Off the Shelf: Tech Shabbat by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

If we want, we can stay connected 24/7 to our electronic devices. While that may seem wonderful, researchers are debating not only whether all this screen time is healthy, but the fact that always being connected may actually make us less productive. Does working seven days a week really help us accomplish more, or are we doing the same amount of work due to all the time wasted looking at irrelevant information and texts on our devices? Would a break help us refresh physically and mentally? While a mental and physical break is not considered the reason Jews are told to observe Shabbat, many Shabbat observers claim the break does make them more productive the rest of the week. That’s definitely true of Tiffany Shlain, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker and the creator of the Webby Awards. Although she notes that she is not a particularly observant Jew (and her ideas do not conform to Jewish law), she and her family observe a “Technology Shabbat.” In her book “24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week” (Gallery Books), Shlain offers Jews and non-Jews incentives to unplug for a tech Shabbat – regardless of what day is chosen. She also offers step-by-step instructions on ways to accomplish that goal.
In her introduction, Shlain is clear about the important and beneficial ways tech Shabbat affects her life: “Living 24/6 feels like magic, and here’s why: it seems to defy the laws of physics, as it both slows down time and gives us more of it. I laugh a lot more on the day without screens. I notice everything in greater detail, I sleep better. It strengthens my relationships and makes me feel healthier. It allows me to read, think, be more creative, and reflect in a deeper way. Each week I get a full reset. Afterward, I’m much more productive and efficient, with positive effects that radiate out to the other six days.” She also feels that she better appreciates the Internet after a day off and uses technology more wisely. Tech Shabbat reminds her that technology is a tool to be used – that she controls technology rather than being at its beck and call.
Shlain does not ignore what technology does for us; for example, the ability to share knowledge with those across the globe and quickly learn about important events in order to mobilize help and/or social action. However, there is a negative side to this: we can easily misunderstand a text/media post because we are unable to hear a person’s tone of voice or read their body language. False information also spreads quickly across the web, and can affect people’s lives even years after being proven incorrect. While people can feel more socially connected due to the Internet, at other times, it has the opposite effect, leaving them feeling more lonely and disconnected. For example, the wonderful events posted by friends and family may not have included an invitation to the person viewing them. Most people on social media share only good news or the better parts of their lives, which leave others feeling depressed if they think their own lives are less fulfilling.
While observing a tech Shabbat one day a week won’t solve all these problems, Shlain believes it can help people gain perspective. It also forces people to spend face-to-face time with each other. For example, the author writes of how she, her husband and children enjoy tech Shabbat together. They have a weekly Friday night dinner and invite family and friends to the meal. There are planned family activities for Saturday, including time spent in nature. If her children say they are bored, they are encouraged to find creative ways to have fun without using a screen. Reading, writing, game playing and art projects are just some of the activities she mentions.
For those who think it’s impossible to observe a tech Shabbat, Shlain offers a section called “It’s Easier Than You Think: A Step-by-Step Guide.” She does note holding a tech Shabbat may mean planning ahead; for example, printing out maps or directions if you want to travel. For those who worry about how people can contact them in an emergency or how they will tell time, she encourages investing in a landline phone and buying a watch, a regular old-fashioned one that does not connect to the Internet. Also offered are suggestions about everything from about what to do on the day to identifying barriers to observing a tech Shabbat. Shlain encourages readers to think about what they want from a screen-less day, and to include the use of practices and traditions from your childhood or culture that can help make the day more meaningful. In addition, she offers a list of activities for children by age group, from 5-and-under to 18 plus, for those who need more structure to their day.
Shlain shows how having a tech Shabbat can offer benefits during the other six days of the week. These suggestions are worthwhile even for those who don’t want a full day a week without screen time. The book also features interviews of those who have observed their own tech Shabbats and found the time off screens beneficial.
Although it covers an important topic, “24/6” is easy to read. Shlain writes simply and convincingly about her own experience. She encourages readers to try a tech Shabbat and is honest enough to mention when she or her husband have sometimes broken theirs for work-related reasons, but not often. In fact, she notes that the tech Shabbat works because the time is set, meaning they usually are forced to fit their schedules around the Shabbat, rather than trying to fit the Shabbat around their schedules. Shlain is also clear that she is not looking for a seven day week with no work, but rather a constrained time that forces her and her family to live without their screens.
While those who already observe a tech Shabbat, or some type of variation on it, won’t need much convincing, others may feel it’s impossible not to be attached to the larger world. They would be the ideal readers of “24/6” if only so they can learn how to make certain they are controlling their connection to devices, rather than being controlled by them.