Keeping the Sabbath isn't optional, at least not in God's book. But observing the day of rest prescribed in the 10 Commandments can be more difficult for busy families than honoring their parents or not swearing.
"The fact is, everybody's having trouble with this right now. There are surprisingly few people who are doing it," said Dr. Matthew Sleeth, the author of "24/6: A Prescription for a Healthier and Happier Life" and a proponent of rigorous Sabbath keeping.
In a recent Deseret News survey, just 38 percent of respondents said they "strongly agreed" that it's important for society to have a day of spiritual rest, and only half said the Sabbath has personal spiritual meaning, compared to 74 percent in a 1978 Gallup poll.
Moreover, people were more likely to go shopping (30 percent) than to a religious service (27 percent) on the Sabbath of their religious tradition, the survey said. The poll of 1,000 adults nationwide, which also had an oversample of 250 Mormons and 250 Jews, was designed by Y2 Analytics and fielded by YouGov for the Deseret News.
To Sleeth, who left emergency medicine in order to start a nonprofit organization that teaches Christian stewardship, the Sabbath was a "cultural treasure" that was stolen from our generation. "We decided we were going to give it up and see how it goes. I don't think it's going very well," he said.
Sleeth and his staff at Blessed Earth ministries, headquartered in Lexington, Kentucky, now speak to people across the country about reclaiming the Sabbath. "It's not easy, but once you get it, and get it right, it's the most joyful thing ever," he said.
This is because to function optimally, human beings need rest, and with the onslaught of technology and 24-7 availability, the five-day workweek is becoming a myth. Whether we believe the Sabbath is a commandment from God or a recommendation, whether we mark it on Saturday, Sunday or Wednesday, the Bible deems the day holy, and the intent was clear: It is a day on which no work is to be done.
When we honor the commandment, we are happier and healthier; our blood pressure falls, as well as our levels of stress hormones like cortisol. Studies about the "Type A city" have shown that a persistent fast pace of life contributes to coronary artery disease. We even eat less when we slow down. We're likely to catch fewer colds. And when we do return to work, we'll be more focused and productive.
And keeping the Sabbath makes us holier, Sleeth said. "When we keep it, all the 10 Commandments come to pass," he said, because relationships are strengthened when we make time for them.
Sleeth goes so far as to say the Sabbath is "irrefutable proof" that God is real. "It is so sublime that no person — much less a committee — could have invented it," Sleeth writes in "24/6, A Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life," his 2012 book that promotes Sabbath keeping.
Other people who observe the Sabbath agree that the practice has profoundly affected their family life.
Steve Gajdosik, a father of seven in Spartanburg, South Carolina, is a Catholic who doesn’t allow his children to play organized sports on Sunday, because that is their family’s Sabbath.
“We go to Mass together in the morning, we eat together, we recreate together. We might watch a ball game if the Panthers are playing and it’s the Super Bowl, but generally, we don’t do anything other than the basic chores we have to do. And we don’t shop,” Gajdosik said.
The day is important, Gajdosik said, because as with all moral laws, it’s ultimately good for us. “You look at society, and the family is disintegrating, and one reason is that we don’t spend enough time together,” he said.
A 'deeply meaningful' practice
In Pittsburgh, writer Abby Schachter marks the traditional Jewish Sabbath, 25 hours from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, with her husband and four children, ages 2 through 8.
“They aren’t yet at the place where their peers are asking them why they can’t do X, Y or Z,” Schachter said. But by the time they are, the rituals will be ingrained, she said.
"The idea of the Sabbath for Jews is to separate, literally, one day from the rest of the week. You’re supposed to be engaging in very different activities: eating and socializing and enjoying a little bit more quiet and downtime and prayer," said Schachter, author of the forthcoming book "No Child Left Alone."
“When we first started observing a ritual Friday-night dinner, lighting candles and saying the blessings over bread and wine, it felt a lot like play acting. It’s not something that comes naturally.
“The value comes in repeating the process over and over. It is deeply meaningful now because it is embedded in our family’s life now. It reinforces that our family is a unit, and this is how we operate. And it’s a lot easier to do it when it’s attached to something larger than yourself,” she said. "We are doing this, not only with living Jewish people, but also every Jewish person who has ever lived."
For people in the ministry, keeping the Sabbath presents a particular challenge, since they have to work so others can observe the day.
The Rev. Keith Anderson, a Lutheran pastor near Philadelphia, takes Saturday off and also reserves Sunday afternoon to be with his wife and four children. “It’s a challenge, but we recognize that we all have a saturation point; neither we nor the kids can keep it going 24/7,” Anderson said.
The family also tries to take “Sabbath moments” all through the week, using the time to unplug and focus on each other.
Sleeth recommends something similar for people who see the value of the Sabbath observance, but struggle to make it happen in their lives.
“If you can’t fathom 24 hours without work, pick out four hours: say, Sunday morning between 8 and noon. Close the computer, turn the phone off; the world will still spin if you disconnect for four hours," Sleeth said. “What we’ve found is that when people get a taste of it, they’ll expand it."
Ways to start
Blessed Earth teaches Sabbath keeping at churches and conferences of all denominations across the country; he's even advocated it to a medical group, on grounds that it would improve the quality of life for physicians.
When Sleeth met with a group of United Methodist ministers in North Carolina, he found that only 9 percent of them kept the Sabbath regularly. After learning more about the importance of observing the Sabbath, within two years, 35 percent of them did. It's as if learning the benefits gives them permission to take a day off, even though it may be a struggle at first.
"If you work on this, it gets better, but you have to be intentional about this," Sleeth said. Preparation is essential, he said. In his own household, Sleeth and his wife prepare by cleaning and shopping in advance.
Schachter, the writer who attends a conservative synagogue in Pittsburgh, also said that the rewards of keeping Sabbath grow over time, and people should give themselves time to embrace the tradition.
"The first time you do anything, it's not going to feel natural, so make plans to do it at least three times. You can't create a habit the first time," she said.
Sleeth quips that, in the Bible, only one being was busy: Satan, who in the Book of Job told God he was "going to and fro on the earth, and walking up and down on it."
For people who are similarly busy going to and fro, writing out a "Sabbath plan" may help. Blessed Earth offers a worksheet that encourages people to think about potential temptations, activities that renew your spirit and people with whom you can share your journey.
And if it's still a struggle, forgive yourself. Sleeth said a Catholic archbishop recently told him how hard he finds it to observe the Sabbath.
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A planned treat may help. In ancient times, Jewish children were given a teaspoon of honey at the start of the Sabbath, so they would know they were about to experience something sweet. For Sleeth and his wife, their strictly enforced Sabbath includes spending time with their grown children, reading books and taking a walk. "And I sometimes start the day with ice cream — why not?"
But be prepared for resistance from a world that would rather shop than go to church or reflect on the spiritual aspects of life. "Keeping a Sabbath is the most countercultural thing you can do. Not getting your hair dyed purple — a zillion other people are going to do that today," Sleeth said.