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Jewish Journal

The Religious Value of Rest and Leisure

by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

June 21, 2012 | 6:07 am

Rav Shmuly

We are immersed in responsibilities and commitments to work, family, community, society, and the world. I do believe that a primary purpose for human existence is to toil, work, and serve. The value of work is expressed throughout Jewish sources: “Great is work because even Adam did not taste food until he had performed work” (Avot d’Rebbe Natan, ch. 11). But we might ask: is there a religious value to rest and leisure?

Leisure was once a high priority in America. Those who grew up in the period after 1945 experienced a world of increasing leisure time, usually with a husband making the income and a stay-at-home-mom taking care of the home and children. This trend peaked in 1969, when the U.S. Labor Department’s American Time Use Survey recorded the most leisure time. Since then, there has been a marked trend toward less leisure time, as this Harris Poll Table indicates:

Year Average Weekly Leisure Time (Hours)
1973 =  26
2007 =  20
2008 =  16

By 2000, abc News noted that “Not only are Americans working longer hours than at any time since statistics have been kept, but now they are also working longer than anyone else in the industrialized world.” Since then, some studies have contended that Americans have more leisure time than ever, or work less than people in industrializing countries. However, these studies often use faulty methodology, such as assuming that today it takes less time to do housework, errands, and other tasks, so therefore there is more leisure time. This ignores the additional tasks that have been added to modern housework as a result of living in larger homes with more devices and furniture, a longer commute, and an obligation to check text messages and emails from work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, even on vacation. Indeed, many Americans do not even take their full amount of vacation days (already much fewer than for European workers) annually for fear that they might lose the “competitive edge.”

Regardless of the causes of this trend, there is a consensus that working long hours of overtime is deleterious to one’s health. Studies based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Psychological Association, and peer-reviewed journals reveal that workers with the most overtime had:

  • An increased risk for injury, illness, and mortality, along with poorer perceived general health
  • Higher levels of anxiety, depression, and stress
  • Greater interference with their responsibility to family and home

Conversely, companies that try to balance work and life reap rewards; their employees demonstrate greater innovation, creativity, and productivity, and make fewer mistakes. In short, physical and psychological health is enhanced by leisure time.

Thus, one might suggest that rest is not only for Shabbat (naturally its highest actualization) but is also an ongoing necessity of great religious value. The great 18th-century Rabbi Baruch Epstein argued this point:

And now let us consider, and we can say that for a young man working on Talmudic analysis for five or six hours straight can certainly affect his health… and I therefore came upon you at daybreak and told you to go have some tea, and my focus was not the tea but rather the fact that you would have a break… And this, too, I believe, that when one rests in order to reach a certain goal, then that rest is as valuable as the goal itself… for the goal of the rest is to add strength and power to the actual pursuing of the goal, whether it be learning or good deeds. And this is the very reason why the Rabbis have said that that which leads to a mitzvah is as important as the mitzvah itself, for the mitzvah cannot come about without it, and so we consider the mitzvah and that which leads up to it as if it is all one long mitzvah (Makor Baruch, part 4).

Rav Epstein taught that rest was not only necessary to prepare to properly fulfill important religious duties (heksher mitzvah), but that it is a mitzvah itself. Some in education today have actually embraced the value of rest and leisure through curricula based on “leisure education.” Professor John Dattilo explains:

“Leisure education provides individuals the opportunity to enhance the quality of their lives in leisure; understand opportunities, potentials, and challenges in leisure; understand the impact of leisure on the quality of their lives; and gain knowledge, skills, and appreciation enabling broad leisure skills.” (Inclusive Leisure Services, p. 211).

From a Jewish perspective, we tend to value mindful rest more than mindless rest. Taking a break does not mean the primary value is to turn off one’s own core unique human faculties but the opposite. Mindful rest, where we engage our mind, heart, and soul in different and meaningful ways from the norm, is not only more effective to recharge, it also ensures that our rest helps promote self-actualization. We must never sanction laziness but rather work to elevate all aspects of human experience including our time of leisure.

Maimonides teaches the importance of engaging pleasures that do not just feel good but strengthen us toward our core goals.

For example: one should try to achieve through his eating, drinking, intercourse, sleeping, waking, movements and rests—the goal of his body’s health, and the goal of having a healthy body should be that one’s soul finds its tools whole and ready to engage in wisdom, and to acquire good characteristics and advance in learning and understanding, until the above mentioned final goal is reached. And in the same vein one should not be considering only how pleasurable those actions are—which might cause him to choose only that food and drink which tastes good, and so too with the other physical aspects—but rather one should choose that which will be most helpful and effective, whether pleasurable or not. Or, alternatively, one should always look for that which will give him pleasure according to medicine; for example, if one’s appetite is weakened he might need to awaken it with the help of good and spicy foods, or if one’s mood is darkened he might need to lighten it through hearing songs or going for walks in the gardens or museums, and sitting amongst beautiful statues, and the like, (Pirke Avot, Ch. 5 Introduction).

The Torah’s promise of Shabbat is a subversive revolution reminding us that as important as work is in our lives, holy rest is in a sense the highest aim. Rest does not merely mean fun, but elevated leisure. Our character can best be assessed by how we choose to use our free time. Does it elevate ourselves and those around us? Does it give us more energy, ideas, and positivity? Do we leave more passionate and committed to our core life goals? Does it broaden our sense of the possible? Does it bring us closer to our loved ones?

The “Mirrer Mashgiach” (Rav Levovitz) taught that Noach’s name comes from menuchah (rest), since he was a person concerned with the comfort of the people of his generation. Embracing menuchah for ourselves and enabling it for others is an act of emulating the Divine since G-d created rest and personally enacted it (Genesis 2:2). What is the nature of this rest? The Shabbat minchah prayer describes the Jewish notion of rest in the following way: “A rest of love and magnanimity, a rest of truth and faith, a rest of peace and serenity and tranquility and security, a perfect rest in which You find favor.” Rest is about achieving the deepest of virtues when we are relaxed and focused enough to internalize their truths.

We are created to work, to change the world for good. But we must not dismiss the religious and ethical value of rest and leisure for through its responsible actualization, we can truly learn to live fully in emulation of our Creator.


Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder & CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz...

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