An Ancient Solution To A Modern Problem

The Jewish Sabbath is a religious tradition… and a pretty good digital detox.

Author by Debra Kamin
Posted on
Art credit: Carolyn Raship

When I go for a walk, I check my phone. When I pee, I check my phone.

I can’t wait in line for a latte or sit through a meal with friends without refreshing my email. And I certainly can’t make it through a bus or car ride without downloading, streaming, or, at the very least, checking in.

My name is Debra, and I am a smartphoneaholic.

I’ve known for a while that I have a problem. But, about a month ago, I got my comeuppance from a pint-sized messenger. As a result, I sought out help from the oldest spiritual guide I could think of: my Jewish history, specifically the weekly power-down known as Shabbat (Hebrew for sabbath).

Here’s what happened: I have twin daughters, Anora and Leela, who are on the verge of turning two. I limit their screen time, because hypocritical rules are the most effective kind. One afternoon, during the handful of hours I share with my girls between my workday and their bedtime, Anora toddled up to me. I didn’t see her coming — not because she’s tiny, but because I was looking down at my screen, of course.

She stood there, a bundle of love and impatience with afternoon snack smeared all over her smooth skin. Then she snatched my iPhone from my cold, twitching hand. Dangling my phone in the air, she shook her little head and said, “No, mama.”

Heart, meet dagger. My one-year-old had opened up a can of emotional whoopass on me. So I set out to do something radical. I — a lapsed Jew who loves bacon and has multiple tattoos — decided to start (sort of) observing the Jewish Sabbath.

Jewish law states that from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, Jews shouldn’t work, kindle fire, or take any transport. Today, only about 25 percent of us still follow this ancient tradition. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that keeping Shabbat requires abstaining from all technology for 24 hours.

I myself have never kept Shabbat, but it’s still a part of my life because I live in Israel. Here, on Friday evening, buses stops running and most stores close. Among the many modern, nontraditional Jews that I call my friends, there’s a new trend afoot: Not fully doing Shabbat, but doing a mini, modified version of it that entails shutting down phones and refusing any electronic communication for one day a week.

These friends of mine are part of a small but steady global movement to observe Shabbat on their own terms. There’s even a San Francisco-based nonprofit, called Reboot, which encourages non-observant Jews to take their own twist on old Jewish customs. Reboot sponsors an annual Shabbat-inspired no-phone day called the National Day of Unplugging.

This year, National Day of Unplugging lasted from sundown to sundown on March 9-10. And, for the first time, I joined in. Alongside 50,000 others around the world, I turned off my phone in the name of Judaism-lite. For me, it’s become a way to connect with something biblical in the name of modern wellness and mental health.

“We are guided by this amazing ancient tradition but we feel that everyone needs a break,” Tanya Schevitz, Reboot’s National Communications Manager, told me in a phone interview. “It’s a real addiction.”

Am I going to start fully observing Shabbat, and give up turning on lights, riding in cars, using my television, and freely showering on an unrestricted basis? Absolutely not.

Going smartphone-free has become a spiritual act for me, not a religious one. In fact, I’d recommend my modified version of Shabbat to anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs. I’ve noticed all sorts of improvements since implementing my weekly tech vacation.

On Sunday, for instance, I no longer find myself complaining about my achy thumbs or burning eyes. I’ve also learned that I actually am capable of sitting at a cafe and occupying myself without updating my Facebook status or snapping something for Instagram.

And if giving up emojis for a day lets me enjoy more smiles from my kids — and also helps me see them coming when they’re up to no good — then that’s all the motivation I need to power down at sundown.

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A curious exploration of comfort, wellness, and modern life — emotionally supported by Casper. It’s a beautiful magazine published by a mattress. Come on, you know it’s not the weirdest thing to happen this year. The first issue includes a love letter to comfort pants, a skeptic's guide to crystals, and an adulting coloring book.