idea of observing “digital Shabbat” as a way to recover from social media’s ills. But attempts to “invent a Shabbat outside the religious paradigm” will almost certainly fail, argues Kelsey Osgood. The shallow understanding of Shabbat as merely “screen-free time,” she contends, overlooks the immersive experience of the day and the real source of its restorative power.
First, the observant Jewish community has successfully maintained Shabbat over thousands of years precisely because it’s practiced in a community, one that operates with particular norms and expectations. On any given Shabbat, my family will attend synagogue, take naps, read, and engage in religious study. We have friends over for long, leisurely meals or are welcomed as guests ourselves. During this time, we can be confident that because our neighbors are largely [Sabbath observant] as well, no conversation will be interrupted by persistent beeps signaling the arrival of a text message, and no one will be forced to sit like a bored schoolchild as their companions take a moment to scroll through Facebook updates.
There is a serendipitous nature to the day, when you can bump into someone en route to another location and decide to stroll together, be spontaneously invited over for a meal, or lounge around drinking coffee with friends, agenda-less, as the afternoon light wanes. But as a freelance Shabbat practitioner, you would likely experience only a pale imitation of this. The first few years of my Shabbat observance, I lived in a secular Brooklyn neighborhood and spent a great deal of time explaining to my largely nonreligious peers what they should do if they couldn’t find me at the designated meeting spot at the park on Saturday afternoon, or trying to suppress eye rolls when a friend held an iPhone aloft because I just had to see a recent meme that was making the rounds. And trust me, such an adulterated repose is simply not the same. Many Jews refer to Shabbat as an “island in time,” a riff on an idea in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s love letter of a book, The Sabbath. But if you do Shabbat alone, your island is a deserted one.
Perhaps you don’t really mind this isolation, as it’s better than the alternative, which is all doomscrolling, all the time. Perhaps you’ve read somewhere that Shabbat is a “day of rest,” and so the only thing that really matters to you is that your eyes get a vacation from brain-deadening blue light. But a shallow knowledge of the practice will likely lead to its ultimate collapse because you’ll be aiming for the wrong thing, the rest itself.