It used to be against the law to mow your lawn on the Sabbath day in South Africa. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad law, although it does put you in the awkward position of having to come up with a good excuse on the other six days of the week.
But it wasn’t just cutting your kikuyu that could land you in trouble with the cops under the Sunday Observance Act of 1896. Also taboo was dancing, shopping, going to the movies, weeding or watering the garden, and playing snooker, billiards, or golf.
You were allowed to play Putt-Putt, you’ll be glad to hear, as long as you didn’t keep score, because that would have made it a competitive game, which was against the letter and spirit of the Act.
None of this was too surprising in a country that claimed Divine Provenance as the cornerstone of its social and political philosophy. But today, thank heavens, we live in a secular state, where the Constitution guarantees us freedom of religion, along with its implicit corollary, freedom from religion.
In the 21st Century, we live also in a New Age of Reason, an age of science over superstition, of nagging doubt over blind faith. And yet, there are still many good things we can learn from religion, particularly in that area of the Venn diagram where it intersects with the secular moral code.
Let’s bypass the obvious – if you need religion to tell you that it’s wrong to kill someone, you’re probably going to need a good lawyer too – and move on to a principle that is both logically and theologically sound. The notion that you need a break. Six days shalt thou labour, and, well, you know the rest.
The Biblical precept finds expression in the structure of the modern work-week, which lets you take a whole two days off if you want. But the weekend is not the same thing as the Sabbath.
Who has time to rest on the weekend anymore? We shop and we brunch and we cycle and we golf and we tweet and we Facebook and we work, work, work, because this is the new religion, the cult of busyness, whose mantra, in response to an innocent “how are you?”, is not “fine” or “good”, but “busy!”
You have to be busy, because otherwise people will begin to suspect that you’re not busy, and that, these days, is a sin more shocking than sloth. But wait, slow down, stop.
Last year, in Johannesburg, the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Warren Goldstein, had a conversation about Judaism with the behaviourial scientist, Professor Daniel Ariely, who was visiting from the USA. (He’s the author of The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic).
The conversation turned to Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, observed from sunset on Friday to the first glimmer of starlight on Saturday evening, and how, for many secular Jews, it has become a forgotten tradition, an anachronism, out of place in the real world, the world of industry and enterprise, the world of work.
But when a Rabbi talks to a Professor, you expect, at the very least, a lesson to emerge, and the lesson was: The Shabbos Project. An experiment in the art of behaviourial change.
Shabbos is just another way of saying Shabbat, rooted in the Yiddish vernacular of the first generation of Eastern European Jews who migrated to South Africa in the 19th Century. So, Shabbos.
The idea, from Rabbi Goldstein, was that it would be nice – a blessing – if every Jew, even the least observant, could set aside one day a year to observe the Sabbath in its entirety, 25 hours of reflection, of recharge, of rejuvenation, of unworlding.
In Jewish song, the Sabbath is greeted and welcomed as a bride, a beautiful image that personifies grace and the glow of spiritual commitment. Still, just like marriage, let’s face it, it’s a tough ask.
Try not driving, not using electricity, not watching sport, not talking on your phone, not using social media, not working, working, working, for an entire day and an hour. And yet, from a lesson that becomes an idea, a movement can be born.
Last year, the Shabbos Project took place in South Africa alone. This year, it is taking place, on Friday, October 24 and Saturday, October 25, in 33 countries and 212 cities.
It has, of course, a website, a Facebook, a Twitterstream , a hashtag (#KeepItTogether), a manifesto, and an international ambassador: Paula Abdul. (Yes, who knew?)
But more than that, it has a message, and you don’t need to be Jewish to get it. “The world is too much with us, late and soon; Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in Nature that is ours.”
Okay, that’s William Wordsworth, not Rabbi Goldstein. But the world doesn’t turn anymore, it spins, like a record played at the wrong speed, and the breathless, pulsating distractions can drive you to distraction.
But the idea of the Sabbath – and how nice is the word that springs from it, Sabbatical – isn’t just that you switch off your machines. The idea is that you switch on your life.
You look within and beyond. You recalculate, you recalibrate, you reconnect, you reset the clock. And then you begin again, rested. Good Shabbos, everybody.