Rest Is A Human Need

We don’t need religion to remind us how to rest.

At ten-years-old, while still an Orthodox Jew, I wondered why an all-powerful God had to take a day off each week to rest. I also worried about what bad things might happen to us if such a controlling God should fall asleep at the wheel of the universe. As an atheist, I now appreciate the sentiment of a perceptive biblical writer more than I did when I believed rest was a commandment from God.

Occasionally the Bible gets it right, and this is one of those occasions. Regardless of theological views, I think we all appreciate the message that humans, including presidents, should periodically take time off from their usual routines to refresh and rejuvenate. I came to this position relatively late in life. I was a workaholic who would normally get by on at most five hours of sleep per night. I felt there would be plenty of time to “sleep” when I was dead, just as I “slept” for billions of years before I was born. I knew I had one life to live, and I wanted to make the most of it.

My views began to change not after consulting holy books but by training to run marathons. I learned from experience that I could do better by alternating hard and easy days and by taking a day off each week. More is not always better. There is now considerable evidence that the ideal amount of sleep for most of us is between 6.5 and 7.5 hours per night. I now try to get as much as 6.5, along with daily relaxation breaks.

But even when religions get it right, they get it wrong. When I was taught to rest on the Sabbath (meaning Saturday not Sunday, because I was Jewish, not Christian), I also learned what “rest” meant. My religious community said we couldn’t turn on the light (defined as “work”) to start the synagogue service, but we could ask a Shabbas Goy (Gentile) to do it for us. For the same reason, we couldn’t push an elevator button, but we could ride on an elevator that had been programmed to stop at every floor. On the other hand, we couldn’t rest in a moving car or airplane because that, too, is “work.”

As a youngster, I was fascinated by Talmudic arguments about what constitutes work. I learned that it was work to carry a handkerchief in my pocket, but I could pin one on my pocket and wear it as apparel. Perhaps these kinds of arguments help explain why so many Jews grow up to be lawyers (or atheists).

While religions are free to make rules for their adherents, my concern is when religions make rules for those outside the faith. Many communities still have “blue laws,” designed to enforce religious standards for all. This includes forcing merchants to close on Sunday and prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sunday.  How God went from resting on Saturday to becoming a teetotaler on Sunday requires considerably more faith than I have.

In any case, we don’t need religion to give us permission or a reason to enjoy life to its fullest, and that includes taking a nap in a hammock on a warm summer day, or a week at the beach in Martha’s Vineyard. Mother Nature lets us know when we need a break, and it’s best not to mess with Mom.


Herb Silverman Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.

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