The Case for a Tech Shabbat

The Case for a Tech Shabbat

Technology has brought untold possibilities and opportunities to our lives, but stepping back from it has become an essential part of our relationship with it, too. Tiffany Shlain, who lectures worldwide on the human impact of technology, recently published 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week, which proposes the concept of a Tech Shabbat – turning off all screens for 24 hours a week. This practice, which she’s done for nearly a decade with her husband and kids (16 and 10), has completely changed their lives, giving them more time, productivity, connection, and presence. She and her family call it “Technology Shabbat.”

We recently had the opportunity to speak with her about the way her work is informed by Judaism.

Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: Hi, so I’m Rabbi Geoff Mitelman. I’m the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, which bridges the worlds of religion and science. And I’m thrilled to be sitting here with Tiffany Shlain, who is somebody that I discovered over the last couple of months, because she is the author of a fantastic new book called 24/6, talking so much about the value of a Tech Shabbat. She’s been very involved in the tech world – she founded the Webby Awards – but has really been doing so much publicity and work and writing about the importance of unplugging one day a week, and it’s such an incredibly important and inspiring message. So Tiffany, I’m really excited to be able to talk to you here.

Tiffany Shlain: Oh, it’s great to talk to you. And really, you know, so much of what I’m talking about, within the book and out in public, is the wisdom of Shabbat, really recast for everyone. Because I think that re-looking at how profound the idea of a true day of rest is, and in our modern society, when the screens are a conduit to such a mixture of things, work and stress, and of course some good things. But we never get time off. And I think that the idea of Shabbat – and really, most of my life, while I did Shabbat dinners occasionally, the only people I knew that did a full day off for Shabbat were Orthodox Jews. And I really am excited about getting so many people now that have read the book, since it’s been out for a couple months, writing to me like “I’m doing Tech Shabbat, it’s amazing, it’s changing my life!” and I’m like “Yes!”

And you know, these are Jews who never did a full day of Shabbat, and these are people who aren’t Jewish that are appreciating the Jewish wisdom of Shabbat. So it’s been incredibly exciting. And the more I got deep and wide on just Shabbat itself, it was very exciting. And of course, I go into a lot of the neuroscience and psychology and physical health benefits from a day of rest. And the truth is [that] Shabbat, which is so positive and beautiful, is this practice that you integrate into your life every week. So it is much more about a really beautiful, healthy, meaningful, reflective practice, instead of kind of detoxing from a poison occasionally.

Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: And what’s interesting is when we’re talking about Tech Shabbat or technology, we so often think about our phones or maybe our computers, but technology is really, really deep in human history. And I know that one of the inspirations for your book is one of my heroes also, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – his book on the Sabbath was written, I think, in 1951, and the first sentence is, you know, “technological civilization is taking over.” And [it] talks about the same things. And in fact Shabbat, as understood in the Bible and the Talmud, was a way to be able to stop creating. You know there’s value in the creation, because technology is designed to be able to shape nature, and to be able to say “One day a week, I’m going to not battle nature, I’m going to be part of this natural piece of it.” In many ways, I think it’s a difference of degree and not kind that’s become so much more accelerated over the last – certainly over the last 10 years, but definitely over the last 20 and 30. And so Tech Shabbat has become even more important.

Tiffany Shlain: Yes, we will always need to create a palace in time to disconnect from the network, whatever that network is. And I think that’s what Heschel’s talking about, and that’s what you were talking about with creation, is you need to detach from the normal world, put your mind into a different mode, and not creating a true day of rest. And you know, so many people said “I don’t know how I could unplug, I have my job, my this, my that, all these people need to reach me.”

I’m like, “Really? Do you think that one day off, to really rest and to reflect and to think and be with the people right in front of you, instead of all the people, like, buzzing on your phone, that that won’t replenish you?” Because the truth is, to have a true day of rest, you will be that much more creative, that much more productive, that much more able to contribute to society, if you really step away from it. And right now, people are not stepping away at all. I mean, I’ve just been on book tour, and I asked “Who feels like they’re on their screens too much?”, everyone raises their hand. “When was the last time people unplugged from their screen?” – no one raises their hand.

And I also ask, and feel just intrinsically, which is why I felt so urgent to write this book, this deep sense of unease with how much it’s taken over our lives. And you know, obviously, I love technology. Six days a week, I’m on it, I’m moving, I’m doing these global days around character and positive psychology, all that stuff. And then one day I am like “Oh my gosh, I’m so glad I can detach, so I have the necessary perspective of what I’m attaching to the other 6 days.” Because without that perspective, you are just – literally, there’s no perspective.

And I think [what] we’ve really lost, in this era of 24/7 connectivity, is inner-world work. I think people feel like they’re depriving themselves of something. And really it’s just a flip of your way of thinking about it, it’s about what you get back. It’s a delight and a joy. And I think that is just the framing, that people are so fearful to turn off their phone, but I think if they really reframe it as this delight and joy and and true connection –  I mean, I feel like it’s our family’s best day of the week. And if you don’t have kids, it’s my best day. I mean sometimes, you know, just connecting with my husband, or just myself, just to turn off so much [that is] stimulating and affecting your thoughts all the time. And if you don’t still the wind on the water – to draw from a Buddhist idea that your soul is like the wind on the water, reflecting all this light – it’s not until you still the wind on the water that you can see what’s inside. And we have so much refraction in this Internet world and tweets and Facebook and this-and-that and news cycles, and it’s like, there’s no time to still the wind on the water.

Shabbat is like a vacation every week, that’s the way I phrase it. Like, the deepest vacation every weekend. We don’t realize how much we all need to reset – we need a deep reset. When you turn off the screens, all these delicious things happen, time slows down, you feel truly recharged. You get to think in a different way. I’ve made a lot of short films about the neuroscience of daydreaming and creativity, and there’s so much science to back this up on why it is good to put your mind in a completely different mode, and how much that’s nurturing for creativity or productivity.

So I think people have a lot of fear around turning the phone off, but I guess [what] I would ask is, or I would share, is that there’s so much that you’ll get back. And in my book 24/6, I really – you know, the book is kind of part memoir, but I have a lot of science to back this up. And then I have a lot of big-picture ideas for the tech industry and for society, because I think a lot of people that run companies expect their employees to be available and responsive 24/7 – and I don’t think that’s healthy either. And then a lot of us have made ourselves available 24/7. I don’t think that’s healthy. And you know, we have a landline in our house if someone really needs to reach us on Shabbat, and it hardly ever rings. And as much as it’s great to be connected and talking to your family and friends all the time, for one day it’s actually good to just be with the people right in your house, or be with yourself, and just still the wind on the water, and refresh in a different way than you do normally during the week.

Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: Yeah. And I think one of the wonderful things about Shabbat and its timing is that most of our time is connected to something astronomical, right. So the day is based around the earth’s rotation, and the month is based around the moon, and the years are based around the earth’s rotation around the sun, but Shabbat is totally unpegged from anything astronomical. It exists only, in many ways, because of a Biblical commandment. In France they tried a ten-day week, and that didn’t work. But seven seems to be the right element. And one of my friends, I think Joel Hoffman, has said “Judaism may forget absolutely everything, but the best thing Judaism has given us is the weekend.”

Tiffany Shlain: You know, having time off – that’s what I love about when I’m lighting the candles. Like, I know people all over the world are also doing this, and it makes me feel connected to something larger than myself as well. So I think that’s, of course, another beautiful aspect, is doing something as at the same time as people all over the world. [It] just kind of snaps you in to this larger meaning.

Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: Yeah, and I think when you talk about also being a cultural Jew, I think probably there are some elements in the Jewish community of a little pushback, of “How much is this theology, and how much is it–?” And my feeling is that you start from the bottom up, and you sort of build whatever connection or relationship you have. But you start with “How is this going to impact – let’s start with me, then those closest to me, and then going in outer circles?” And whatever spiritual element that comes out of the practice, rather than “Well, let me think, is this consistent with my theology, well, who knows?”

Tiffany Shlain: But I think the biggest thing is: how do you make Judaism relevant? And this is very relevant. Because we are all overtaxed on technology, and here is this 3,000-year old practice that can bring such profound balance and peace and meaning back into your life. And if that’s how people need to engage, that’s beautiful. I mean, and  that has been one of the most exciting things. And I’ve actually had a lot of conversations with very religious Jews, and we ultimately come to a great place of shared common respect for this Jewish wisdom. And that’s what I hope. I have great respect for wherever you fall on the belief spectrum. But this Shabbat, the full day, every week of Shabbat, for 10 years, has been transformative. And I hope this book – it has been very exciting about the response to the book, because it’s reaching way beyond the Jews, which is exactly what I always hope my films do, and my work, and now this is my first book. So if Shabbat, a Tech Shabbat, can be an entree in to bring balance and, you know, a link to Jewish culture, I think that can only be a good thing in society.

Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: Absolutely. So are there other suggestions that you would give for people to be able to say “What would be first steps?”

Tiffany Shlain: I would say, get out a piece of paper and a pen – old-school technology – and write a list of what you wish you had more time to do. What do you feel like in your life you don’t have enough time for? Because everyone’s got that list. And if you have a family or a partner, have everyone do that list and fill the one day with that, the other day with that. And then – all the scientists out there, my book is chock full of science. I make a lot of films on science, and love the science of history and psychology, [and] social science, as well as, you know, the physiology of how much we need rest and to detach. So I would say get the book, 24/6. And then on my website – I am a filmmaker, that’s my first art form, and on my website, I have a lot of short films that back up everything I’m talking about and explore these ideas. And my website is So I have gone deep and wide on this issue in a lot of films over the years, and then in text form in the book.

And I’m on book tour right now, so there’s also a link on the site of where I’m speaking, because the discussions have been fascinating – I mean, all the different age groups, and Jewish groups, non-Jewish groups, tech groups. Everyone is feeling like this is not a healthy way to live. So let’s – I believe in humanity. I believe we’ve had technological revolutions before, and the pendulum swings, and then hopefully gets a little further back, and then something new will come along. Shabbat is the thing that will keep us balanced throughout all of this.

Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: Thank you, not just for taking the time to be able to talk, but for the work that you’re doing, and trying to be able to help people be a fuller, more complete, and just generally healthier life. So I really, really appreciate not just the time, but all the work you’re doing.

Tiffany Shlain: Thank you so much, and it’s so great to see you in person – or on phone, on the video chat. I’m looking forward to meeting you in real person. Shabbat Shalom, and I’m excited to hear how your Tech Shabbat goes.

Interview edited by Zander Harpel.


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