The Sensibility of Sabbaths for Sustainable Living

The idea of a sabbath, a period of rest from work or whatever, is something no longer exclusive to Jews and Christians. However, in its original biblical context, the ancient Hebrews also extended this idea of a period of rest to their farming practices by letting their fields “go wild” every seventh year. The precedent for this, a direct command from their God to Moses on Mount Sinai, is recorded in Leviticus 25:2-7:

Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the LORD. Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof; But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the LORD: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard. That which groweth of its own accord of thy harvest thou shalt not reap, neither gather the grapes of thy vine undressed: for it is a year of rest unto the land. And the sabbath of the land shall be meat for you; for thee, and for thy servant, and for thy maid, and for thy hired servant, and for thy stranger that sojourneth with thee, And for thy cattle, and for the beast that are in thy land, shall all the increase thereof be meat.1

Like the people and even their God, then, the farmlands were given time to rest from their productive toil, to rebuild their strength in order to be fruitful again after the period of rest so that they might yield bountiful harvests for years to come. As the ancient Hebrews restrained from working their fields, they honored their God and the land itself.

I mention this practice of a “sabbath of the land,” almost entirely forgotten in modern farming (and especially in agribusiness), because it provides a potentially useful paradigm for more than just agriculture. It also provides a good model for us today, for how we might live sensibly and sustainably in a time when natural resources are threatened and the Earth is endangered, at least to some degree, by human actions.

One recent example of honoring/acknowledging the (imperiled) state of nature is in California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s call to Californians not to use, heck not even to buy, fireworks this Fourth of July. Gov. Schwarzenegger made this plea for sensibility with wildfires numbering in the hundreds throughout the state and with state resources to fight those fires as threatened as the homes, lives, and habitats themselves.

Gov. Schwarzenegger has asked citizens to think about the bigger picture than simply following a tradition and entertaining themselves with pretty sparklers and explosions. He has risked the fiery wrath of merchants by asking citizens to hold off being consumers and users of fireworks in a time of danger. He has “commanded,” we might say, citizens to take a sabbath from fireworks and do their part to let the land return to a healthier condition.

This conscious use of self-restraint in order to conserve natural resources can be applied in so many ways. We might take a periodical sabbath from driving our cars, from eating meat, even from using (non-essential) electricity. We might honor the Earth by looking beyond immediate self-interest to the bigger picture, to the welfare of the entire global community, by giving it a time to rebuild its strength a little bit at a time.

The Earth and all the things in nature take sabbaths–for example the fallowness of winter, the stasis of dry seasons, or the hibernation of some animals. Sleep is a natural sabbath for humans and all living creatures. There are many sabbaths in nature, big sabbaths and little sabbaths, that reveal the sensibility of resting by self-restraint.

But we can also practice conscious Sabbaths of self-restraint in order to conserve natural resources. We can, indeed perhaps at this time we should, try to live sensibly by taking sabbaths, big and little, when and how we can so that the Earth can give us bountiful harvests for many generations to come. And oh, what a Jubilee we might look forward to…feasting, dancing, and celebrating under a brilliant harvest moon!

Image credit: Elke Freese at Wikimedia Commons.
1. The Holy Bible. King James Version. The Electronic Text Center. University of Virginia. 26 June 2008 <http://etext.virginia.edu/kjv.browse.html>.

What other things might we take a “sabbath” from in order to conserve resources? Is self-restraint really necessary or useful nowadays, and if so in what areas might it be most useful (e.g., agriculture, consumerism, energy production, land management)? Is it problematic to think of self-restraint and sensible living as a “sabbath” given that word’s connection to Judeo-Christian tradition?

  1. Aurelia

    I think that taking a “sabbath” is important not only to conserve resources, but to give us a break from constant social and economic strains! This self-restraint can be useful to the environment, naturally, but also to society and communities. People need to relax, and just take a step back from everything and reconnect with themsevles and eachother. It would be beneficial to the community, leading to increased awareness of social issues. I feel like it’s not that problematic to refer to it as a sabbath, only because it is used in multiple religions and connotations with it are more relaxing. The word “holiday” is a huge source of stress for many people, who see holidays like Thanksgiving as “I have to clean the house, make the dinner, entertain the guests, buy the presents…etc”. People should take a sabbath from work, traveling, school, to just relax and reconnect. It’s important.

  2. Justin Van Kleeck

    Aurelia, thank you for your very insightful comment! You are right on in everything you say, I think. Taking a “sabbath” does somehow feel a bit healthier and kinder (and less stressful) than “holiday.” Perhaps it may also carry less of a derogatory connotation in our workaholic society.

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