Secular Sabbath

It was the end of the weekend and I didn’t feel rested. It wasn’t a lack of entertainment or relaxation. Psychologically, it just didn’t feel like I’d had a break. When asked how my weekend was, I’d find myself answering that I wished it was longer.

Where had my weekend gone? Was this the way weekends should be? What was I missing?

Upon reflection, I realized that the reason I wasn’t feeling rested was that I was not truly disconnecting. I was using my phone multiple times an hour from the moment I left work on Friday until I was back on Monday. It was stressing me out. So I decided to try something radical — what about the sabbath?

My wife and I were inspired to try the sabbath by seeing one of our friends that is an Orthodox Jew do full Jewish shabbat: she turns off all of her devices and doesn’t do any work on Saturday. Work is defined broadly and encompasses cooking, taking the elevator, paying for things, and using any technology. From the moment the sun goes down on Friday until Saturday night, she is completely disconnected.

This looked like a ritual worth copying — it felt like this might be the solution to a better weekend. With no religious impetus to be so thorough, my wife and I secularized our friend’s routine to do shabbat in spirit with some more modern amenities. We call it “Secular Sabbath.”

The premise is simple: we turn off our phones and computers Friday night and don’t turn them on again until nightfall on Saturday. The rest of our lives remain the same.

The first time we did it, it felt forbidden. We turned off our phones and were completely unreachable to the outside world. It was Friday night and we had agreed not to turn them on for 24 hours. And then the thoughts began: Are we really just going to turn off our phones? What if someone wants to get in touch with us? What if something urgent happens? What if there is pressing world news that we don’t know about?

A few minutes later, the buzz of the everyday stopped. We smiled, took a deep breath and let sabbath officially begin.

Our first sabbath was the Saturday that Malaysia Air Flight 370 disappeared. As we walked around San Francisco enjoying our day without our phones, we saw glimmers of the news but didn’t know what was happening. We resisted the urge to know until the next day, avoiding the endless loops of speculation that we later learned were happening on CNN and Twitter — loops which we were unable to affect but would have affected us. Instead, we spent the day enjoying the city and seeing friends. On Sunday, we eventually read the news but when we did so it was with a calmer mind.

It sounds simple but the act of disconnecting from technology forces you to do things you normally wouldn’t do.

If you can’t turn on the computer or the phone, then you have to find other things to keep you occupied and these involve being in the world: going outside, exercising, observing, cooking, seeing friends, talking. We find that disconnecting also automatically inspires reflection and gratitude that arises from being present.

The sabbath originates in the Old Testament. In Genesis it is set aside as the day of rest by God; it’s one of the Ten Commandments; it’s in every Abrahamic religion: it’s that important.

The sabbath is a time for reflection and rest and for periods in history when people have been lucky enough to have a day off, this was sufficient: not going to work was in itself restful.

It wasn’t until the last decade that we really became an always-on society and this started to change. Cable networks were an opening salvo with smartphones and social networks furthering the perpetual feed of news and stimulus which is our world. Weekends suddenly became a time without work but hardly one of mental rest which is why the sabbath is more important now than ever.

After doing Secular Sabbath once, my wife and I were hooked. We’ve found Secular Sabbath to be a necessary routine that balances the pace of modern life.

Since we started the sabbath, we try to do it whenever we can. If it’s a long weekend, we’ll extend the “sabbath” for a few days. If it’s a vacation, we’ll prolong it as long as possible. Without doing so, there are too many potential intrusions that create unnecessary stress destroying the break’s purpose.

Sometimes my wife and I make adjustments — we’re not ascetics but just looking for balance. We allow movies on sabbath; we leave the phone on (data off) if we are waiting for urgent family calls; if there is an urgent message from work, we create ways of getting in touch. However, more often than not, we do the full sabbath and simply unplug.

If you feel like you are constantly checking your phone and are always on, I can’t recommend this strategy enough. Enjoy Secular Sabbath and adjust it to fit your life — just be sure to actually rest.

Comments? Thoughts? Reach David Gasca on Twitter: @gascasf
Edited photograph; original from



San Francisco | @gasca on Twitter

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