Covid Shabbat

by Simon Shear

Do you know that the word ‘quarantine’ derives from the Venetian quarantena, referring to the forty days of isolation ship passengers were subject to during the time of the Black Death?

Yes, of course you do. By now you know everything there is to know about pandemics and infection control. You know the cultural history of the 1918 flu well enough to teach an introductory class. You could diagram the molecular structure of a viral envelope with your eyes closed.

So if I write a post saying that Shabbat is a kind of spiritual quarantine, you’d roll your eyes and stop reading immediately.

Thankfully, this is something completely different. It’s a post about how Shabbat is not a kind of spiritual quarantine.

In fact, quarantine is more akin to a mockery of the day of rest; an ersatz Shabbat of enforced cessation.

After all, for a ‘day of rest’, Shabbat can be full of activity. And while it is useful to simplify the melachot, the activities prohibited on Shabbat, under the general rubric of ‘work’, something tends to get lost in translation, prompting the Shabbat-curious to ask a whole lot of pointed questions: You can’t drive round the block but you can walk 10km to shul? You can’t switch on your kettle but, depending on which authority you follow, you could use an urn and follow a procedure more complex than the Pentagon’s nuclear war scenario planning to make a cup of tea? I know which of these sound more like work.

In many ways, our days of lockdown look a whole lot like what a day without ‘work’ might look like. We Skype and we Zoom, we spend hour after hour scrolling Netflix and Uber Eats and Instacart (who knew the end of the world would involve so much scrolling?), we get caught in angry, labyrinthine arguments on Twitter and Facebook … but we do it all from the couch.

You are wherever your thoughts are, Rabbi Nachman teaches, and while our bodies may be comfortably situated on a nest of goose down pillows, our thoughts on a speedboat on a Florida lake, litigating the scientific method with a guy who calls himself MasksAreTyranny420 on social media.

Worse, in a way, was when my thoughts were kind of nowhere at all. When work had slowed to a pandemic-induced trickle, but I was nonetheless on standby, awaiting instructions. I could neither switch off completely and read a detective story, nor was I actively engaged in money-making activity. My attention was divided, and being neither here nor there, it was nowhere.

‘Rest’ is not always all it’s cracked up to be. There’s ‘bed rest’ enforced by doctors; not something most of us would ever choose. And recently, we found ourselves confined to our homes where if we were rested - spared the daily commute, shielded from chatty colleagues - we were nonetheless restive. Stupefied by containment, filled with nervous energy usually expended at the gym or in strenuous social engagements, we descended into a spiral of minute hyper activity, clicking and pacing, muting and unmuting, liking, and blocking and retweeting. All that frenetic micromovement made it hard to focus on any one thing. With my attention so addled and divided, it felt like I had a kind of mind myopia, as if my brain forgot to put on its glasses.

That’s the opposite of Shabbat. On Shabbat, we work to see past the frenzy of the mundane and perceive a deeper reality. It’s an opportunity not to rationalise and calculate, but to exist fully in the moment. ‘Be in the moment’ is something your spinning instructor or tofu dealer might say, but actually achieving it is the work of a lifetime.

Likely you’ve come across panegyrics to Shabbat extolling the benefits of taking a day to recharge your batteries, so you can tackle the work week ahead. That’s not wrong, but it’s incidental. The essence of the day is not about means and ends and calculating utility and satiating wants, as if the day is a kind of executive retreat, SHABBAT™ by Mckinsey & Company.

Properly spent, the day is not so much seeing past the cold instrumentality of modern life, but living beyond it. Transcending grinding rational calculus and experiencing the joy of the moment - a moment extended in time and space, across one day a week.

Crucially, it’s not a transcendence attained in solitude, seeking enlightenment on a bleak mountain peak. In its fullest expression, Shabbat is a community activity, in which the coarse matter of life itself is elevated beyond the merely instrumental. We eat, drink and sing, and we do it together. (Global health emergency permitting.)

The process of connecting with what really matters is intimately connected with the question of who matters. Hospitality is fundamental to Judaism, and the injunction to welcome guests holds especially on holidays and Shabbat. No one should be left behind, no one should be forgotten.

By contrast, the lockdown in many ways did enable us to perceive the value each of us holds for the other, but at the same only increased existing hierarchies. As Just in Time supply chains strained and broke, as we became acutely aware of what we could and couldn’t do without - what really mattered - so we came to rely ever more on the essential workers (many previously denigrated as disposable and low skilled) who drove delivery trucks and operated the supermarket cash points and looked after our elderly, exposed to infection, for low pay, with often minimal protective equipment.

Any major event can help us understand the world. A day like Shabbat exists to change it. To remind us not to confuse our intrinsic value with a self-contained utility-producing machine.

Quarantine was frustrating because we were immobilised while the world kept moving. Shabbat reminds us that when the treadmill stops, we’re not actually making any less ground. It’s an opportunity to reflect on how we can make real progress together, or frantically spin our wheels apart.


Simon Shear

Simon Shear is a writer based in Johannesburg. He is co-founder of MyTreasury.co.za, which demystifies personal finance decisions.

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