Why a rest day could help fight climate change

(Illustration by Cornelia Li for The Washington Post)

Every Friday around sunset, I close my laptop. For 24 hours, my work is done. No email. No news. No social media. If it’s work-related, it waits.

What I try to do is — nothing at all. Or, rather, I spend time with people I love, usually outdoors. I swim or surf. I share a meal with friends and family. Sometimes, I just lie on my back in the park enjoying the sun.

It has rekindled a sense of joy I last felt when I was a kid with nothing to do, and gratitude for whatever miraculous series of events led me here to this moment.

For years, this one-day pause seemed untenable. For many, it’s virtually impossible to set aside an entire day for rest free from responsibilities to work and family.

But on the verge of burnout a few years ago, I began to practice a Sabbath. Giving myself permission to stop doing was hard. My brain betrayed my intentions, unconsciously leading me to flick open my phone, check work emails or scurry ahead to a Monday that hadn’t yet begun. Disconnecting took practice, and still does.

But as the weeks rolled on, I discovered a freedom I hadn’t known I’d lost. My Sabbath jolted me out of a daze.

For millennia, religions have regarded this ritual rest as a spiritual necessity. Yet clergy are now arguing that this practice, whether in a secular or religious context, can help redirect the world’s societies away from catastrophic climate change. In their view, it’s as essential to the future as any clean-energy technology or electric vehicle.

A shared day of rest, at a minimum, might slow the pace of consumption, curb emissions or ease the burden of so many people working weary weekends. But slowing down, even for a day, may also be at the heart of a cultural change convincing society that a more sustainable way of life is not only good for the planet, but also good for them.

Here’s how a green Sabbath may be the right idea for one’s soul, and the world.

The modern weekend is a recent invention. Established in the 1930s, it was the armistice between unions fighting for more time off and employers, who finally recognized that enshrining a two-day rest was better than enduring mass absenteeism during “St. Monday,” workers’ unofficial holiday after Sunday’s excesses.

But the human yearning for a weekly respite dates back at least 2,600 years. The concept appears in Christianity and Islam, both of which set aside weekly days for ritual, as well as Buddhism’s uposatha days and Japan’s roku sainichi, among others.

The first reference to mandated rest, however, probably appears in the Torah, where ancient Israelites were commanded to cease their toil from Friday evening until Saturday at sunset, a period known as Shabbat in the Jewish calendar, according to Jonathan Schorsch, a professor of Jewish religious and intellectual history at Germany’s University of Potsdam. This commandment led to interpretations banning no less than 39 types of work, among them sowing, baking, lighting a fire, sewing two stitches — and tearing to sew two stitches.

The ancient Israelites’ prohibitions were not a random assortment of activities, or a call for asceticism. It was the embodiment of a simple commandment holy enough to earn its place among the Top 10: Leave the world as you find it by keeping the Sabbath.

This period, says Abraham Joshua Heschel in his classic 1951 book, “The Sabbath,” is the “great cathedral” of Judaism, a temple built in time. “Technical civilization is the product of labor, of man’s exertion of power for the sake of gain, for the sake of producing goods,” Heschel writes. “… The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization.”

Pope Francis argued much the same about Christianity’s Sunday in his 2015 “Laudato Si’,” an encyclical about caring for the natural world. Not resting is not just bad for the soul, he says, but it’s also bad for the Earth. The constant drive to produce and consume more is squandering natural resources, and it prevents us from treating the living world, and one another, with dignity and respect. The Sabbath forces us to consider how we spend all our days.

“Sunday, like the Jewish Sabbath, is meant to be a day which heals our relationships with God, with ourselves, with others and with the world,” Francis writes. “… We tend to demean contemplative rest as something unproductive and unnecessary, but this is to do away with the very thing which is most important about work: its meaning.”

For Rabbi Laura Bellows of Dayenu, an organization mobilizing the United States’ Jewish community to confront the climate crisis, the Sabbath has been essential to doing this work for the past 20 years. From Friday night until Saturday, she says she deliberately shuts off phones, email and screens, and avoids driving. Then she dedicates herself to connecting with things that give her and her community joy or pleasure in some way: being outdoors, singing, sharing a meal, attending synagogue and simply gathering with those she loves.

“Shabbat is one of the most radical things you could do,” says Bellows, who credits the ritual for avoiding burnout. “One of the reasons we have a climate crisis right now is a product of disconnection, the result of undervaluing life, especially nonhuman life. Shabbat is a time of remembering we’re not machines; we get to be human with all other life. That kind of connection is what powers environmental and climate movements.”

The decline of a day of rest

This kind of rest from work was once the law.

Sunday restrictions were once common across the United States. Sometimes known as “blue laws,” they prohibited things such as selling liquor, hunting and opening shops. Intended in part to encourage Sunday church attendance, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1884 that these also served a vital social mission to “protect all persons from the physical and moral debasement which comes from uninterrupted labor, … especially to the poor and dependent, to the laborers in our factories and workshops and in the heated rooms of our cities.” The decision was reaffirmed by the court in decisions during the 1960s: “Sunday is a day apart from all others,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren in one.

Over time, however, this rationale has fallen out of favor. Although some counties still mandate some businesses stay closed on Sunday, and 28 U.S. states still restrict some alcohol sales that day, many of these “obsolete and nonsensical” laws, as one American University legal scholar put it in 2022, have been repealed or struck down.

That’s not just because of the decline of religiosity in America. “The primary motivation has been economic,” writes political scientist Sara Zeigler. “With increased competition and people on the move around the clock, many businesses cannot afford to lose a full day’s revenues by remaining closed on Sunday.”

The concept has always been a demanding “time experiment,” argues Schorsch, even for the ancient Israelites. The practice was ridiculed from the start: Prominent Romans mocked Jews for “shameful sloth” on their Sabbath. And it demanded precious time away from fields and labor. One day was set aside each week for rest, and a sabbatical year every seven years meant sowing was forbidden and the fields lay fallow. After 49 years, a Jubilee year, as described in the Torah, meant all enslaved people to be freed, debts forgiven and lands returned to ancestral owners, a societal reset leveling out socioeconomic inequalities. (Historians question whether the Jubilee year was fully practiced, but evidence exists of kings issuing similar proclamations around 2,000 years ago.)

A universal period of rest and reset has reemerged again and again as a way to deliver a more just world. “It is a hard ask, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a worthy ask,” says Schorsch, who is advocating to bring it back.

In 2019, Schorsch founded the Green Sabbath Project to incite a “mass movement to observe a weekly day of rest” for the secular and religious alike. This is not a spa day, but a modern version of what the ancients practiced: avoiding work in factories and offices, or even in front of our laptops; opting out of driving or flying, or using engines of any kind for the day; putting off shopping; preparing food in advance; and ceasing incessant doing.

The immediate effect among millions of people, he calculates, could dial back emissions for at least one day a week with no new technology or spending. But the practice of doing nothing, he argues, can make people change the way they live year-round, by appealing to an ancient human ritual, rather than reason or even religion.

Schorsch, of course, is asking a lot, more than most might appear willing to do. It’s far from assured that emissions will fall as he predicts. But spiritual practices can explode into mainstream culture with profound consequences. Look at yoga. In the 1950s, the meditative practice from India was virtually unknown among Americans. By 2017, roughly 33 million adults were practicing it in the United States, or about 14 percent of that population, becoming firmly embedded in American medical, fitness and spiritual practices.

Nor is a day of rest an all-or-nothing proposition. Many are taking incremental steps toward an ancient wisdom, by observing a technology Shabbat, eschewing screens for 24 hours. Mexico City and Bogotá, Colombia, are handing over their streets to bicyclists and pedestrians every Sunday. In Bergen County, N.J., a Zip code boasting more retail sales than any other in the United States thanks to its four massive malls, residents have reaffirmed Sunday laws banning many retail sales, on the grounds of a healthier community.

Schorsch is now hoping to find more communities willing to undertake this radical experiment in time together. “Ultimately, as a society, we’re going to need to have ecological practices,” he says. “It’s not enough to impose laws. Do we solve [climate change] through technocratic solutions and policy, or do we solve it through new cultural, even spiritual approaches? One without the other is not going to be enough.”

There’s no right way to practice a day of rest. Mine is by no means perfect. My to-do list sneaks up on me. I fight the gravitational pull of notifications and alerts. I sometimes miss my deadline of Friday at sunset. But I find the rewards keep growing. Along the way, I’ve learned a few tricks to keep responsibilities and demands at bay, if only for a day.

  • Pick something you love just for the pleasure of it. If something brings you unadulterated joy, no matter how small or silly, this is the time to do it. The key is to find things that let you connect with, not disconnect from, the people and places around you.
  • Find a community to share it with. You can join a congregation, but even a friend or a spouse can be enough. Keeping a Sabbath, at its heart, is a communal act. “It helps to have other people,” Bellows says. “I couldn’t do it without them. Those are accountability tools that help me keep the practice.”
  • Any amount of time can be a Sabbath. Rest is a privilege. Many of us can’t set aside an entire day free from the responsibilities of work or family. A weekend at home with your kids is hard to call rest. Even Shabbat moments can help. But carve out as many as you can, brief as they may be, and see where it leads.

I’ve found keeping a day of rest surprisingly difficult to do. But, for me, it seems to help make everything else possible, including writing a weekly column about what to do about our overheating planet.

Related posts