How a Day of Rest Can Save Your Life

A Conversation with Author Marilyn Paul
Aron Hirt-Manheimer

Marilyn Paul has a Ph.D. in organizational behavior and taught at the Yale School of Medicine, the Massachusetts General Institute of Health Professionals, and the Hebrew University Hadassah Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine. Author of An Oasis in Time: How a Day of Rest Can Save Your Life, she also is a professional coach, dedicated to helping people improve their lives at work, at home, and in the world. I sat down with her to discuss the healing powers of Shabbat. You grew up in a family estranged from Judaism, but you eventually found a path into Jewish life through Shabbat. How did that come about?

Dr. Marilyn Paul: When I was a Yale grad student, a friend invited me to Shabbat dinner. I said no because I was much too busy with my studies and social activism. I had boundless energy and was in the grip of an enormous desire to achieve. I would get up at 6 a.m., go all day, and then study at night in the library until 1 or 2 in the morning.

He asked again and again until finally I went. When I walked in and watched the gathered people lighting the candles together, I realized something wonderful was happening.

At that time, I didn’t know how to slow down, until one morning, I was too exhausted to get out of bed. I was later diagnosed with an immune deficiency disease. I understood my illness to be a warning that I had not paid attention to my body’s natural signals, and that I had stretched my immune system to its limit. It literally took a virus to slow me down.

Not in my wildest dreams, could I have imagined that years later I would take an entire day off every week to calm my soul, and write a book about it.

How would you respond to someone who says, “My to-do list is just too long to allow for a day of rest?”

I would say that we have been brainwashed into thinking that working more gets more work done. That’s a fallacy. All the leading productivity experts are screaming into a megaphone: Rest! Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology Sabine Sonnentag, for instance, has shown that people who have regular rest gain control, mastery, and creativity.

Here’s a personal example: Last year, we moved to Berkeley and bought an unfinished house. I became the general contractor in addition to homeschooling my son, writing a book, maintaining my professional coaching practice, helping a friend prepare for his bar mitzvah, and organizing our household meals and social calendar. The only way I could have juggled all these tasks without throwing my life into shambles was by restoring my body, mind, and soul on Shabbat.

What are some of the obstacles preventing us from making Shabbat part of our lives?

For starters, we are trapped in a workaholic culture in which we move too fast, and we place too high a premium on accomplishments and productivity. We don’t know how tired and stressed out we really are, we don’t know what makes us truly happy, and we are addicted to our digital devices.

What are some strategies to overcome these obstacles?

The book offers five:

  1. Protect your time off and guard it fiercely, because everything in our world will conspire to take Shabbat away from you.
  2. Name your starting and ending times, and try to stick to those boundaries.
  3. Put down your digital devices.
  4. Slow your movements, which helps slow your mind, and savor the now.
  5. Let go of achieving.

When you exit your oasis time, how does it affect the rest of the week?

The soul life of Shabbat extends to every day of week. In his book, The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter illustrates this point by describing Shabbat as the center of a wheel with the spokes representing the 6 other days of the week.

How does Shabbat, what you also call “oasis time,” restore your soul?

It helps me reorient to what matters most in my life. It resets my inner compass so that I can remember and act on what is important and meaningful to me. It gives me time to rest and regain my bearings. It breaks the fatigue and burnout cycle that would otherwise rob me of my zest and health. And it allows for a time of genial, unhurried connections with my family, friends, and community.

Shabbat has saved my life.