Judaism: Day 12 and 13 – Shabbat vs. HR Work-Life Balance Policies (plus brisket photos)

Friday night I hosted my very first Shabbat dinner. My girlfriend and I invited seven of our friends over to welcome the Sabbath and spend a pleasant evening drinking wine and eating the questionable brisket I prepared.

Preparing for Shabbat dinner was actually quite stressful. We stressed over the invite list, the food, cleaning, etc. Keeping the food Kosher was difficult. You’re not allowed to combine meat and dairy in a single meal, so once we decided to make brisket, we took a lot of potential dishes off the menu.

Brisket (Before)
Brisket (Before)

Once everyone arrived, however, the evening proceeded very pleasantly. I gave a less eloquent version of my Shabbat speech, we lit the candles (and I botched the Hebrew), everyone ate dinner, and we all chatted about this and that.

The most fascinating part of the conversation was my guests’ responses to the question, “If you were to regularly observe Shabbat in some way, what would you include or exclude?”

One of my friends described her very relaxing Saturday morning routine. She wakes up around 8, has some coffee, goes to a fitness class with her friend, and then she takes the afternoon to hang out alone. She then leaves herself the option of going out with friends in the evening.

Our bachelor friend doesn’t set an alarm for Saturday morning.He will wake up when his body tells him to wake up.

Another friend of ours said she would like to spend most of the day cooking by herself. She would want to be free of the obligation to call her family or friends, and just focus on the process of cooking.

Our married couple friends mentioned they have a Saturday morning routine where they go to Starbucks and take the dog out for a walk.


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Brisket – With marinade

All these ideas sound great, however, our guests also pointed out some very real obstacles to observing these routines.

1. The world doesn’t stop just because you do. Modern life continues to operate and it will often require your attention, even during “Shabbat.” It doesn’t care about what you want or need.

2. Consistently observing these rituals requires significant preparation. Because everyone has a long to-do list, they allocate time on the weekends to get some of those items done. In order to truly relax on Saturday, they would have to establish systems to get all those things done during the week, which is difficult for many reasons, including a lack of energy and long work hours.

3. Inability to relax when you have things to do. Even if there are things that can wait until after Shabbat, it’s difficult to truly relax when you’re constantly thinking about all the things you didn’t get to.

My guests clearly had the desire to rest, but life gets in the way. They value rest, but they also value productivity and getting things done. When those two values compete, they seem to choose the latter.

This is what is so ironic about observing Shabbat: it’s hard!

I think that is why Judaism had to make Shabbat a sacred rite. If it’s not sacred, it will be de-prioritized.

“In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness where man may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity. The island is the seventh day, the Sabbath, a day of detachment from things, instruments and practical affairs as well as of attachment to the spirit.” Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

Compare the quote from Heschel with the new “Saturday rule” Goldman Sachs has recently instituted:

“All analysts and associates are required to be out of the office from 9PM on Friday until 9AM on Sunday (begins this weekend)”

“Exceptions will not be the norm and should be used sparingly”

“Exceptions will be tracked and reported to Exec Comm on a quarterly basis”

“Work should not shift from office to home: junior bankers are not expected to log in from home and work. Junior bankers are still expected to check their blackberries on a regular basis over the weekend. The expectation is that work will not be assigned on Saturday to be completed Saturday.”

It’s certainly an improvement over the previous policy, (which was no policy,) but the language they use is HR/Corporate speak.  It lacks any hint of the sacred.

More importantly, the HR work-life balance policies are created only so that employees can be more effective in their work. It is, ultimately, for the benefit of the company, not the employee.

Shabbat on the other hands, values rest for its own sake.

To the biblical mind, however, labor is the means toward an end, and the Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. “Last in creation, first in intention,” the Sabbath is “the end of creation of heaven and earth.”

All the hard work we put in should be for the sake of rest. Preparing to host a Shabbat dinner was stressful, but it made the evening more meaningful.

I wonder what would happen if I consistently observed the rules of Shabbat over an extended period of time.  How would my attitude to work and career change? Would I form close relationships with those I spend Shabbat with? Would I become a nervous wreck from not getting through my to-do list on Saturday?

Instead of relying on HR policies and trendy concepts like “work-life balance,” we should incorporate elements of the sacred into our own lives to imbue our periods of rest with meaning and significance.

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Brisket – Final product!