Tuesday, February 18, 2014

What is humanity’s greatest invention?



There are many reasons to like being a professor; I have a great job. But one of my biggest frustrations is that my work life has no boundaries. There is always more to do, and because so much of my work is done at home, it is easy to let it eclipse everything else. One study shows that professors work an average of 45-55 hours per week. (There is a newer study that breaks down these numbers according to university level, but I can’t find it.) In short, many professors will tell you that there is a constant level of guilt when they take time off because they “should be working.” This is especially true in the summer. 

To manage the guilt and pressure, my wife and I decided to commit to a very old practice. About a year ago, we started observing Shabbat: the Jewish day of rest. For Christians, the Sabbath falls on a Sunday, but for Jews it’s Saturday. And, since Jewish days run sundown to sundown, our rest period ends up being Friday night to Saturday night. We light candles to commemorate the beginning, as is our religious tradition, and we have a big dinner for some friends. We devote all of Saturday to family activities, and some odds and ends around the house. We are not super-observant. We handle money on Shabbat, do our laundry, and do many other things Orthodox Jews would frown upon. There have also been Saturdays where, for one reason or another, we had to work. But these qualifications are not the point. The point is, for those 24 hours, we honor ourselves by resting as best we can. That moment when I’m done cooking dinner on Friday night and I really get to exhale, that may be the best moment of my week. 

It was in this context, during a moment of joy at being able to relax, that I told my wife that I thought that Shabbat was the best human invention so far. For thousands of years, religions have mandated that most people, even slaves, get some time off, and because of America’s freedom to worship, if my employer does call me in on a Saturday, I have a legal right to refuse without consequence. Obviously, the Sabbath has not been evenly applied throughout history, and lots of people have been denied access, but the concept is still spectacular. If it fails, it is only because it is not utilized enough. 
We don’t think of Shabbat as a human invention because we think of inventions as things not time, but of course someone had to come up with the idea, describe it, and implement it. This makes it an invention and it is something that, I think, many of us take for granted. We all love the weekend, but we don’t think of these days as a time to relax. We think of them as a time to play, party, or to get things done. But it is specifically the rest that I value most and the permission it gives my family to slow down, to relate with one another, and to say “no” to all of the work pressures that try to take Shabbat away from us.
Obviously, there are many philosophical issues here, but I’ll pass over them for the time being. I’m also going to ignore the objection that God, not human beings, invented the day of rest. That’s a conversation for another time. What I would like to ask you is: what do you think the greatest human invention is? Please tell me below and let us all know, whatever you choose, whether you believe people know how important the invention is, or whether they take it for granted? I think our answers will tell us all a great deal about what we value.

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