Next week, thousands of Jews around the country will celebrate Shabbat UK, the British version of the annual global initiative designed to encourage greater awareness and observance of Shabbat. Shabbat UK has seen remarkable success over the past few years, tapping into a deeply entrenched love for one of the most traditional of all Jewish experiences.
But a recurring challenge faced by this particular initiative is the question of whether encouraging people to keep Shabbat once a year actually has any long-term benefit. Is the whole thing simply a religious gimmick, just another part of the contemporary “experience”culture? Does the effect last beyond the day itself?
Fascinatingly, there are substantial scientific grounds to argue that it does. In his bestselling book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg describes the science behind habit formation, and explores the possibility of changing deeply ingrained habits.
Central to this, he says, is the importance of “keystone habits”, which he defines as those that can have a transformative effect because of their correlation with other good habits.
To illustrate this, Duhigg relates the true story of a young woman named Lisa, who was a heavy smoker and drinker and had become mired in debt. One night in a hotel in Egypt, she reached across her bed to light a cigarette. Half-asleep, she mistakenly lit a plastic pen instead and nearly set fire to the hotel room. The incident shocked Lisa into taking steps to change her behaviour. She immediately resolved to return the next year and trek across the Egyptian desert. But when she returned home, she realised that in order to achieve her aim she would have to stop smoking.
Focused on that goal, she successfully managed to return the next year and complete her trek. But most interesting of all was the fact that her dramatic decision to stop smoking affected her in numerous other positive ways, helping her to exercise more regularly as well as remain committed to holding down a job.
The reason, according to Duhigg, is that changing a “keystone habit” such as smoking, has a far greater effect than the activity in question. It can literally be life-transforming.
Seen in this light, a strong case can be made for the argument that Shabbat observance is a positive keystone habit for life itself. It propels a greater awareness of and sensitivity towards many other values that underpin not only a positive Jewish life, but positive living in general.
And here’s the really interesting bit. Traditional Shabbat observance involves many of the same activities as those identified by Duhigg as keystone habits in the context of nurturing emotional well-being and developing a positive lifestyle.
Take the Friday-night family dinner, for example. “Families who habitually eat dinner together,” writes Duhigg, “seem to raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control, and more confidence.” Shabbat also involves a strict routine, starting at a certain time and ending at another, with fixed meal- and prayer-times along the way, something Duhigg identifies as having an “enormous impact on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness”. And that pause for prayer can also serve as an ideal form of meditation, another keystone habit, due to its ability to help reduce stress.
Most notably of all, Shabbat observance involves the exercise of significant amounts of will-power. Resisting the temptation to drive instead of walk, to text instead of talk, and to watch a film instead of playing a board game isn’t easy. But numerous studies cited by Duhigg demonstrate that exercising will-power, of the sort that suffuses Shabbat observance, is “the single most important keystone habit for individual success”. Duhigg suggests a will-power test of choosing radishes over biscuits. Shabbat involves multiple opportunities for exercising self-control in a far more traditional Jewish manner.
So, as a true keystone habit, any experience of keeping Shabbat can have a transformative effect. Gratitude for the potential it holds for creating an oasis of calm in a busy week. The sense of fulfilment that exercising genuine self-control brings. And, above all, an appreciation of the value of ancient Jewish practices, which seem ever more contemporary and relevant with each passing year. So, this year, why not take the plunge on Shabbat UK and try “switching off” fully for the whole 25 hours? I’d be fascinated to hear about the impact it has on you.
Rabbi Birnbaum is Rabbi of the Hadley Wood Jewish Community.