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Your talmudic advice column

Tzvee Zahavy received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He taught advanced Talmud, halakhah and Jewish law codes, Jewish liturgy, Jewish history, and religious studies at seminaries and at major research universities. He is a prolific author and published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish texts. Visit www.tzvee.com for links. He also worked for 20 years for major banks and hedge funds as an information technology expert. See www.zahavy.com for details.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

There are times that I feel like just doing nothing, taking it easy, and drinking in the moments of my life. For some reason, at those times I feel guilty about this interlude. I feel like I should be doing productive activities every day. But I want to enjoy this slow time. What can I do to ameliorate my sense of failure during my intervals of inactivity?

Lazy in Leonia

Dear Lazy,

Wow. This is a timely question at any season, but especially now as our kids get out of school for the summer. What will they do all day? Parents will scramble around to find ways to program every minute of the summer days for their kids.

It’s also a timely concern because so many of us are reaching the age of retirement. And our retirees are asking themselves how they will fill every day with pursuits and activities.

Pop culture has no fundamental problem with your question. Singer Bruno Mars’ hit, “The Lazy Song,” says it well. “Today I don’t feel like doing anything / I just wanna lay in my bed / Don’t feel like picking up my phone / So leave a message at the tone / Nothing at all…”

But the values of our Jewish teachings don’t buy that attitude at all. Going way back to the biblical book of Proverbs, King Solomon inveighs against the slothful person, “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise… How long will you sleep, O sluggard? when will you arise out of your sleep?”

In Catholicism it’s more intense. It’s not just sloth that is condemned. Even mere daydreaming is considered a Catholic sin. My former University of Minnesota colleague, memoirist Patricia Hampl, has just published a wonderful sweet book called “The Art of the Wasted Day.” She recounts how as a young girl she often liked to do nothing much at all. Then she discovered, in a list of sins in her catechism, that her iniquity of daydreaming was listed in a subset of the mortal sin of sloth. As such, it was a moral lapse that had to be confessed to in church.

In her book, Hampl gently pushes that notion aside as she praises “the lost music of wondering, the sheer value of looking out the window, letting the world float along. It’s nothing, really, this wasted time, which is how it becomes, paradoxically, charged with ‘everything,’ liberated into the blessed loss of ambition.”

Now, is wasting a day a Jewish sin that we confess, for instance, on Yom Kippur? Not that I can see. Yes, we rabbis are here to provide you with as much guilt as possible. Still sloth and daydreaming are not in the sin lists of the Ashamnu or Al-chet confessional prayers.

Perhaps you might speculate then that you ought to add those to your personal confessions: atzalnu, bizbaznu zman — we were slothful, we wasted time. I don’t add those. Because I do not believe any of this idleness qualifies as a legitimate sin. You may differ with me on this.

Ah, but you may argue that we do have repose built into our religion. Our Shabbat rest is the answer. And you may say that we don’t just tolerate rest, it is a commandment. But, dear advice seeker, is Shabbat the idle lazy time that you seem to indulge in, or is Shabbat just a different busy single day of ceaseless doing every week — one day with an alternative busy to-do list? I think for many of us it is the latter.

And what if you want a different mandate — say, to rest six days, and work only one? That’s not a sanctioned religious option for us.

If perpetual motion is inherent in our modern lives, and it is valued in our Jewish cultural heritage, can we ever learn to go from busy to idle? Maybe we should take a paradoxical course in how to make a Nothing-To-Do-List.

Hampl concludes in her book that conceivably older folk ought to realize that “for once you don’t really need to have a to-do list.” Or I’d say perhaps it’s okay to imagine having a list with a single Bruno-Mars-like entry, “Nothing at all.”

But don’t we modern wired folk know how to laze? You may assert, isn’t binge-watching 20 episodes of a Netflix TV series considered valid loafing? That would be a sardonic assertion — that our alleged inactivity must rigorously and systematically move us through just so many TV programs, and we check off watching the latest complete season.

I’m confident enough to say that traditional Judaism does not valorize true down time. So, to be most obviously and busily rabbinic — maybe I ought to get to work myself, and compose a new Talmud-like volume, replete with commentaries — a tractate on idleness and daydreaming. That would take our absurd incongruity about this issue to a new height.

Returning at last to your query, as a rabbi, I am glad that you feel guilty over doing nothing. It’s my job to keep you on your remorseful toes. I do not want to catch you daydreaming, or worse, mindfully meditating for minutes or hours.

No, that kind of inactivity is some sort of a lapse. Bottom line, we are the people who do-not-know-how-to-do-nothing. And I’m pretty sure we are bad at it when we try.

My advice is don’t bother trying to get good at idleness. Given our longstanding Jewish proclivities on the one side, and the ceaseless prodding of our interlinked electronic modern lives on the other side, you will have to exert systematic and heroic efforts to get your loafing right. And all that effort defeats the whole idea, doesn’t it?

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I’m having an ongoing argument with my friend. She says that it is unethical to engage in “showrooming” — that is, the practice of going to a retail brick and mortar store to see a product, and then later ordering it online from another vendor, or worse, ordering it online on your phone while standing in the store.

My friend claims this does injury to the storeowners. I see nothing wrong with the practice. By now store owners expect this to happen. Who is right?

Saving in Secaucus

Dear Saving,

We live in a free market capitalist society. You may go into a Best Buy store, for instance, to see the quality of a QLED TV picture, but then order the set for less money from Amazon. Or you may browse through the volumes at the local Jewish bookstore — but buy them for less from a vendor via Facebook or eBay.

Complaining about this fact of life is a frequent and proper refrain for storeowners. But few people now listen to that tune. Your friend is justified to be sensitive to the slight — but you too are reasonable in your actions. You and your friend represent two slightly varied but valid personalities and judgments on this matter.

Your friend wants you to support the retailers who pay rent, and take time to help you, for no benefits from the likes of you as shoppers.

You have another priority, to maximize your own “corporate” bottom line — to get merchandise for yourself at the best possible price. You are right to do that as you see fit.

Dear Rabbi,

I have read of late about how Facebook shares my personal information with data services. They make money, and the services use the information to influence our democracy. For privacy reasons and in line with some political protests, I am planning to delete my Facebook account. Is that a good idea?

Private in Paramus

Dear Private,

I’ve asked myself now in the past few weeks whether to delete my Facebook account. I find it creepy that ads show up on my Facebook feed, seeming to know what I looked at elsewhere online yesterday or last week.

It’s unnerving, and there is no way that Facebook will stop targeting me or you and selling our data. They are making barge-loads of money by doing all of this.

Yet you do get from this company the value of a smooth and free online community where you can share with others your joy, your anger, your pride and your grief, get advice, get recipes, sell books, and lots more. You know the drill.

I tend slightly to favor staying in that online pseudo-community — giving up some privacy and data in exchange for a viable platform of communications and information.

My most recent complaints are with the shrill tones of many politically oriented postings on my feeds. If you like that kind of rhetoric, or if you can ignore it, then it is not a concern. If all that bothers you too much, then you will need to unfriend some annoying people, or ultimately, to bite the bullet and cancel your account.

You can cancel your account and continue to communicate with your circles without Facebook, via Twitter, email, instant messaging, or WhatsApp, among other alternatives. Or you can call on the phone or visit friends and family in the flesh, thereby not risking sharing any personal data with anyone other than the people you intend.

Tzvee Zahavy has served as professor of advanced Talmud, halacha, and Jewish law codes, Jewish liturgy, Jewish history, Near Eastern and Jewish studies, and religious studies at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He has published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish texts. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to www.tzvee.com for details.


The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on Talmudic reasoning and wisdom. It aspires to be equally open and meaningful to all the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here usually on the first Friday of the month. Mail your questions to the Jewish Standard or email them to zahavy@gmail.com

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