Rest is a Human Need

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.”

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