In this excerpt from her chap­ter “‘Tech­nol­o­gy Shab­bats’: Unplug­ging in a Hyper-Con­nect­ed World,” Tiffany Shlain writes about the val­ue of abstain­ing from using tech­nol­o­gy on Shab­bat. The com­plete ver­sion of this chap­ter can be found in Inscribed: Encoun­ters with the Ten Com­mand­ments.

Thou Shalt Unplug”

Jews have con­tributed so many things to the world. Some are wide­ly admired (like the The­o­ry of Rel­a­tiv­i­ty, the polio vac­cine, anthro­pol­o­gy, and psy­cho­analy­sis), and oth­ers are more debat­able (like Bar­bie dolls and gefilte fish). Our best con­tri­bu­tion? For me, there is no ques­tion: it is Shabbat.

I know obser­vant Jews have always kept a day of rest, but many of us (like the 41 per­cent of Amer­i­can Jews who iden­ti­fy as sec­u­lar) tend to roll right by Shab­bat. Yet our con­tem­po­rary 24/7 soci­ety demands more from us: the risk of over­stim­u­la­tion and over­sat­u­ra­tion require us to turn off the fire­hose of media, news, e‑mails, tweets, posts, likes, texts, pings, noti­fi­ca­tions, and buzzes peri­od­i­cal­ly so we can tru­ly be pro­tect­ed by what Rab­bi Abra­ham Hes­chel calls a palace in time.” We need to enter into that palace and shut the door for twen­ty-four hours.

That is exact­ly what my fam­i­ly has done for a decade. We call it Tech­nol­o­gy Shab­bat,” a rein­vent­ed ver­sion of an ancient inno­va­tion. Turn­ing off tech­nol­o­gy is a rit­u­al that can give you back your atten­tion and time and let you focus on what mat­ters most: the essence of Shab­bat.

In a way, Shab­bat itself is a tech­nol­o­gy. Three thou­sand years ago, it was an inven­tion that com­plete­ly trans­formed the world. Before then, time had no paus­es; it was day after day after day. The inven­tion of Shab­bat made it so each week end­ed with a day of rest. The run-on sen­tence of time got a peri­od, and every­one got a chance to catch their breath and focus. Thou­sands of years lat­er, Shab­bat lets us be present with each oth­er, appre­ci­ate the small things, day­dream, find per­spec­tive, and think big-pic­ture thoughts. Return­ing to a slow­er pace one day a week also lets us be more ful­ly present on the oth­er six.

I have great respect for wher­ev­er peo­ple fall on the spec­trum from athe­ist to believ­er, but I strong­ly feel that whether you believe, do not believe, or are agnos­tic, it is advis­able to con­sid­er ideas that have last­ed mil­len­nia. The Ten Com­mand­ments are a per­fect exam­ple, and it is worth not­ing that remem­ber the sab­bath day and keep it holy” (Exo­dus 20:8) is num­ber four. Four! That’s pret­ty high up on a list of ten! For me, per­son­al­ly, keep­ing this day with­out tech­nol­o­gy has been the best prac­tice I have ever incor­po­rat­ed into my life. I get why it is in the top five. The Inter­net came along a few thou­sand years after the com­mand­ments, and Thou shalt unplug” is not exact­ly the word­ing of the law. But it is def­i­nite­ly the spir­it! And observ­ing the fourth com­mand­ment in the updat­ed way of Tech Shab­bat can renew our spir­its every week.

Here is what our house is like every Fri­day evening as we pre­pare to close the door on that non­stop world: The smells of rose­mary, gar­lic, onions, chick­en, and fresh­ly baked chal­lah fill the house. All the piles of papers and books and lap­tops that nor­mal­ly lay claim to the kitchen table are put away, and the table is set with fresh­ly cut flow­ers, can­dles, and a table­cloth. When the door­bell rings, every­thing gets pow­ered down. Our daugh­ter Blooma (age eleven) shuts down the iPad, and Odessa (age sev­en­teen) turns off her lap­top. I usu­al­ly do one last tweet at sun­set, telling peo­ple I am shut­ting down and that I will see them on the oth­er side.” Then I turn my phone off. It takes a lit­tle bit to adjust. Some­times, at the begin­ning of Fri­day night, I have a phan­tom-limb-like sen­sa­tion when I try to reach for a phone that is not there, to look some­thing up or make a call. I keep a piece of paper out on the kitchen counter with a big black Sharpie, and for the first cou­ple of hours, I jot down what­ev­er com­bi­na­tion of to-dos or reminders that tum­ble from my head. Then I feel set free, with a full day of space to think and be — with­out respond­ing to all the news, dings, pings, buzzes, and noti­fi­ca­tions. A pro­tect­ed twen­ty-four hours.

Guests arrive and we sit down before a sump­tu­ous meal. We light the can­dles, sing the bless­ings (off-key), break the home­made chal­lah, and dis­cuss the world and the week. What was one thing you learned this week or one thing that you want to let go of? One thing you are grate­ful for or one thing you are look­ing for­ward to next week?” We answer in a clock­wise con­ver­sa­tion around the table, every­one get­ting enough space and atten­tion, as we treat time like a spe­cial guest in our home.

The sleep of Fri­day night is the deep­est sleep I have all week. We spend the next day togeth­er: jour­nal­ing, hang­ing, being in nature, cook­ing, doing art projects, enjoy­ing each other’s com­pa­ny, or just being. Lat­er, maybe a bike ride, a nap, a board game, a great book. It’s the best day of the week.

Estab­lish­ing our week­ly Tech Shab­bat was the best deci­sion we ever made as a fam­i­ly and as indi­vid­u­als. This prac­tice has enabled us to com­part­men­tal­ize stress and ulti­mate­ly reduce it, feel more cre­ative, present, and hap­py, and be more pro­duc­tive for the rest of the week. Tech Shab­bat makes the best day of the week feel longer and the rest of the week feel bet­ter. It is like hav­ing a meta­phys­i­cal remote con­trol that lets you slow down the good parts and fast-for­ward through the commercials.

This prac­tice has enabled us to com­part­men­tal­ize stress and ulti­mate­ly reduce it, feel more cre­ative, present, and hap­py, and be more pro­duc­tive for the rest of the week.

A lot of peo­ple are look­ing for some­thing like this. They’re flock­ing to yoga stu­dios, med­i­ta­tion retreats, and tech detox camps, seek­ing envi­ron­ments that help them turn off their phones. Peo­ple are crav­ing this space to be present. There has also been a renais­sance of old con­cepts made new for the mod­ern age, every­thing from med­i­ta­tion to grow­ing your own food. Peo­ple are hun­gry for updat­ed ver­sions of the old ways — ways like our Shab­bat. Even Vogue mag­a­zine agrees: Shab­bat … is for every­one. It is an ancient anti­dote to our mod­ern ailments.”[1]

The rev­o­lu­tion­ary act of unplug­ging one day every week is sim­ple and trans­for­ma­tive. As Anne Lam­ott says, Almost every­thing will work again if you unplug it for a few min­utes, even you.”[2]

It took me a while to find my way here, however.

Over a decade ago, I need­ed a dras­tic change. With­in days of each oth­er, my father, Leonard Shlain, whom I was incred­i­bly close to, died of brain can­cer, and my husband’s and my daugh­ter, Blooma, was born. I was asked to artic­u­late the col­lid­ing of these pro­found events in a six-word mem­oir: Father’s funer­al. Daughter’s birth. Flow­ers everywhere.”

These life-alter­ing events made me think about the brevi­ty of our time here on this earth and ques­tion how I was spend­ing it. I didn’t like where we seemed to be head­ed, with every­one star­ing at screens instead of con­nect­ing with the peo­ple we love, sit­ting right in front of us. I need­ed a rev­o­lu­tion to trans­form the sit­u­a­tion, and I found it. For twen­ty-four hours, my fam­i­ly and I went screen-free for the first Nation­al Day of Unplug­ging. That day was ini­ti­at­ed by a Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tion I am a part of called Reboot, which brings togeth­er film­mak­ers, artists, come­di­ans, and cul­ture mak­ers in order to rethink old rit­u­als in new ways. Par­tic­i­pat­ing in the first Nation­al Day of Unplug­ging made us feel so renewed and present that we decid­ed to make it a week­ly prac­tice. In many ways, this prac­tice is our way of hon­or­ing my father. It gives us the space to think about the mean­ing of life and time and to be present with the peo­ple we love. To me, my father embod­ied all of those things.

In the begin­ning, we were the only fam­i­ly of that orig­i­nal group from Reboot who kept it going each week, but by now we have com­pa­ny. The need for unplug­ging and inter­est in Tech Shab­bat has only snow­balled with each addic­tive app that rolls down from the tech­no hills of Sil­i­con Val­ley right into our hands.

With near­ly a decade of per­spec­tive, it is easy to see how the prac­tice has changed me and our fam­i­ly. Our daugh­ters have grown up with Tech Shab­bat. They are not strug­gling with the issues that are plagu­ing so many of their peers. They do not scroll through con­ver- sations. They read for plea­sure. They know how to make small talk and eye con­tact. And if you are pic­tur­ing two girls with plas­tic cones around their necks, like dogs, try­ing to keep them from scratch­ing the tech­no itch, be assured they are nor­mal kids with friends and social lives. As for me, I feel more bal­anced, calmer. Turn­ing my phone off does not feel like ampu­tat­ing a limb anymore.

Our day with­out tech­nol­o­gy is a day I now run toward each week. I rush to s l o w d o w n. I look for­ward to the qual­i­ty of pres­ence: the way time stretch­es out, the way we con­nect, the way we can put our minds in a dif­fer­ent mode. We can read with­out dis­trac­tions. We invite guests and ask that they do not pull out their phones. It is fun­ny how often they want to show us some­thing on the phone. But each time, they pause, say no phones,” we nod yes, and then they smile and fig­ure out a way to share ver­bal­ly. It is nice, sim­ple, and old-school.

That is how it goes, every week, for the last ten years. As Dov Sei­d­man writes, When you press the pause but­ton on a machine, it stops. But when you press the pause but­ton on human beings, they start.”


[1] Ariel Okin, How to Host a Shab­bat Din­ner and Why You Should — Even if You Aren’t Cel­e­brat­ing,” Vogue, March 9, 2017, https://​www​.vogue​.com/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​h​o​w​-​t​o​-​h​o​s​t​-​f​r​i​d​a​y​-​s​h​a​b​b​a​t​-​d​inner.

[2] Anne Lam­ott, 12 Truths I Learned from Life and Writ­ing,” TED2017, April 2017, https://​www​.ted​.com/​t​a​l​k​s​/​a​n​n​e​_​l​a​m​o​t​t​_​12​_​t​r​u​t​h​s​_​i​_​l​e​a​r​n​e​d​_​f​r​o​m​_​l​i​f​e​_​a​n​d​_​w​r​iting.

Pub­lished in 2020 by CCAR Press, Inscribed: Encoun­ters with the Ten Com­mand­ments gives voice to diverse and con­tem­po­rary per­spec­tives on each of the Ten Com­mand­ments. Writ­ten by an impres­sive col­lec­tion of rab­bis and schol­ars, the vol­ume allots mul­ti­ple chap­ters for each of the com­mand­ments to engage with the ways in which these time­less utter­ances have inspired con­tem­po­rary laws, ethics, and moral guidelines.

From “‘Tech­nol­o­gy Shab­bats’: Unplug­ging in a Hyper-Con­nect­ed World” by Tiffany Shlain, in Inscribed: Encoun­ters with the Ten Com­mand­ments, edit­ed by Rab­bi Oren J. Hay­on. Copy­right © 2020, Cen­tral Con­fer­ence of Amer­i­can Rab­bis. Used by per­mis­sion of the CCAR. All rights reserved. Not to be dis­trib­uted, sold or copied with­out express writ­ten permission.

Tiffany Shlain is an Emmy-nom­i­nat­ed film­mak­er, founder of the Web­by Awards, and author of the nation­al best­selling book 24/6: Giv­ing up Screens One Day a Week to Get More Time, Cre­ativ­i­ty, and Con­nec­tionwin­ner of the Mar­shall McLuhan Out­stand­ing Book Award. She lec­tures and per­forms world­wide on the rela­tion­ship between tech­nol­o­gy and human­i­ty. The Muse­um of Mod­ern Art in New York pre­miered her one woman Spo­ken Cin­e­ma” per­for­mance Dear Human at the start of 2020Her films include the The Tribe: The Unortho­dox, unau­tho­rized his­to­ry of the Bar­bie doll & the Jew­ish people…in 18 min­utes” and The Mak­ing of a Men­sch.” Shlain has received over 80 awards and dis­tinc­tions for her films and work, includ­ing selec­tion for the Albert Ein­stein Foundation’s ini­tia­tive Genius:100 Visions for the Future, and inclu­sion on NPRs list of Best Com­mence­ment Speech­es. For infor­ma­tion on her work, vis­it tiffanysh​lain​.com and fol­low Tiffany on Twit­ter, Face­book, and Insta­gram.