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Shabbat Is an Underrated Way to Destress

Wine, weed, and unplugging—your ancient Jewish guide to modern-day stress relief.
Anna DeFlorian

On Edge is a series about stress in 2017.

Growing up raised by Jewish hippies, I was exposed to a lot of "be here now" rhetoric. My dad, who traveled to India in the 70s, spent time with Neem Karoli Baba, the same guru who inspired Ram Dass to write his bestseller Be Here Now. We had multiple copies of that trippy, purple book floating around the house. Yoga, meditation, and chanting were as much a part of my upbringing as Jewish basics like Hanukkah, or Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.


But even with the whole hippie "HinJew" shtick, it took a while for me to internalize the concept of "be here now." Only after years of anxiety, restlessness, discarded law school applications, cross-country running, a freelance writing career I literally can't clock out of, and the welcome experience of letting my phone die on a handful of summer camping trips, have I come to seek out that presence of mind my neurotic Jewish parents kept yapping about, trying to figure out themselves. In a tent in the forest for a weekend, acknowledging the Sabbath with a feast of Jew food, and totally fine without texting, 'gramming, or emailing, I came to appreciate Shabbat not only as an ancient Jewish tradition, but as a contemporary, therapeutic practice of being present and unplugging.

And yet, for a long time, Shabbat—the ultimate "be here now"—was little more than lighting candles at sundown, eating a nice dinner on Friday nights, and my dad's excuse to not spend money on Saturdays. As cultural, semi-observant Jews, our Shabbat was a stark contrast to what our Orthodox neighbors observed. We'd see big families every Saturday, all dressed up, walking to synagogue. They couldn't drive, watch TV, do work, or any other number of "prohibitions."

Shabbat—or Shabbos in Yiddish—lasts 25 hours, nightfall to nightfall every Friday through Saturday. It's known as the day of rest: God created the world in six days, and took a break from work on the seventh. To celebrate, you bless wine and bread, eat lavish meals Friday night and Saturday, and refrain from work or creation of any kind, whether it's discussing business or using a lighter to spark a cigarette. Other don'ts, like not using electronics, are modern day extensions of this concept—but everyone observes these dos and don'ts differently, if at all.


And so on the outside, "reform" Jews might seem lucky, "free" to do whatever they want on Shabbos. But on the inside, some say they wouldn't trade Shabbos for the world. As the saying goes, "more than the Jews have kept [observed] Shabbos, Shabbos has kept the Jews." But in reform Hebrew school or at home, the notion of Shabbat as a state of mind was absent.

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"Shabbos is a practice, but it's also a mindset," says Rishe Groner, founder of the Gene-Sis, a events-based and educational platform for Jewish feminism. "So while there are the classic dont's that anyone who's spent time in a traditional Jewish framework might be familiar with, the real dont's all refer to a lack of presence, a failure to be in the moment."

The idea is to celebrate and bask in the here and now. Traditionally, you do that by spending time with family, having a nice meal, talking about something that isn't work, singing songs, and if you're a couple, having sex. (Yes, for married people, sex on Shabbos is technically a mitzvah or commandment/good deed.)

"Shabbos takes precedence over the worries of the week because often it's by relaxing and letting go that we get the most done," Groner says. "Like a spring that needs to recoil before bouncing back, Shabbos gives us that time and space to manifest all we've been working hard on creating."

Rabbi and author Pesach Stadlin compares the Shabbos don'ts to movie theater dont's. In neither context should you, for instance, light a fire, talk about work, or belabor what you must do afterward—lest you take your mind off the movie and miss it completely. "The movie is the [present] reality, and there are many guidelines around the holy day that force us into a place of being, so you can tune into the great 'what's going on,'" Stadlin says. "Shabbat is an opportunity to focus our mind, quiet our mind, drop in, and tune in. It's inner stillness, and that's a game changer."


All the rituals associated with Shabbat are set up to force us to be present with the present, he adds. "Shabbos is our day of inner well-being, a day for spirit. That's why we're forbidden from doing so many physical mundane tasks—because when we stop moving the water in our mind, the murkiness begins to settle so we can see clearly."

So shomer Shabbos (observing Shabbat in accordance with Jewish law) or not, the question becomes, how do you get into Shabbos mode? Is Shabbos an altered state?

Breaking the phone addiction helps. In my own exploration of Shabbos, I've aimed to not check my email or social media for the day, to not discuss or worry about work, to eat lots of challah (bread), and to drink a bit of wine. So, too, can meditation help. Hitbodedut (Jewish meditation; a one-on-one chat with god), or taking a moment to light candles Friday night and set intention for the next 25 hours.

Cannabis can also help you embrace the spirit of Shabbos. If you consume the right strain, it can quiet the mind and bring you more into your body and the present moment. In fact, weed is so useful for this purpose that kosher edibles are a growing market for the observant Jewish stoner who can't light a joint on the Sabbath. Both cannabis and Shabbat conjure up oneg, or joyful pleasure. They both comfort or elevate the soul—and allow for some quality R&R.

You needn't be Jewish to appreciate rest as integral to the productivity cycle. But "rest" is only part of it. It's also about maintaining a state of mind that doesn't veer off into what you should be doing, or what you will be doing after Shabbos. "One of the most powerful practices on Shabbat is not talking about after Shabbat," Stadlin says. The level of mindfulness one can experience on Shabbos can be akin to natural high, luring you into present.

Jewish law mandates that a person must enter into Shabbos with the mindset that all their work is done. "To someone who has never tasted the sweetness of Shabbat, this may appear to be unrealistic and quixotic, especially on a weekly basis," explains Orthodox psychologist Ben Epstein, who specializes in addiction and mindfulness. "But Shabbat is the ability to look at the unfinished business deal, the as-yet-incomplete construction project, and still feel complete. They are all, at the moment, where they should be."

The freedom of Shabbat comes from transcending the good and bad, accepting things as they are, without feeling compelled to fix everything at once—that's what the rest of the week is for. Like meditation, Shabbat can help you liberate your consciousness from the pushes and pulls of the mind, explains Miriam Eisenberger, New York-based therapist, and meditation teacher. "Normally, we're human doings instead of human beings," she says, but even the word “Shabbat” evokes the Hebrew words l'shevet (to sit) and l'shuv (to return). Sometimes change happens when you just let go.

"Usually we view ourselves as a body with a soul, but the prohibitions [of Shabbat] remind us that we are souls with a body," explains Hasidic Rabbi Ozer Bergman. When you put down your device, worries, and work, you can focus on the spiritual, says Bergman. "Your mind and soul are free to roam and soar."

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