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Credo: ‘Switch off your smartphone and soak up the Sabbath’

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Considering a world in which technology has both vastly improved and diminished human interaction, the Chief Rabbi outlines in The Times‘ ‘Credo’ column how Shabbat provides a day of respite from a constant compulsion to check our devices. His piece was timed to coincide with Shabbat UK, the community-wide, annual celebration of the Jewish Sabbath that sees the affiliated and unaffiliated come out in force across Britain to attend special services, meals and activities.

‘Switch off your smartphone and soak up the Sabbath’

‘Han Jin Sook, a South Korean mother, recently spoke of the challenges facing her 18-year-old son. Once a model student at the top of his class, addiction is now threatening to ruin his life. He has dropped out of school and become aggressive, stressed and withdrawn. His addiction, however, is not to drugs or alcohol but technology. He spends an average of ten hours every day on the internet. It is where he works, plays and socialises. Now, in a desperate attempt to get his life back on track in a country with the highest rate of internet addiction in the world, his family have sent him to a digital-detox bootcamp.

In our synagogues, we recently read the biblical account of the genesis of the world. At the dawn of the creation of man, God “breathed into him the breath of life”, which, according to Jewish tradition, means that we were endowed with the capacity to speak: the defining difference between humans and all other types of life that preceded us. We are blessed with the consciousness to engage in dialogue with others in a way that other creatures simply cannot. This, the most precious of gifts, gives us the potential to love, to counsel and to empathise, to befriend, sanctify, enthuse and inspire.

‘We were endowed with the capacity to speak: the defining difference between humans and all other types of life’

While the benefits of technology and digital globalisation are spectacular, human interaction is increasingly measured by retweets and Facebook “likes”. A recent University of Derby study exploring our digital obsession concluded that “smartphones are psychologically addictive, encourage narcissistic tendencies and should come with a health warning”.

Next week, on Shabbat UK, more than 100,000 Jewish people across the country and millions more worldwide, regardless of their level of religious affiliation, will celebrate a very special Sabbath. In accordance with Jewish tradition, they will switch off their smartphones, televisions and radios for 25 hours and make a commitment instead to spend the day cultivating their relationships with family, friends and communities. Shabbat UK, now in its second year, is the largest mass participation project ever organised by the Jewish community. This year will set records for engagement with the day at celebratory meals, prayer services and huge cross-community educational and social events. Yet, ask any one of the participants why they are commiting to turn off their computers, give up all commercial activity and to leave the pressures of the working week at the door, and the answer, almost certainly, will not be the events, nor the great food or the rabbi’s sermon. The universal appeal of Shabbat is the serenity of knowing that neither meetings nor emails can interrupt precious time with friends, that no television programme or video game will disturb family meals and that we can dedicate a day to elevate ourselves spiritually while quietly reflecting on our true priorities and raison d’être.

‘The universal appeal of Shabbat is the serenity of knowing that neither meetings nor emails can interrupt precious time with friends’

Sometimes the more digitally connected we are, the more disconnected we become from everything that is important. In this context, Shabbat is more relevant now than ever before. It is a time to deal with real friends, people and challenges. Real relationships, whether a long overdue catch up with old friends or a joyful family meal, are strengthened by the discipline to rise above the weekly grind and experience something altogether more meaningful.

Jack Lew, an observant Jew who was former chief of staff to Barack Obama, speaks often of how understanding the president was about his leaving the White House for Shabbat. Lew says that the president would frequently point to his watch on a Friday afternoon and prompt him that it was time to get going —“to remind me that it was important to him, not just to me, that I be able to make that balance.”

Striking that balance is a worthy aspiration, not just for Jews, but for all of our society.’