The Jewish Ethicist: No-Shop Day(s).
Shabbat serves as a weekly reminder that we don't live to work, we work to live.
Q. I see that many individuals are trying to turn one day a year into an international “no-shop day.” Is this a worthwhile initiative?
A. The varied organizers of the annual international “buy-nothing day” (BND) explain that if people eschew consumerism one day a year, they will have at least a tiny bit of breathing space to consider carefully what they purchase on the other 364 days. The idea is that the consumer needs to ask, is this purchase going to contribute to my well-being and that of others? Perhaps the item will benefit me: by improving the efficiency of my work, or the comfort or beauty of my home. But perhaps the opposite is true, and this purchase will work to my detriment: by impoverishing me, by enslaving me to greed or envy, by clogging my house with unneeded junk. Or perhaps my purchase will work to the detriment of others, causing environmental damage, arousing the envy of others, and so on.
An appropriate catchphrase for this initiative would be Wordsworth's verse: “The world is too much with us; late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”
Observant Jews are familiar with this concept, for we mark a “buy-nothing day” not every year, but every week! Technically, shopping is not a kind of “work” forbidden by the fourth commandment, “the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord your God; don't do any work” (Exodus 20:10). After all, no constructive labor is involved. But as market culture developed in the ancient world, our prophets perceived that Shabbat rest would be impossible to attain without refraining each week from commerce as well as from production.
Thus, the prophet Nechemia exclaims: “And the Tyrians sat therein, bringing fish and all kinds of merchandise, and selling on the Sabbath to the Judeans and in Jerusalem. And I confronted the leaders of Judah, and I said to them, 'What is this awful thing which you are doing, and desecrating the Sabbath day?'” (Nechemia 13:16-17.)
One message of the Shabbat is that even though productive work is important, we need occasional breaks to remind us that we don't live to work, we work to live. Nechemia perceived that the exact same message applies to commerce. Even though the Tyrians were non-Jews, Nechemia would not allow them to sell on Shabbat, to remind the Jewish consumers that we don't live to buy, we buy to live!
Our tradition reminds us continually that excessive accumulation does not bring happiness. The Talmud tells us that “the more possessions, the more worry” (Avot 2:7). And the book of Proverbs states: “A meal of vegetables where love is found is better than a fattened ox where there is enmity” (Proverbs 15:17). King Solomon, the author of the Book of Proverbs, certainly did not deny the benefit of good meat, and Scripture tells us of his sumptuous repasts. But we need to maintain priorities, and occasional breaks can help us do so.
Buying and selling are wonderful; they provide us with valuable products and bring us in contact with interesting people. But if we become absorbed in consumerism it can easily become an obsession or a pastime instead of a simple errand. Just as we need periodic vacations from work to save us from the production rat-race, we need periodic vacations from shopping to save us from the consumption rat-race which is just as grinding and competitive.
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