Spiritual Practice

Sabbath Rest

Niall McKay

devozine Coffee TS 101427308One Saturday a few years ago, I headed to the library to do a bit of work. As I entered the common room, a short, balding, middle-aged man approached me. “Excuse me,” he asked. “Could you help me with the hot water system in the little kitchenette? I am dying for a cup of coffee, but I can’t use the urn because today is the Shabbat and I am Jewish. Would you mind pouring the hot water in the cup for me?” Being a nice guy, I obliged.

Later on, I got to thinking how little respect contemporary Western culture has for any kind of structured rest or rejuvenation. Our society has all but squeezed space out of our lives. We work hard and long so that we can be happy when we get a degree, a job, our next CD, a new car. Or we work hard and party hard because—who knows?—we might not be around tomorrow. Cultural values encourage self-interest and self-gratification, which squeeze out anything that gets in the way of my dream or my happiness. Without time to rest, many of us collapse in exhaustion, depression, or misery.

Into western society bustles my Jewish friend and his quaint idea of Shabbat.

The rules and regulations defining the Sabbath seem crazy to sensible, twenty-first century people. What makes these particular hours in the week so special? Isn’t it odd that my friend is allowed to study but not to make coffee? We dismiss Sabbath rest as interesting and quirky but definitely not for us.


The Need for Shabbat

Although the Judeo-Christian tradition offers the world Shabbat, many people of faith fail to practice this lifestyle and, like me, deserve a royal kick in the pants. Shabbat invites us regularly to take a break from what we are doing to reconnect with ourselves, with one another, and with God. In the modern world, Shabbat is necessary.

First, Sabbath rest is a gift. It is not something we own or create for ourselves. Sabbath is bigger than our individual thoughts and ideas. Rest is a gift of God.

Second, Shabbat is neither resting up for the next orgy of self-interest nor engaging in narcissistic oblivion. The kind of rest advocated in ancient biblical thought is about refreshing our souls, restoring our connection with God, and renewing our relationships with other people. Life without space to think or feel gives us an excuse to avoid the relationships we find difficult. We kind of like not having to deal with the aunt who wears too much perfume or the annoying know-it-all in third period algebra. But whether we like it or not, restoring relationships is important.

Third, Shabbat is about justice. The Hebrews in ancient Palestine attempted to institute the Year of Jubilee. Every fifty years (one year after the forty-ninth year, the Sabbath of Sabbaths), all debts were to be forgiven. If people had been forced to sell their land or to enter into indentured servitude, their debts would be cleared. In essence, the Jubilee put a statute of limitations on greed.

I’m not good at resting. I get caught up in the next job, the next meeting, the next social activity; and I rarely stop to gain perspective. I feel good about having a job and a purpose—until that purpose becomes hollow and transparent. Making space in my life for rest, reconciliation, and justice is one way for me to keep on track and to find real direction and purpose that extends beyond next Saturday night. Shabbat is a gift I cannot ignore.



What would social covenants that value rest, restoration, and justice be like today? In a fragmented age of micro-cultures and cliques, the social covenants we form may be local commitments. Consider these possibilities for Sabbath rest:

devozine Praying Teen Group TS 78317328> Meet with a group of friends once a week. Study and pray together. Talk about the world’s problems, and commit one Saturday morning a month to help fix them.

> Get to know your aunt (you know, the one who wears too much perfume). Go to her Red Cross meeting, her place of worship, or the homeless shelter where she volunteers and find out what’s important to her.

> Learn more about organizations that are working for justice in your community, and offer them your time and energy.


Niall McKay , a chaplain at Newcastle University in Australia, was born in South Africa and has lived in several different countries but considers himself an Australian. He likes hot curries, listens to Miles Davis, and plays multiplayer online role-playing games.

—from devozine (May/June 2009). Copyright © 2009 by The Upper Room®. All rights reserved.

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