Growing up Jewish, I thought that the traditional rules around the Sabbath were silly. Then I forgot to bring a spare battery on a camping trip. Now I think that something like the traditional Jewish Sabbath is an important cultural adaptation to preserve leisure, that would otherwise be destroyed in an urbanized, technological civilization.

Sabbath as easy mode

As a child, I first learned that the Sabbath was a “day of rest,” a day on which you don’t do “work.” I was brought up by liberal Jews in a society in which “work” tends to mean either business or wage labor. Things you do for money. Things you do because someone else demands them. This is for the most part how we observed the Sabbath.

But I was also taught about the older traditions in which many categories of mundane activity are forbidden: lighting a fire, cutting or mending cloth, writing or erasing letters. This seemed to me like an arbitrary superstition based on an excessive literality. Surely I could tell for myself whether I was writing as part of a leisure activity or a desk job. Surely I could tell for myself whether I was planting seeds for my private garden, or on a commercial farm. Why avoid these activities in the privacy of one’s own home, doing things for oneself, and not working at all?

Likewise, Orthodox Jews must walk to and from their synagogue on the Sabbath, because driving would involve lighting a fire. Automobile engines run on combustion, after all. Liberal Jews often argued, if there is inclement weather, or if the synagogue is far, is it not more restful to take an easy drive than to walk?

In short, I thought that the rest of the Sabbath meant, or ought to mean, playing life on easy mode.

Unplugging as leisure

Recently, I’ve been feeling too caught up in local social momentum. When it looked like it would be difficult and take a long time to book a cabin to spend some time alone, I asked a friend to teach me how to go camping, to improve my range of options for solitude, both by directly giving me the affordance for camping, and by more generally expanding the range of living conditions I had experience coping with.

On my first solo two-night camping trip, I forgot to bring a backup battery to charge my laptop or phone. I was car camping, so I could have charged them that way, but I felt like that was outside the spirit of the exercise, and inconvenient anyway. So instead, I mostly kept my phone turned off. Very quickly, I started being able to think about aspects of my situation that had been too overwhelming, too in motion, to get leverage on the day before. Because I wasn’t dealing with them. I wasn’t keeping up with anything. I was just present, where I was. I wished I’d done this years ago.

And then I realized: if I had keeping a Sabbath, it wouldn’t have taken years to take a step back from social momentum. I’d have gotten a chance within seven days of noticing that there was a problem. And seven days later, another chance, and so on.

Immediately, came the reflexive follow-up thought: of course, not the literal Orthodox Jewish Sabbath. But then I asked my self: why not, exactly?

I went through some of the more onerous-seeming requirements. You are not permitted to write. But when I went on a meditation retreat, they also asked us not to write. And I had no problem with that. It did not seem like an arbitrary superstition to me; it seemed like part of the discipline of an integrated mental practice.

Maybe the Sabbath too is a discipline meant to cultivate a particular sort of mental practice.

You are not allowed to light fires on the Sabbath, which means no cooking; you eat what has been prepared in advance. On that same meditation retreat, we were asked not to bring or prepare our own food, but to accept what was served to us. That too felt like a natural part of the practice.

Why had I been so ready to dismiss the Sabbath out of hand? Where did this prejudice come from? It came from my childhood self, who was assuming alienation of labor.

Work as keeping up

If you do not assume like a modern consumerist that work is what you do for money, and leisure is what you spend money on, then what is work? It is the activity of producing or maintaining the artifacts necessary for the ongoing production of sustenance. It is the activity of keeping up with reality. And in a civilized society with specialization of labor, where your work is only productive because it is integrated with the work of many others, work is the practice of keeping up with the predominant social reality.

What is leisure, then? Leisure is time when you are not responding to a persistent stream of demands. Not your boss, but not a television commercial or newsfeed either. You can take a walk, or sit silently with friends, and let your mind wander.

Leisure is crucial for a very particular sort of freedom. Not freedom as the range of options presented to you, or the absence of overt restrictions on your behavior, but the amount of autonomy you have in practice, the extent to which the choices you are making are determined by the combination of your own preferences and foresight, rather than the result of being led down a path of someone else’s design.

The distinction between this sort of work and leisure is not a perfect match to the Sabbath prohibitions.

You can read a book on the Sabbath (which was not allowed at the meditation retreat), and engage with your whole mind, so long as you do not take notes. So long as you do not try to produce some useful artifact, for your future self to pick up and run with.

You can also talk. Jews do not engage in Noble Silence on the Sabbath; it is not a day of silence. But it cuts out some of the more cognitively costly practices of daily life.

Sabbath as hard mode

Some automation plans make sure to include what they call a human in the loop - on some level of abstraction, every decision is reviewed by a human. You can think of the Sabbath as playing life on hard mode in order to make sure that there is a human in your loop.

You would not want to do this sort of thing all the time. But it might make sense to do periodically - perhaps once a week - as a stopgap measure to combat attention drift. If powerful and pervasive cultural forces are out to get you, you ought to check in from time to time with yourself, and other people with whom you have local, high-quality relationships, to give yourself a chance to notice whether you have gotten got for too much.

Daily meditation or reflection practice has something to offer on this front. So does the Quaker practice of silent worship. And so does the Jewish Sabbath.

Sabbath as alarm

One more useful attribute of the Jewish Sabbath is the extent to which its rigid rules generate friction in emergency situations. If your community center is not within walking distance, if there is not enough slack in your schedule to prep things a day in advance, or you are too poor to go a day without work, or too locally isolated to last a day without broadcast entertainment, then things are not okay.

In our commercialized society, there will be many opportunities to purchase palliatives, and these palliatives are often worth purchasing. If living close to your place of employment would be ruinously expensive, you drive or take public transit. If you don’t have time to feed yourself, you can buy some fast food. If you’re not up for talking with a friend in person, or don’t have the time, there’s Facebook. But this is palliative care for a chronic problem.

In Jewish law, it is permissible to break the Sabbath in an emergency situation, when lives are at stake. If something like the Orthodox Sabbath seems impossibly hard, or if you try to keep it but end up breaking it every week - as my Reform Jewish family did - then you should consider that perhaps, despite the propaganda of the palliatives, you are in a permanent state of emergency. This is not okay. You are not doing okay.

So, how are you?

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15 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:51 AM

I liked reading the Ribbonfarm post on rectangles today. Most rectangles we use are highly unnatural, forming a simple category of things to avoid during a Sabbath. Packaged/processed food, books, electronics, credit cards.

Aaaaah once I've seen it I can't unsee it.

I'm simultaneously really drawn to the idea of a culture that has special non-rectangle-day to disconnect from modernity, but then immediately imagining this extrapolated a couple hundred years until you get the sort of thing where, much like some Orthodox Jews have elevators continuously running so they can use them, people start inventing hexagonal computers and ID cards and whatnot.

i.e. maybe this is a useful heuristic to think about, but it'd get Goodheart Law'd real quick, so to remain an interesting insight it needs to *not* get popularized too much.

Insightful all the way through, but especially worth it for the last large paragraph. I feel like that applies to all sorts of things that people both feel they should do and also feel on reflection would be actively good for them, and yet nevertheless never manage to get to.

Huh, that's an interesting frame. So if your environment does not naturally enable you to get much exercise, that should register as an alarming.

I'm not sure whether this remains useful when extended to everything that I feel like I should do. There's a sense in which maybe it's alarming that I don't get around to meditating, to optimizing my financial investments, to trying a new experience each week (to name the first things that came to mind after 5 minutes of thought). But whether you should process things as "I am not okay" or a state of alarm depends on who you are.

Alarm means "things are bad enough that I should drop everything and fix this particular thing". If you end up in a permanent state of alarm than nothing is alarming.

Might still be worth trying on for particular things. Dunno. Mulling it over.

Here's a different framing on the same thing - if you see how it is pointing to the same thing as my other comment here, then you've fully understood the generator of what I'm saying:

By far the most important EA cause area - unless AI timelines are so short that you think the world will actually end within a couple decades - is ending this pervasive state of emergency. We need to figure out how human beings can live with enough breathing room to use our full human cognition, without giving up on the highly leveraged tech of the modern economy. This shouldn't trade off against life maintenance, it should come out of your long-term world improvement resource budget.

I'm currently lucky enough to be able to work part-time on my projects to do with autonomy/IA. I have 1 week off in 5. I have an employer that has part-time jobs ingrained into it due to being flexible for parents and carers. I do know other people (in tech jobs) who have taken 1 day off in 5.

I do write etc on my week off, but I catch up on other tasks and take as much time as I want to figure out what it is I should be doing.

I think I will find it harder to maintain when I switch jobs, so it keeps me in my current job somewhat. It would be easier to maintain if it wasn't just me but I could point to a respected research organisation or similar that I researched for, where my output was not managed at all. But what output I did have I could always thank/attribute to the Organisation.

Obviously I am lucky to have a high paying job, so the salary cut is not too much to impact my long term plans. But my point is more that it is easier to have socially acceptable slack. Sabbath fits that bill for you, but would be an ask for someone not in the tradition.

Ah, gotcha.

This helped me see a way the alarm section was unclear, thanks.

I don't mean that Sabbath practice is uniquely important such that if you're not doing it, this is an isolated emergency. I mean something more like, the Sabbath is fundamentally in tension with living in a permanent state of emergency, such that if you can't keep it, there will be lots of other things you're neglecting as well. This seems to be the general condition in our urbanized society. The right response isn't necessarily to force yourself into a Sabbath practice anyway, unless that's your high-leverage path to a more systemic solution.

You're likely already pushing yourself too hard too often, that's what it means to live in a permanent state of emergency. I'm claiming that we're already living in a permanent state of alarm, and I'm trying to denormalize that.

Think of it like this - there's an area-effect spell that causes everyone to inflate the importance of keeping up with short-term tasks and systems, at the expense of their long-run interests or situational awareness. Some people are trying to point out the existence of this area-effect spell, but due to the effects of the spell, their warnings are interpreted as yet another short-term task to add to the stack. What I'm trying to say is something more like, if you agree that there's a permanent state of emergency, then you should drop everything else and figure out how to get out of that loop.

Part of the problem of "drop everything else" is that it can't possibly be meant literally. I don't mean that you should stop breathing or eating until we solve the thing. But the area-effect spell causes people to conflate keeping up with fashions, with basic life maintenance.

This seems like the sort of reasonable and introspective rationalization that could grow up around literally any tradition.

Traditions like this one are selected for intergenerational survival value.


Depending on exactly what you mean by "literally any tradition", this may well be true, but if there's an unstated inference of "... so it's probably wrong" then I am not convinced. It could well be that literally any tradition (... that's survived as long as that of the Sabbath among otherwise-often-smart people) can have something genuinely valuable drawn out of it. And that those that can't are in fact the exceptions to your conjecture.

Even if something is a neutral or bad idea overall, it merely takes a little creativity to focus on the good parts that it has. How many generations did smart people support the gold standard? (To pick an idea that's suboptimal and impactful but not too crazy or repulsive.) I'm sure there are some quite nice essays ruminating on its good points.

Now, suppose that you are reading an essay "drawing out the value" of the gold standard. How much does this essay help you arrive at useful beliefs about currency? Perhaps it is quite helpful, because even if it's highlighting the good points of a bad idea, those particular good points might be general things it's helpful to keep in mind. On the other hand, if those good points are cherry-picked to tell a favorable story about the gold standard, then maybe keeping them in mind will come at the expense of tracking other important factors.

Overall, I would say that an essay on the good points of the gold standard is only useful if you already have some key knowledge about currencies that will allow you to integrate the essay into a larger system of understanding, without being unduly swayed by it. And I think that this sort of flexible understanding requires a lot of work to gain, and most people don't have it about most things. Therefore, an essay about the good points of an idea of unknown quality can be helpful for people with strong understanding of the subject, but is not very useful for most readers.


As mentioned in the comments on the crosspost: Ben and, independently, Zvi Moskowitz, have both been doing something similar but different and finding that making it more like the original tradition fulfills their goals more. This seems to be a pretty good indication that it is not just a rationalization.
Also mentioned there, from Jason Green-Lowe: The actual tradition as she is practiced has drifted far from the thing that's desirable.

This comment insinuates but doesn't overtly state an interesting disagreement. It would be interesting to have the claim made more explicit.