Can America Learn from Shabbat?: Free Time for a Free People

(This article was published by The Nation, 1/01/01, and republished on 1/14/01 by

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Several years ago, I went to a folk song festival in Philadelphia. Many of the singers sang labor songs of the 1930s, civil rights songs of the 1960s, songs of many decades. The audience sang along, nostalgia strong in the air.

Then Charlie King began singing a song with the refrain, "What ever happened to the eight hour day? When did they take it away? . . . When did we give it away?"

And the audience roared with passion. Not nostalgia. This was our lives, not something from the past.

I was startled. Suddenly I saw that my own sense of overwork, of teetering on the edge of burnout, was not mine alone. Something was burning in the air.

I began to talk with others, especially with people whose religious and spiritual traditions call for some time to reflect, to be calm, to refrain from Doing and Making in order to Be and to Love. Out of those discussions has come an effort that brings Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Unitarians, and some secular intellectuals together to redress the rhythms of work and family time, community time, spiritual time. Free time, and you free people.

Free time. Not just through the ancient practice of Shabbat — but also through new ways, fitting to an industrial/ informational economy, of pausing from overwork and overstress.

But that gets ahead of the story. What did we find when we began exploring America from this angle of vision?

Juliet Schor of Harvard wrote a book about The Overworked Americans. She showed that the promise made to us thirty years ago — that the new computer technology would give us more leisure time — had been betrayed. Most Americans work longer hours, under more tension, than they had one generation ago.

Other studies followed. Some of them pointed out the increase in temporary workers, part-time workers, suggesting Schor was mistaken. But it has become clear that "underwork" and "overwork" are in fact closely related. Corporations that seek to keep workers "part-time and "temporary" so as to pay them less and avoid providing medical or pension benefits drive workers into finding extra jobs, just to keep hanging on by their fingertips to a barely adequate income. The underwork breeds overwork.

Some blue-collar workers are shanghaied into compulsory overtime, a seventy-hour week. Their bosses would rather pay them extra than add new workers with medical benefits and Social Security. They lose touch with their kids — but they can't say no.

In many cases, "down-sizing" (that neat euphemism) leaves fewer workers to carry out the same amount of work — and the remaining jobholders work longer under pressure to get the job done. The fear that they will be the next workers "downsized" helps spur them into overwork.

And conversely, the overwork of some — 12-hour days, 60-hour weeks — reduces the numbers and the quality of jobs that are available to others. Overwork breeds disemployment.

It is not just poor people or blue-collar workers on wage/hour status who get forced into overwork. Myriad are the middle-class social workers trying desperately to keep up with a growing case load by working twelve-hours days.

Many are the wealthy lawyers whose law firms expect them to bill 60 or 70 hours a week — or get shuffled away.

Indeed, the overwork/overstress reality runs across class lines. From wealthy brain surgeons to single mothers making minimum wages at fast-food stop-ins, tens of millions of Americans are overworked.

So — who is to say it's "overwork" if people choose to do it? Anyone who really feels burnt out can just slow down, no? Any malaise that people feel is just a result of their own choices, no? And of their refusal to face the consequences of their own choices, no?


Treating overwork as a private, personal life-choice and a sense of burnout as a result of internal confusion and incompetence is like — very like — saying that women who felt discomforted and disempowered, ill at ease, in the 1950s were simply choosing their lifestyle and their discomfort. Many of those women felt themselves to blame for their unease. For many, it took Betty Friedan to put a name to their lives, and to show that it was a systemic and political structure that was oppressing them. And that they could do something about it.

I think we are in much the same situation today. There is an economic and cultural system that is driving most Americans into overwork. There are deep human needs for rest and reflection, for family time and community time. That system is grinding those deep human needs under foot. And that system can be changed.

Who says there are such human needs?

For all the traditions that take the Hebrew Scriptures seriously, there is a teaching: For the sake of remembering and taking to heart the grandeur of Creation and for the sake of freeing both ourselves from others' pharaonic power and others from our own oppression, we make "not-making": we celebrate Shabbat. (The word is usually translated into English as "Sabbath," but that is really mere transliteration; the word comes from the Hebrew verb for pausing, ceasing.)

In Exodus 20: 8-11, the reason given for the Sabbath is to recall Creation; in Deuteronomy 5:12-15, it is to free all of us from slavery. In Jewish tradition, it is taught that these seemingly two separate meanings are in fact one. Meditate on them, and we can see them that way.

And we are taught not only the seventh-day Shabbat: there are also the seventh year and the seven-times-seven-plus-one year, the 50th year, the Jubilee (another mere transliteration, from "yovel": Translator Everett Fox renders it as "Home-bringing"). (Lev. 25 and 26: 34-35, 43-45; Deut. 15: 1-18)

These year-long observances that the Bible calls "shabbat shabbaton," "Sabbath to the Sabbatical power," "deeply restful rest," are times of enacting social justice, and times of freeing the earth from human exploitation, and times of release from attachments and habits, addictions and idolatries.

Indeed, in these most radical socially revolutionary passages of Torah, the text never uses the word "tzedek" — justice — but instead the words "shmitah" and "dror," which mean "release." What Buddhists today call "non-attachment." The deepest root of social justice, according to these biblical passages, is the profoundly restful experience of abandoning control over others and over the earth. And conversely, the deepest meditation intended to free us from our egos cannot be experienced so long as we are egotistically bossing other human beings or the planet.

The tradition of Shabbat did not teach that this restfulness and utter non-attachment was the only path to walk. The tradition taught a rhythm, a spiral of Doing and Being in which the next stage of Doing was always to be higher, deeper, because a time of Being had preceded it. And in which we could bring a fuller, more whole self to the Being because we had Done more in the meantime. In which both Doing and Being were more holy because we had integrated them into a life-path.

Already in 1951, in the aftermath of those grotesque mockeries of triumphant Making — the Holocaust and Hiroshima — Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (who later marched alongside Martin Luther King against racism and the Vietnam War) wrote in his book The Sabbath:

"To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, ... on which [humanity] avows [its] independence of that which is the world's chief idol ... a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow [humans] and the forces of nature — is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for [humanity's] progress than the Sabbath?"

Christianity, Islam, and Rabbinic Judaism all reinterpreted these biblical teachings in their own ways. But all of them, as well as Buddhism and perhaps all the world's other spiritual traditions, taught the necessity of periodically, rhythmically, calming one's self for inward reflection, for time to Love and time to Be.

Who can — and will — do something about the denial of these needs, the subjugation of human beings and the earth to the pharaonic notion that Shabbat is a waste of time, that tireless work is the real proof of one's worth?

You might think the labor movement would do something about it. After all, the eight-hour day that now seems lost to many of us was the result of labor struggles beginning in the 1880s: "Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will!" Similar in meaning was the slogan of women Wobblies, garment workers who were members of the IWW, Industrial Workers of the World: "We want bread — and roses too!"

And there have indeed been some recent stirrings of interest in the American labor movement toward curtailing overtime — often in the hope of opening up more jobs for the disemployed. In Europe, especially in Germany, unions in several industries have won a 35-hour week. In America, anxieties among workers about making more money in the short run have so far drowned out most of these wistful desires for more rest.

But recently there have been some stirrings of interest in the US labor movement in curtailing overtime— often in the hope of opening up more jobs for the disemployed but increasingly in order to protect family life. An example: Recently the New York Times reported about rising labor tensions between the Communications Workers of America and the Verizon Corporation, with a strike in the offing:

"For some Verizon workers, a strike cannot come soon enough if it brings about measures to reduce stress on the job. At many call centers, customer service representatives who take orders for new service or answer questions about bills say they are inundated with calls and that management often requires them to tack four extra hours onto their shifts."

At a Verizon plant in Massachusetts, the plant's work force had been downsized so that half the number of workers had to answer a rising tide of customer phone calls. Result: customers left to hang on hold and workers increasingly put on "red alert" when the number of calls on hold got too high. "Red alert" meant workers were forbidden to leave their desks, to shmooze, stretch, go to the bathroom. Workers said they were always exhausted and increasingly ready to strike over this treatment.

When Verizon workers did strike, overwork was one of the main issues; and thery won a contract limiting compulsory overtime to 7.5 hours a week.

The connection between overwork and under-citizenship was made by Ralph Nader during his presidential campaign. Ruth Conniff in The Nation quoted Nader as saying that today it's harder to be a citizen because people are working 160 hours more each year than they did twenty years ago. Nader, she writes, "gets the most rapt attention from his middle- and working-class audiences when he talks about their shrinking leisure time."

Some studies are beginning to show the costs of compulsory overwork. Reg Williams and Patricia Strasser, professors of nursing at the University of Michigan, estimated in the Journal of the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses that the total cost of depression at work is as high as $44 billion. They pointed out that healthcare workers have focused much attention on the workplace risk factors for heart disease, cancer, obesity and other illnesses, but little emphasis on the risk factors for depression, stress, negative changes in personal life, negative changes in the work environment and difficulties in interpersonal relationships.

Similarly, studies at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations found that workers who put in more than fifty hours per week are more likely to experience "severe" work/family conflicts, and workers who are pressured into working overtime by their supervisors suffer significantly higher rates of alcohol use, stress and absenteeism.

As businesses become aware of these costs they may become willing to adopt policies that give workers more free time, but in many cases it will take vigorous struggle to win these changes. And here is where the religious communities could, out of their own values and commitments, become important

What would it mean for the different religious communities to undertake the effort that their own traditions teach?

Over the past year, a network of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists, initially brought together by The Shalom Center, have been examining these questions. They have been developing a statement called "Free Time/Free People," and circulating it among a broader group of religious leaders and activists.

Among the signers are such well-known spiritual and intellectual leaders as Gar Alperovitz, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, the Rev. Tony Campolo, Sr. Joan Chitister, Harvey Cox, the Rev. Bob Edgar, Roshi Bernard Glassman, Paul Gorman, Maria Harris, Susannah Heschel, Msgr. George Higgins, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rabbi Michael Lerner, Rabbi Richard Levy, Marcus Raskin, Sharon Ringe, Juliet Schor, Alan Slifka, Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, Dr. Cornel West, and the Rev. Walter Wink.

And they have been joined by such key organizers and institutional activists as Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf (president, American Muslim Sufi Assn.), Fred Azcarate (executive director, Jobs with Justice), Kim Bobo (executive director, National Interfaith Committee for Workers Justice), Heather Booth (founder of the Midwest Academy), Rev. David Dyson (Chairperson, People of Faith Network), Paul Gorman (executive director, National Religious Partnership for the Environment), Rabbi Mordechai Liebling (The Shefa Fund), Sensei Pat Enkyo O'Hara (Zen Peacemaker Order), Mark Pelavin (assistant director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism), Meg Riley (director, Washington office of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Sr. Christine Vladimiroff (prioress, Order of St. Benedict), and key editors of Sojourners, The Other Side, and Witness (all important progressive Christian magazines).

The Free Time committee intends to bring the statement to public attention to encourage the religious and spiritual communities themselves to enrich their own offerings of "sabbath" rest and release in many forms, and to begin developing specific policy proposals that would carry these teachings into the world of economics and politics.

Indeed, the religious communities are in a position to do two things at once:

  • Reawaken in their own members the wisdom of restfulness, willingness to open more of their own time for Being and Loving, and the richness of prayer, meditation, chant, and ceremony that can make this real; and
  • Take action in the world of public policy to free more time for spiritual search, for family, and for community; and to create a real full-employment society in which "jobs" carry with them a decent income, access to health care, dignity, and self-direction — jobs secure enough and decent enough to let workers loose their grip on fear and seek Free Time.

For the sake of this second sphere, there is every reason for the religious communities to reach out to the labor movement, the environmental movement, groups that seek to nurture the family and "family values," and women's organizations.

Indeed, The Shalom Center and the Free Time committee took part in the last conference of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, co-sponsored in Los Angeles by the AFL-CIO. And it is working closely with Jobs with Justice, which endorsed the statement, has distributed it to all its activists, and invited Free Time to lead a workshop at its national conference and to introduce the approach even more deeply by leading an introduction to the Sabbath for all 700 participants.

The Free Time statement urges American political, economic, and cultural leaders:

  • to reduce the hours of work imposed on individuals without reducing their income;
  • to strongly encourage the use of more free time in the service of family, community, and spiritual growth
  • and to make work itself sacred by securing full employment in jobs with decent income, health care, dignity, and self-direction.

As the Free Time discussions continued, the religious leaders agreed that while it was important to encourage restful observance of the Sabbath, it was the sabbatical principle that needed to be explored, and shaped into new practices and policies as well as old ones.

This approach, they realized, would make possible an alliance that has been sorely lacking in American society and politics for the last twenty years: an alliance between blue-collar wage/ hour workers and white-collar salaried professionals.

What is more, the alliance would not be a merely mechanical coalition but would be rooted in the deep human sharing of a soul-need held in common. Thus a common effort to win Free Time would guide each of these groups to see the shared humanness in "the other" as well as "the self."

So the religious and spiritual leaders have begun meeting with policy experts and economists and labor leaders to explore what new approaches would make Free Time possible. Many ideas have emerged, and their feasibility is still being studied: —
Imagine limiting compulsory overtime to no more than five hours a week.

Imagine making Fridays, or Friday afternoons, into free time, with commitments not to reduce weekly incomes or salaries.

Imagine businesses setting aside seven minutes every morning and every afternoon in the midst of work as Quiet Time: No work, no telephone, no conversation: time to sit quietly, to meditate, to drowse, to dream.

Imagine setting aside one week every year as Neighbor Time; while neighborhoods celebrate folk festivals of their own and share stories, songs, conversations. What's more, imagine shutting down not only factories and offices but also highways and airlines, television and hotels.

Imagine offering one "sabbatical" year of paid Social Security between ages 45 and 55 to everyone, in exchange for one year's delay of Social Security retirement pay.

Imagine working with businesses to make paid leave time for family and community service available to all their workers.

This last possibility deserves fuller examination, because it could make a growing difference in the world.

As matters stand now, many businesses encourage their high executives to use paid worktime to volunteer their services to museum or university boards or similar civic enterprises. But very few businesses offer all their workers the same possibility of volunteering for the local PTA, synagogue, or Sierra Club as part of their paid worktime.

Is this a utopian idea? Not at all. Like some of the other approaches sketched above, it might be adopted by some businesses out of a sense that in the long run, it would be economically worthwhile — reducing absenteeism from mental and physical illness; reducing anger, friction, and sabotage at work; building better business-community relations.

Other businesses might well respond to quiet persuasion or public economic pressure from religious communities, labor unions, and civic organizations — respond by encouraging this kind of family and community service. Since more and more high schools are making community service part of education, it might not be too difficult to define it as part of the work sphere as well.

Still other businesses might respond to the carrot of governmental contracts (local, state, ultimately national) conditioned on offering workers paid family and community leave time. (This kind of contractual carrot has already been used in affirmative action and "living wage" ordinances.) A living wage, with livable hours!

All these approaches might help our society renew families, neighborhoods, grass-roots communities and institutions, like our congregations themselves. They would make possible more grassroots effort to achieve Free Time.

And they would give new breathing-time to many overworked and many ill-worked people to once more meet their neighbors, renew their own selves, and rediscover their deepest visions of a sacred world.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow directs The Shalom Center, with offices in Philadelphia and the website at He is the author of such books on public policy as The Limits of Defense and From Race Riot to Sit-in, and of such books on spiritual search as Godwrestling — Round 2 and Down-to-Earth Judaism.

For more information on Free Time/Free People, see the other articles at FreeOurTime.

A different version of this article appeared in the January 1, 2001 issue of The Nation.