Maybe The Question Is: *Should* Shabbat Be The New Yoga?

A screenshot of photos from Reboot's "Unplug" campaign.

In a recent article at Bloomberg Businessweek, Jennifer Miller examines the budding Jewish wellness-and-lifestyle scene—think artisanal matzah companies, campy mountain retreats, and Pinterest photoboards designed to inspire anyone who “curates, organizes and hosts dynamic Shabbat dinner experiences.”

The facts on the ground are plain. Affluent young Americans are fascinated by agrarian folkways and hyper-distinctive cultural quirks. And, conveniently, the Jewish people have been gifted with an extraordinary aptitude for enshrining traditional weirdness.

Over the years, that aptitude has generated plenty of tsuris. Here in the 21st century, though, it constitutes an odd kind of chic. As the old rabbinical saying goes, what one generation rejects as bizarre and backward, a future generation packages and sells in Brooklyn.

Kosher is hip. Yiddish is back. I know young Jews who want to train as ritual butchers so they can slaughter their own chickens.

And in the middle of it all, there’s the sabbath. Jewish Shabbat ritual is a cross between a 25-hour spiritual retreat and a wine-soaked dinner party. As such, it has a certain contemporary appeal, as Miller documents in her Bloomberg piece. “If there ever was a moment when Shabbat was poised to become the new yoga practice, it’s now,” she writes.

That line will make a lot of Jews double-take. It will make some traditionalists weep. Miller may not be entirely serious. But her point is not entirely crazy, either.

In fact, there’s now a small world of organizations trying to push people—both Jewish and not—toward engaging with the principles of Shabbat, using some of the same language of personal well-being that helped propel yoga to cultural dominance.

OneTable, a nonprofit, aims to “help post-college people in their 20s and 30s find, enjoy and share Shabbat dinners to make the most of their Friday nights and enjoy the best of life together.” The organization has an app that helps connect people with Shabbat dinners. It also offers “nourishment credits”—at $15 per head—to pay for bringing in food. Potential dinner hosts can meet with a designated Shabbat coach skilled at helping “elevate your dinner party to a Shabbat dinner experience.”

The Schusterman Family Foundation has TableMakers, which offers a Pinterest-happy toolkit, and some subsidies, for people trying to plan big, elaborate Shabbat events.

There’s also Arq. Its founder, Danya Shults, describes the startup as “a lifestyle brand and media company inspired by Jewish culture and open to all.” The company evolved, in part, out of Pop-Up Shabbat—a kind of mobile, ritual-infused restaurant—that Shults ran in New York.

Maybe the most significant player here is Reboot, a nonprofit that creates unconventional Jewish programming, including an iPhone app designed to help people disconnect and unwind on Friday afternoons. The organization has a simple, ten-principle Sabbath Manifesto that’s “designed to slow down lives in an increasingly hectic world” by giving people a “provisional guide to observing a weekly day of rest.” (Manifesto principles include “Avoid technology,” “Get outside,” and “Drink wine.”)

Reboot also runs a National Day of Unplugging. This is essentially a Shabbat-inspired tech detox that takes place each March, complete with cute little bags where you can put your cellphone and stop looking at it for awhile. There’s a clear Jewish inspiration (unplugging day goes from Friday evening to Saturday evening, just like Shabbat), but there’s no overtly religious content, and the organization is explicit about wanting to reach people of all backgrounds.

When I spoke with Reboot communications manager Tanya Schevitz earlier this year, she said the annual event typically reached more than 100,000 people. She spoke about “the idea of reclaiming Shabbat” in a way that’s accessible to more people.

Should Jews evangelize Shabbat to each other? Should Jews evangelize sabbath principles to non-Jews? Most importantly: Is Shabbat really the new yoga?

Unlike yoga, Shabbat is difficult to commodify. The biggest new sabbath boosters are all nonprofits with social missions. But, certainly, it’s easy to imagine how a slightly exotic practice of mandated rest could, in the right hands, become an interfaith wellness touchstone: feel good through this ancient spiritual wisdom!

Shabbat certainly resonates with an affluent urban zeitgeist that’s anxious about tech addiction and the erosion of work-life boundaries.

To be sure, it’s not like the sabbath concept has never before been adopted by non-Jews (see: Christianity, History of), and syncretism is probably as ancient as religious practice itself. Jewish practice itself is always evolving.

Still, it’s worth asking what gets lost when Shabbat is framed as a lifestyle choice. The practice exists in the context of a rich, sometimes arcane, set of ritual practices, communal obligations, legal traditions, and philosophical arguments. For Jewish communities of all kinds and levels of observance, part of practice is reckoning with that (often inconvenient) context.

And even when given a modern spin, the sabbath tradition can be harnessed toward more radical ends. The great 20th century rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explicitly presented Shabbat as a critique of industrial civilization, and his writings about Shabbat practice chafe against modern notions of time, ownership, and labor.

In the early 20th century, Jewish activists drew on Shabbat to challenge labor practices and help advocate for a two-day weekend—one of the great labor victories of the century. One high-profile rabbi, Abba Hillel Silver, went further, framing Shabbat as a model for resistance against the excesses of a consumption-driven culture. (The University of Iowa scholar Benjamin Hunnicutt has done some fascinating work on this period).

Of course, these issues haven’t gone away. Questions of time, labor, and standardization are more relevant than ever. The loss of weekends and the technology-driven collapse of work-life boundaries doesn’t just plague young professionals in New York and San Francisco; it’s a way that low-wage employers wring more work out of their employees—and, in the process, sometimes make their lives hellish.

Especially among young Americans, affiliation with organized religion is declining. But affiliation with specific religious or spiritualized practices may still be going strong. The question, perhaps, is how those practices will be framed: as communal or theological obligations? As sometimes-uncomfortable challenges to the status quo? Or as comforting practices that serve personal well-being?

Shabbat can be all of these things at once, of course. But I do suspect that companies like Arq, the Brooklyn Jewish lifestyle startup, offer a kind of warning. On a day that is traditionally set aside from consumption, Arq’s guide to observing Shabbat offers, essentially, shopping suggestions. “Get your phone out of your room and use this very effective and very good-looking alarm clock instead,” Arq suggests, with a link to a $65 battery-powered alarm bell. Take a relaxing ride on this $400 bike. Calm down with these meditation apps. Express gratefulness using this snazzy thank you-note stationery.

Rituals change; traditions adapt. The question, always, is how far those reimaginings can go—and when, as the apt expression goes, to give it a rest.