My secular Shabbat

Readers of this blog will have noticed that I am a radical Atheist. But there is one religious idea that I have incorporated in my life, although in a secular version.

It’s the idea of the shabbat, the 7th day of the week, on which one is supposed to rest. I use the Jewish term for this day, because I think it’s the best known, but many other religions have similar recommendations/rules, following a 7-day rhythm, from the Buddhist uposatha to the appropriately named 7th Day Adventists.

The Bible says you are not to shear sheep or to plow the field, but as this wouldn’t really make any difference in the lives of most contemporary believers, there is room for interpretation. Have you ever noticed that theology is a lot like law, just without the democratic legitimacy? Contemporary disputes seem to focus on whether it’s OK to drive on shabbat or to use electricity.

But I am not bound by the Bible or others’ interpretations of it. I don’t have any gods to appease. I have adopted the idea for the sake of my own sanity alone.

So what do I do on my shabbat?

The first point is: no work. Now, most people will say “oh, I already do that. I have Saturday and Sunday off.” But that’s not what I mean. After all, I personally don’t work regularly anyway. I mean: not even thinking about work! And that’s a big difference.

In practice, this means that on my shabbat, I will not read any e-mails, I will turn off my phone, I will not go through any documents that are work-related, I will not try to improve any skills that can be put to use, and I won’t even think or talk about work.

The second point, and it aids the first one tremendously, is to spend the day in nature. It doesn’t need to be anything far or fancy. I usually just go out of the door and walk through the forests and across the fields, until it gets dark. If I felt that I can’t walk that much, I would go to a lake and read a book there (but nothing work-related).

I currently live in the countryside in Germany, which makes this easier than for someone living in Mexico City, I concede that. But when I have lived in cities, I just took the bus to the last stop and started walking from there. Or sometimes I take the train to a town 30 km away and walk back home. It doesn’t really matter, it’s not a sports day, it’s not a competition. The idea is to clear the mind from all the clutter. And you’ll be surprised how soothing nature is.

hobo

The third point might be the most important one: no internet. I wake up in the morning, I pack my backpack and I leave the house without having checked e-mail, Facebook or Twitter. If this is a problem for you, then you are addicted. And most of us are. But once you are outside, enjoying all the shades of green, the fresh flowers, the chirping of the birds, or maybe talking to the farmer in the field or another hiker that you bump into, you will begin to feel the freedom that comes from lack of connectivity. And remember, until about twenty years ago, that’s how we all lived all the time. And we were fine.

Even if you are not into nature, you can follow the third point. You can go to a museum. Or to the library. Or fishing. Or race your bike around the island. Theoretically, you could also do it at home and read Russian literature or play the guitar all day. But at home, I find the temptations too many. There is the TV, there is the computer, there is the phone. And swoosh, you’ll have lost another day to mindless waste of time.

There are three main lessons of the internet-free day: (1) I don’t really need Twitter or Facebook or even the news. When I come home from such days, I realize how much you can get out of a day if you aren’t constantly online. (2) Nobody needs me or my opinion, either. The world continues very well, or just as badly, without my contribution. I am really not important. (3) Without the constant distractions and interruptions, I can have deeper thoughts, think about bigger issues, think differently. I feel that this has an effect on the quality of my thinking, as I am not torn out of any train of thought by a new tweet or a beeping cell phone every few minutes.

Hut von hinten Sierra Maria

You may have noticed that I prefer to do such activities alone, but that’s not necessary. Actually, when I look at many couples and how little they communicate with each other and their children, compared with the time they spend on gadgets, then maybe it would be healthy to spend a day outside, just the two of you, without worrying about likes on Instagraph, being happy to spot a squirrel instead. If that thought scares you more than it fascinates you, then it’s time to end the relationship anyway.

Even with all my skepticism towards technology, I make one exception when I walk around an area that I know and where the novelty effect is low: an MP3 player with one earplug, because one ear should always be open to the sounds of nature. The important difference to a phone or the internet is that I choose ahead of time what I download and what I listen to. I am not lead from clickbait to clickbait. I listen to podcasts about the history of the Incas or about Kant’s categorical imperative (I try to avoid current politics because a lot of it won’t matter in six months), rather than waste my time looking at the 112th photo of cute cats or girls in bikinis. (By the way, guys, you would be surprised how often you come across a secret lake or a secluded bay, with a naked woman walking out of the water, lasciviously asking you if she can use your shirt as a towel. True story.)

I personally don’t even have a regular day of the week for this. Sometimes it’s on the weekend, sometimes during the week, depending on where I am, what I have to do, and on the weather, of course. But it’s the one day of the week that I am always looking forward to. There is delight in being unproductive. After all, we are humans, not machines.

Actually, now that I am thinking of it, maybe I should extend this routine to one week per month.

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About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a journalist, a spy or a hobo.
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40 Responses to My secular Shabbat

  1. Jupiter says:

    I’d personally like my six days off & look at the internet for one day …
    As for politics that’s how they want you to be ! Subtle differences happening every day wether you care about it or not & then one day you’ll wonder how did that war start.
    How about a trip in Yemen and love to read what you did on your day off

    • Yep, that’s a much better mix indeed!

      I would think that I am quite informed, but I find that I am more and more interested in long-term developments, rather than daily debates about who tweeted what about which tweet. For that reason, I prefer weekly magazines over daily papers, for example.
      I feel that the opposite of what you describe is happening because too many people approach politics like gossip, but don’t think about really big strategic issues. Then they argue about a restaurant banning plastic straws instead of whether an end to capitalism might be preferable to an end of human civilization. Or, to remain with your example, they worry about a war, rather than wonder why there are different countries at all.

      Not having gone to Yemen when I could have is the biggest travel-related regret in my life. So far, I have only published this story in German: https://andreas-moser.blog/2015/08/14/meine-groesste-reise-fehlentscheidung/ , but in short: I had three offers for my internship with the German Foreign Office. They were Boston, New York and Sanaa. I went to New York. I should have been more open and brave and gone to Sanaa. (Back then, Yemen was quite safe, so it was not a security concern. I just picked New York because it was within my comfort zone.)

  2. David says:

    funny, from reading your blog one would get the impression that every day is shabbat for you :-)

    Your secular concept of shabbat is quite common in Israel – among the secular, of course…

    • Between studying and writing, I am still quite busy, even without a regular job. And then, sometimes, I do need to work. Regarding the latter, as a freelancer, work also occupies more of my mental time than my activity time, because I am thinking of my empty bank account, possible clients, applications that I have sent and that are still unanswered. Maybe that’s why the completely off-day is so important. And nature helps me to take the mind off everything else.

  3. I am doing secular Reiki (weil not regularly, just when I feel inclined to do so) and working just fine. So I appreciate your weekend idea really. Cheers. 🙂

    • I am tempted to make a lazy pun about Reiki and Rakija (the subject of this story: https://andreasmoser.blog/2018/01/06/vrmac/ ), but I can’t think of anything creative. Maybe after the next walk. Or maybe it will make me realize that I don’t need to try to be funny all the time.

    • Being secular not always funny, at least it allows some kind of freedom. Here it is too hot for a walk, 35 degrees C today and going even higher tomorrow. Sahara in Berlin.💥

    • Yeah, currently, we would need to go for a walk at night. :D
      I only feel better by reading the weather forecast for Saudi Arabia or Iraq. (Although Tel Aviv is less hot than Berlin nowadays.)

    • The best place actually my car, because at least there is air-condition. 🥳 Now soon driving to a nice lake 😎 while uttering: “I now save a lot of money, no need to go to Greece anymore.” 💦 Bye, bye 🙂

  4. Coincidentally, one podcast that I sometimes listen to on my long walks is EconTalk, whose host Russ Roberts keeps the shabbat internet-free, too (although for religious reasons, he does it on the actual Jewish shabbat).

    The EconTalk podcast is a good example for the shows I like to listen to on my secular shabbat: one hour on one subject, delving deep into the issue, usually based on empiricism. And above all, with a different slant than mine (free markets and less state intervention versus my increasingly anti-capitalist views), but openness to new information and thoughts.

    • David says:

      I also listen to Econtalk, and I agree that it is superb (though in my case, my views basically align with his). It’s a rare example of reasoned discussion, free of the usual shallowness and vituperation that one normally sees on all sides.

    • I actually thought that you are part of a similar school of thought, David! :-)

      But, coming from the other side, I like that Professor Roberts is not an ideologue. He has a clear preference for markets over government, but if there is a situation where the opposite is needed, he is ready to acknowledge it. I think that’s how we should generally handle our deep-seated beliefs.
      I also like it when Professor Roberts explains how he came to an opinion or how it has changed over time (this was very pronounced in the episode on Ayn Rand, I seem to remember).

      And I agree, it’s an example of how debates should be led, in the media and in politics. It’s a bit how I remember political debates from a few decades ago (is it because people could smoke on TV?), but maybe I am already reaching that state in life where I glorify the past.

    • David says:

      Similar to you or to him? :-)

      Agree with you about his open-mindedness. And even when he disagrees, it’s done respectfully.

      I recall that even when I was a kid there were plenty of cases of discussions where there was more heat than light, as the saying goes, but you could find the other kind too.

      I like the podcast format better – no defined boundaries of time, no pressure for the clickbait.

    • To the professor, of course.

      And good point on the general advantages of podcasts, I never thought of that, but that partly explains my preference for them. The other is that I can listen to them while walking, washing the dishes or cooking.

      I have only recorded one podcast so far (unfortunately it’s in German: https://andreas-moser.blog/2018/06/03/reichsbuerger/ ), and I also felt less under pressure because if I misspoke or needed a break, we simply recorded the sentence(s) again.
      I am trying to convince the guy who does those history podcasts to start an English-language podcast on German history with me, but realistically, neither of us has the time.

    • Matt Jameson says:

      I did this yesterday with an old Munger episode. Their vibe is perfect for making one’s way through the woods.

  5. Mikael Pawlo says:

    Listen to the elders, as Nassim Taleb would put it. Shabbat or whatever you feel like calling it has worked well for millions over thousands of years, perhaps it has a point.

    • Many anthropologists and historians actually say that humans used to work much less than today in hunter/gatherer societies. 3-5 hours per day were enough to provide for food.

      Quite a junk of today’s working goes to buy stuff that nobody needs. I don’t know why so many people value stuff over time. Sad.

    • David says:

      Of course, from a religious viewpoint, one would not view a religious imperative purely from the utilitarian perspective, though that aspect could be a part of the theology. Though I suspect that that doesn’t interest Andreas too much…

    • Oh, I am actually very interested in religion. I don’t believe in gods, but it would be naive and wrong to pretend that religion (both the underlying belief and the organized expression) doesn’t play a role in most societies. Hence, I am quite interested in religion from a sociological perspective.

      But, as an Atheist, I am of course skeptical if a religious imperative is based simply on “the word of God”. I usually suspect a much more worldly explanation, even if I may not know which one it is.
      I am thinking along the lines of “The Good Book of Human Nature: An Evolutionary Reading of the Bible” by Carel van Schaik and Kai Michel. They argue that rules like the shabbat served as a sign of group cohesion, especially in the Babylonian exile. And it may also have served as a signaling mechanism of those who could afford to rest a whole day, showing off their devoutness.

    • David says:

      Yes, such arguments are par for the course among academics. I would say that those who do believe in “the word of God” have the same disdain for those theories as you do for the “word of God” theory. :-) Especially when the academic explanation leads to a conclusion that said religious imperative is inoperable today.

  6. Keep me posted on how this goes. Enjoy.

    • Interestingly, property and planning issues play into this. In Germany and the UK, I can just leave the house and walk all day, even across private land. In North America, I get stopped by barbed wire and “Keep Out” signs all the time.

    • David says:

      Ever hear of “Don’t tread on me?” I think it’s connected.

    • I don’t quite get it. In Europe, most farmland is also private, yet you can walk across it because the farmer realizes that (1) walking across a pasture won’t steal it, and (2) there aren’t millions of hikers.
      In the UK, you can even walk through most cattle and sheep farms. You either close the gate behind you again or the farmer built a ladder, so hikers can climb across the fence/wall. And no cow or sheep ever gets stolen.
      The main difference between Europe and North America seems to me that in Europe, there is a higher level of trust and cooperation (the hikers will only walk on the edge of the field, for example), which doesn’t need any regulation. It simply happens “through the invisible hand” because people feel as part of a society, not as individuals who need to fight off everybody else.

    • David says:

      There is definitely a reduction in social cohesiveness, though I don’t think that’s limited to North America.

    • David says:

      I’m impressed that Russ Roberts follows your blog!

  7. But that is a not very cheerful thought: that nobody needs you (a general you).

    • None of us are necessary.

    • Well I don’t think the same, I believe we are really necessary to some people.

    • No. Just think of all the people who already died, yet everything keeps working. All the people who thought they were important to someone, but as soon as they die, the widow goes on Tinder.

    • We can’t replace people we really care for.

    • Yes, we can. When the baker dies, you go to another baker. When the librarian gets arrested, they hire another one. When the bus breaks down, you take the next one.

    • You’re not talking about people and who they are and their inherent qualities here.

    • You are trying to give a quality to humans which is inherent to cats.

    • vidavidav says:

      Yes, everything that can be provided by a hired person is replacable. Not always very easily but definitely replacable. Once I heard an audio book, do not remember which one but definitely something on attachment and the author asked, what is that you can give/be to the person that can not be bought? My first husband died 16 years ago. No, do not sit on my window each day, I was even married in this time but I still miss him around. Yes, the planet is full of wonderful people but nobody is him.

  8. David says:

    i just realized that he probably has a Google Alert set for his name of for Econtalk. So I retract my impression :-) But it’s still impressive that he bothers to comment.

    • Oh, he definitely doesn’t follow my blog (and I don’t think someone like him would have the time). I actually sent him a message on Twitter, thanking him for his podcasts and for advocating an internet-free day per week.

  9. Pingback: Mein säkularer Sabbat | Der reisende Reporter

  10. vidavidav says:

    How does it feel to be back to your home land?

    • No special feeling at all, really.

      The main advantage is that it’s close to the border, so I am in the Czech Republic or in Austria with a quick train ride.

      I don’t have this emotional attachment to a place just because I grew up there. Objectively, it’s still a boring village. I feel much happier and more “at home” in many other places, usually already on the first day of visiting. The last time, I had it in Marienbad / Marianske Lazne.

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