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A Day Out of Time

This weekend I read Oliver Sacks’ tiny mini-tome, Gratitude. I really mean tiny. It’s a book you can finish in half an hour.

It consists of four short essays, all written in the two years before his death. All four reflect on aging and dying as Sacks went from a robust 79-year-old who swam a mile a day to an invalid dying of liver cancer. He really says nothing new or profound. For that matter he doesn’t say much overtly about gratitude. The attraction is, of course, that Oliver Sacks is saying the rather familiar things about death.

He lived in front of the world for all those decades, a man of the mind who also studied minds and wrote about them in the liveliest way. So you know that when he quotes a philosopher, said philosopher was likely to have been a good friend. And you know that when his cousin turns him on to a good idea, it’s going to be his cousin the Nobel Prize winner.

In this case his cousin the Nobel Prize winning economist, Robert John Aumann, is also an observant Orthodox Jew, who inspired the last essay in the book, “Sabbath.”

I’ve always admired such strict observances as not even being willing to drive a car or flip a light switch or turn on a stove burner from some arcane-but-precise moment on Friday to some arcane-but-precise moment on Saturday. At the same time, it also seems silly. Srsly you can’t turn on a 21st-century LED light on the Sabbath because of a millennia-old proscription against lighting fires on that day? Well, yeah, it makes a certain bureaucratic sense. But …

Yet I sometimes find myself yearning for such ritual, such steadfast belief in something unknowable. I’m not patient enough to practice rituals that don’t make sense to me (whether the rituals of a mainstream religion or some neopagan thing like honoring the four corners), but it seems like such an honorable and mindful ideal.

Sacks wrote of the Sabbath differently. Watching his cousin and his family observe the Sabbath, he didn’t think of their observances as being hopelessly strict or meaningless, even though he’d long since ceased being a believer. He thought of their ultra-observent Sabbath as “a day out of time.” A day to step aside from the go-go world.

What a great way to view it.

That could mean a lot of different things to different people, but most of them, I’m guessing, are filled with adventures in serenity.


  1. pigpen51
    pigpen51 March 21, 2016 6:54 pm

    In times past, when I studied Jews observations on the Sabbath, I have to admit that I always looked at it from a historical point of view, something done in the past, in Biblical times. I think that was to my detriment. Now, as I am older, maybe wiser, as a Christian looking at the faithful observations of Jews to their different traditions, I am filled with a certain envy, in a way, as if in some way I have missed a touchstone with the past.
    I am aware that many Christian religions today have observations of different traditions from the past, however, I myself don’t subscribe to them. I can’t simply join with something which I am not part of, so that I can enjoy some of their traditions, while at the same time not believing all of their doctrines.
    I think that perhaps what I have really learned in my life is to allow people to worship in their own way, and to be happy for them to be able to do so. Or to not worship if that is their decision as well. And to worship in my own way and to whole heartedly throw myself into that worship with everything I am. For me, it could be as simple as watching the sunrise in the morning in complete silence, with a humble attitude, for the next person, it could be observing the Sabbath.
    For someone who has no belief in a supreme being, it could be no worship at all. Perhaps they might like to meditate in the mornings. Perhaps not.
    The saying it’s a free country used to be tossed around a lot when I was young, as in, do what you want, I really don’t care. Well, in this case, we would do well to remember that it really is a free country, at least for now. And our right to worship or not is one of our most cherished of them all, and, if we can remember, it is one that is taken early when a nation starts to lose it’s freedom.

  2. Joel
    Joel March 21, 2016 7:27 pm

    I sometimes find myself yearning for such ritual, such steadfast belief in something unknowable. I’m not patient enough to practice rituals that don’t make sense to me

    When I was a little boy I didn’t know I was living among the debris of very pious Protestant traditions that people kept without really paying any attention to why they did it. Like, packs of playing cards are vaguely sinful, but nobody can tell you why.

    Decades later, having studied the Bible and then observing what Jews have made of things like the Sabbath and Kosher laws, honestly, it just makes me tired. There’s nothing serene about it, it’s just empty and pointless tradition.

  3. LarryA
    LarryA March 21, 2016 11:18 pm

    Tradition and ritual, whether religious or secular, can be powerful sources of order, or of liberation, of education, or of comfort. If they have meaning.
    Next month I will attend the local Texas A&M Muster, as I have every April 21 since 1966. We’ll meet old friends, tell stories about our college days, brag on our accomplishments (of the let-me-tell-you-about-my-grandkids variety), eat, answer a roll-call for our comrades who died during the year, and dismiss until April 21, 2017.
    My wife and I have family rituals we’ve built over the last 47 years.
    And Sunday’s you’ll find me in the choir loft at my church.

    OTOH rituals can also lose meaning when the lessons they are meant to reinforce get forgotten. (I recently heard a three-sentence description that applies to every Jewish holy holiday: “They wanted to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”)
    I do not understand how Jews can celebrate Purim, then campaign for gun control because they can count on government to protect them.

  4. Pat
    Pat March 21, 2016 11:39 pm

    I’ve often wondered how much ritual is truly with meaning, or ritual without thinking because we’ve always done it or somebody told us to. Yet each of us have our own rituals in the form of habits (or even some degree of anal-retentiveness). Whereas all religions require some observances, no doubt for control as well as belief, most humans establish set patterns to keep themselves on course. I would take that to mean that it is a way for us to understand life and put some structure and control into it.

    Whether this structure comes from religion (or government, such as voting and respect for the flag), or from individual choice, humans seemingly need some ritual to guide them through life, and even through the day. Chaos of the soul seems to develop without it. Institutions such as religion and government merely take advantage of it.

  5. Laird
    Laird March 22, 2016 10:40 am

    I agree with Joel; I have no use for empty ritual, and while I can intellectually appreciate that some people find comfort in the “belief in something unknowable” I don’t really understand it. And I certainly don’t need it myself.

    However, his remark about “pointless tradition” gave me pause. To me, there is an important distinction between “ritual” and “tradition”. The former is going through specified and largely unchangeable motions (which may or may not be “pointless”, depending upon whether you understand the reasons for them and that they actually have a reason), whereas the latter helps to provide a sense of continuity over generations. My family celebrates Christmas (even though few of us are actually religious, and those who are don’t bring it into the festivities) by observing certain traditions which have grown up over the years. They are entirely personal to us, and do evolve over time, but they still bind us together and to our (recent) ancestors. They are certainly “pointless” in a certain sense, but are nonetheless familiar and vaguely comforting. But what matters is that they are ours, not historical relics foisted on us by any external authority. And no one ascribes to them any deep meaning.

  6. Tahn
    Tahn March 22, 2016 11:11 am

    After studying the Torah and especially the 10 commandments, as a hippy, I came to the conclusion that the “Sabbath” was a time to rest, relax and enjoy the family or commune with Mother Nature. It was one of the first religious tenets that applied equally to ALL ages, All sexes, slaves AND animals. I have adopted it as just that, a day to relax, without dragging along all the baggage of ritual or dogma.

    Think about it, ONE of the Ten Commandments is to take a day off once every week and just chill, without ANY guilt. As a lazy person, who can resist that? It is a powerful weekly restoration of your spirit.

  7. Y.B. ben Avraham
    Y.B. ben Avraham March 22, 2016 9:30 pm

    Thank you, Claire!

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