The Jewish attitude to leisure is complex and reveals a fundamental divide over religion. The New York Times recently reported that a Chasidic camp had ceased sports activities (link). If taken at face value, the article implies that Judaism, or at least the Satmar version, forbids any leisure activity. Is this an accurate depiction of Jewish thought?
I’m not sure I fully believe the article’s description. It also says that the boys learn “a total of more than six hours throughout the day.” While that is a lot of time, it does not constitute a full day. It sounds like a learning camp, where the boys learn Torah more than most other camps but still have plenty of recreational activities. They may not play sports but they clearly do many other fun things when they are not learning.
Be that as it may, this article offers us an opportunity to discuss leisure and fun in the Jewish tradition. When discussing leisure, we do not mean idleness, laziness and mischievous play–all of which have been denounced (batalah, atzlus, sechok). We mean down time, a break from serious, productive activity. I am not sure whether such a concept existed in pre-modern times but a similar question is whether one may take an afternoon nap, as we will discuss.
A Jewish man is required to spend all his free time studying Torah (see Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 246:25). All time engaged in unnecessary activities is wasted, bitul Torah. However, no one can concentrate continuously. Constant study is unattainable. We need breaks, down time, naps, leisure–all kosher, of course, both in spirit and in content. In contemporary Judaism, I see three main attitudes toward leisure.
The first is leisure as an opportunity for personal development. R. Norman Lamm wrote an essay titled “A Jewish Ethics of Leisure” (in Faith & Doubt: Studies in Traditional Jewish Thought) in which he advances the idea that leisure is a time for expanding one’s personality. It is a time of creativity, expression, discovery and transformation. If I may take liberty in expanding his presentation, people exercise different aspects of your brain during leisure, often arriving at intellectual and emotional discoveries by indirect means. Additionally, leisure includes the arts, which spark ideas and contemplation. In this sense, leisure is a form of non-traditional study and self-development.
Furthermore, leisure includes exercise, which is important for health (see Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Dei’os ch. 4). Sports, hiking and working out are important avenues for maintaining and improving health. It is this aspect that is similar to a nap. A nap can improve some people’s health, depending on their situation. For them, naps are a form of medicine and therefore a mitzvah.
Hiking adds to exercise the dimension of appreciating nature, God’s creation. This can increase our belief in and awe of God. In all these senses, leisure is a mitzvah.
But leisure is much more, or rather much less, than that. I have read a few stories about famous rabbis who, at some point in their lives, were ordered by doctors to spend extensive time without thinking deeply. Apparently, they had overexerted themselves in their studies and suffered from some sort of nervous breakdown. Because of such a personal experience, R. Yisrael Meir Kagan (the Chafetz Chaim) reportedly would blow out the candles (turn out the lights) in his yeshiva’s study hall at night to force the students to go to bed and take a break.
Life is full of different kinds of pressures and everyone responds differently to them. Leisure provides a much needed occasional relief from these pressures. Like a nap relieves exhaustion, a break relieves pressure. On this aspect, the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 231:1) rules that if you need a nap in order to learn Torah, you may take one. Even though a nap is bitul Torah (Rashi, Sukah 26a sv. lishon), it is permissible if it furthers the study of Torah. Similarly, a break that helps you study Torah afterward is also permissible.
The key, writes the Shulchan Arukh, is the following verse: “In all your ways acknowledge Him” (Prov. 3:6). The Sages (see Berakhos 63a) explained this verse to mean that everything you do, whether specifically a mitzvah or not, should be intended for the sake of a mitzvah. As long as you intend your actions–eating, sleeping, discussing–as a form of worship, as a religious activity, then it constitutes a mitzvah.
The Chovos Ha-Levavos (Avodah, ch. 4) offers a classic explanation of this concept that serves as a foundation of modern thought. Most people see things in this world in three categories: required (mitzvah), forbidden (issur) and neutral (reshus). However, this is incorrect. Something neutral that is done for the sake of Heaven becomes a mitzvah while if done for other reasons is part of issur. Even the aspects of life that do not fall under direct commandment are still subject to religious evaluation based on intention.
With this in mind, we can confidently say that leisure le-sheim Shamayim, for positive religious purposes, is a mitzvah, even if not in the technical sense of fulfilling a commandment. If it gives you a much-needed break, provides some balance in your life and relieves some of your pressure, then it is a mitzvah.
But when leisure becomes a goal in itself, it is improper. Just like an unnecessary nap is forbidden, so too is an unnecessary break. Fun must be for the sake of a break (she-lo li-shmah), and not for the sake of fun. It must be a means to a religious end and not an end in itself.
Excessive leisure is not a break but a goal. For this reason, I believe, R. Shlomo Aviner only approves of a little standup comedy (with kosher content) and not too much. Similarly, R. Yisrael Lifschitz (Tiferes Yisrael, Avos ch. 6 n. 84, quoted in Piskei Teshuvos 155:4) allows for a little shmoozing, because it relaxes the soul. Levity, joy, fun is part of a healthy personality. When used for religious purposes, it is itself a religious tool. Otherwise, it is forbidden (link).
There is a third attitude I see in contemporary Judaism that I find troubling. Some see Judaism as a series of ritual behaviors, with the time in between unguided by religion. They may consider Judaism to be a very encompassing religion, with many daily activities. However, other than the rituals, everything else is non-religious (barring explicit prohibitions). Therefore, as long as they pray with a minyan, wear tefillin, learn some Torah, recite blessings, etc.–all praiseworthy–they can spend their free time as they wish.
If so, there is no question about leisure. If it isn’t forbidden and doesn’t interfere with other religious obligations, why should Judaism object? You have fulfilled all your obligations to God!
I do not believe this is a legitimate view. Going back to the Chovos Ha-Levavos and the Shulchan Arukh, everything we do has to involve God. Judaism is an all-encompassing religion. Everything is either religiously positive or negative. There is no neutral territory. There is certainly room for personal tastes and judgments, for decisions on how to allocate one’s time. But if done for the wrong intentions, these judgmental areas are not neutral but negative.
Leisure is not a gift but an opportunity. An opportunity to expand our horizons, to grow our understanding of ourselves and the world, and to relax and recharge our batteries. When used as a tool to become better Jews, leisure is a religiously positive activity. But when abused or overused, leisure becomes a religious trap. I have no doubt that too many people consume too much popular entertainment, using it as an end rather than as a means. In our affluent society, this is perhaps among our biggest challenges, distracting us from true religiosity through dulling entertainment. Together, we must all shift our attitudes and learn to use our time wisely.
(See also this essay by Avi Woolf: Does Modern Orthodoxy Not Believe In Fun?)