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By Tom Ewell


Long gone is the common cultural concept of honoring the sabbath as a day of rest and spiritual reflection and renewal. In my childhood in the 1940-50s my Sundays were usually focused on going to church and visiting family and friends. For the majority of us now our secular and active contemporary lives too often fill the traditional “seventh day” with the usual routines of shopping, work, sporting events, and household chores. 

I want to suggest this is a serious personal and cultural mistake, and I want to make a case for a more intentional observance of sabbath as a specified, honored and practiced day of rest, reflection, and a time of reverent gratitude for the gift of life. For those of us who already observe a sabbath discipline I believe we can be even more intentional, and my personal goal is to consciously make a day of sabbath essential for my mind, body and soul, and I invite you to consider doing so as well.  

The origin of the word sabbath comes from the biblical reference to the creation story in Genesis when God created the earth in six days and on the seventh day he rested. And this creation story then became an admonition for humankind to rest as well, and the concept of the sabbath was then codified in the fourth commandment: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord your God.” (Exodus 20:8-11) Sabbath was to be a day of tranquility, serenity, peace and repose. It is a time to remember to sanctify life, to keep it holy. In short, sabbath observance is for the sake of profoundly and regularly honoring life itself.

In the Jewish tradition the sabbath is observed with specific activities that would comprise the sanctity of the day, but to my knowledge most Christian traditions have only encouraged church attendance and the community educational opportunity it involves, and sadly even church attendance is no longer the norm for many people and communities. 

So what have we lost, both individually and as a culture, when we neglect or ignore a discipline of a communal and/or individual regular sabbath observance? Yes, many of us do have a discipline of meditation and pause in our daily lives and have a special weekly observance as well. The Quaker and Celtic traditions, and indigenous cultures, for example, try to emphasize the importance of sanctifying and reverencing life on a "perpetual motion" of an observance of gratitude and respect for life not limited to a particular day. But we do have to admit that the more pervasive “perpetual motion” of our secular lives leave little time for the quiet rest and deep respect for life that the sabbath tradition offers.

I personally am trying to be more intentional and disciplined about my pace and busyness on Sundays especially, but I find it is difficult - and I’m retired without a job or kids! My assumption is that for those with jobs and families and a culture that emphasizes sports and a continual range of recreational and other Sunday activities it is unlikely there will be time for quiet. But I will still maintain that it is important, if not crucial, that our lives maintain a regular observance of the sanctity and reverence for life, however we frame it, and the concept and tradition of sabbath is a good place to start. It is important for our own mind, body, and souls, but I believe if we individually refrain from the usual activities and distractions available to us, it is also important that our individual lives also establish a model for others in our families and community. All this, of course, against the major cultural norms now that have overgrown the practice of a sabbath like an invasive species over what is left of a sabbatical practice in the past. It will be a challenge for each of us to even pare back our sabbath activities, but we really need to try.

Rabbi Joshua Abraham Herschel, referring to the importance of a sabbatical observance, says that labor is a craft, but rest is an art. Let the practice of sabbath be an art form in your life in which you employ the same discipline and practice that it takes to develop the capacity for creating any form of art. I think it is fair to say that there is a beauty in learning to rest well, just as there is beauty in art. I am imagining people being inspired while reading this blog on a Sunday morning perhaps making a commitment to begin this very morning to observe an even more intentional practice of a holy sabbath as a day of rest, reverence, and renewal.


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Tom is a Quaker living in Washington state with a lifelong commitment to peace and justice issues, especially criminal justice reform and anti-war work. He can be reached at

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