Modern ‘wisdom’ and Jewish philosophy frequently come into conflict.
Whether it is forming personal opinions on issues like keeping kosher, same-sex marriage, and abortion, it can be agonizing to decide whether to adopt the popular secular beliefs on these issues held in one’s community in consideration of current events and popular notions or to look to, study, and trust the time-tested teachings of Judaism.
On subjects of hot socio-political concern, choosing to fully buy into one school of thought can be daunting and potentially impractical for many circumstances. That is not the case, however, for deciding matters of personal effectiveness.
A 2015 report estimated the value of the personal development industry to be worth 9.9 billion dollars in the United States alone, and the same study reported that personal coaching is the second fastest growing industry in the world, worth 995 million in the United States that year (1, 5). It is wired in human nature to desire progress and growth.
That’s why humans have insatiable demands and hardly ever reach some end of satisfaction, and this fact is vividly represented in these numbers. Having spent some substantial time navigating the personal development/ self-help industry as a consumer, whether it is reading the classic books, watching the most motivational speakers, or trying the latest and greatest in personal effectiveness systems and software, I’ve noticed a profound connection between both the spirit and substance of every major life improvement suggestion and practice with the teachings of Judaism, and the Jewish tradition of Shabbat embodies this phenomenon with stunning clarity (2).
Whether it is preaching mindfulness and meditation, diet or productivity advice, each major remedy to all of modern self-help’s most popular pain points are easily traceable to a Jewish teaching. This leads me to the conclusion that ancient Jewish wisdom yet again proves its timelessness in the areas of leading a balanced, happy, and effective life as demonstrated by keeping the Sabbath.
The self-help landscape is extremely diverse and vast, so I will primarily focus the comparison between self-help and the lessons of Shabbat on the works of Cal Newport, a prolific author of multiple self-help books, for the basis of comparison in this essay. His books have been foundational in forming my opinions on many aspects of life such as school, work, and finding balance.
He serves as a personal role model and inspiration for my life. He has never had a social media account and he has achieved very high levels of success in academia and writing. I have read several of his books as well as been a long-time subscriber to his blog.
Cal has several key ideas and principles that I will reference. Those include Deep Work, Digital Minimalism, scheduling free time, how to work toward specific goals, managing and organizing life, and maintaining a balance in life.
To me, Deep Work has two main meanings. The literal meaning of Deep Work is the practice of getting cognitively demanding work done in a focused state of mind. This entails being intentional about the time, place, and manner of getting work done. Distractions such as electronics, unrelated websites, apps, and services, friends and family, co-workers, or pets are out of sight and out of mind for a set duration. Deep Work as an event means purposefully entering a hyper-focused and ultra-intense state of productivity and thought.
The broader meaning of Deep Work refers to a set of principles intended to orient one’s life toward effectiveness, productivity, and balance. This entails avoiding the harmful habit-forming patterns that allow distractions to be so enticing in the first place such as checking social media anytime boredom creeps into the mind, playing mindless mobile games to pass time, watching television without the specific purpose of recreation or at unplanned times, and being addicted to email.
This also includes being purposeful about working in a Deep Work state and avoiding what Cal Newport refers to as shallow work, tasks like checking email or organizing files. Cal Newport’s 2016 book, Deep Work, is where he coined and described this term, and it will serve as a major point of reference for this paper (3).
Digital Minimalism, also coined by Newport, describes a mindful and intentional philosophy for choosing what digital tools and services deserve a place in our lives and which do not. Just as our physical and social worlds can be cluttered with objects, people, and commitment, Newport argues that our digital lives are increasingly becoming the same way. Without thinking, we sign up for email lists, social media websites, and premium services with stunning frequency. We also visit websites on our computers and download apps to our phones without so much as a second thought.
Because digital items don’t occupy a physical space in the same way junk takes up space in drawers and boxes take up a garage, we are hesitant to realize the stress and disorder these apps and services put on our lives. They may not occupy a limited space, but they sap our time and attention which is as damaging.
Newport is highly vocal on the harms of this widespread negligence toward the consequences of our increasingly chaotic digital lives and writes regularly about his tips toward regaining control over our lives given these developments.
In addition to these primary concepts, Newport has some other philosophies that I will refer to throughout this essay, but they are far simpler and more self-explanatory than the concepts of Deep Work and digital minimalism. These include Newport’s methods of organization, time management, motivation and ambition, studying, exercising, eating, and career success.
The organization and classification of the major Jewish works are echoed by the way modern self-help gurus organize and communicate their ideas. In Judaism and self-help alike, the foundation comes from a big picture source of text that establishes the requisite framework or mental model to effectively utilize the practical advice that comes in later works.
In Judaism, the Written Torah serves as the vague, foundational work that provides a sense of context for everything to come, for most self-help materials, this would be the early chapters of any sort of book. For example, the first few chapters of Deep Work by Cal Newport go into the history of some of humanity’s most prodigious and fruitful minds. These chapters also examine the deterioration of most people’s ability to produce because of a life filled with distraction.
Both the Torah’s parables and the historical context of a sharp decline in people’s effectiveness provide a requisite context for convincing people that what they are about to hear is worth listening to. Following the contextual information, the practical information needed to live in tune with the philosophy is presented.
In Judaism, this is the concept of Aggadah and Halacha: philosophy and practice (6). This is covered in The Mishnah, which explains how to live in tune with the Torah. For example, The Mishnah is where Jews get the 39 specific actions not to perform on Shabbat. In the case of Deep Work, the later chapters cover the actual rules and practices for achieving the desired goals associated with Deep Work.
This extends even further with the 63-Section Gemara that further clarifies The Mishnah, or in the case of Cal Newport, the regularly updated blog, Study Hacks, which is complete with over 10 years of archived content providing additional and more detailed writings on topics mentioned in the original texts. Inevitably, even after publication all the major writings, eager followers still desire more information and more clarity from their role models and guiding leaders.
In Judaism, there exists a thousand-year tradition called Responsa where people take their questions to a Rabbi to help provide clarity and navigate the intimidating body of Jewish law. For an individual like Cal Newport, questions can be directly asked to him over email or by leaving a comment on a relevant blog post.
To take it one step further, there are countless scholars who come after the originals with their own clarifications and simplifications of the original work to make the teachings more accessible, effective, or approachable for new or interesting people. Two examples in Judaism are Maimonides work, the Mishnah Torah, which simplified the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch by Yosef Karo who had similar intentions. In the case of Cal Newport, there are well over 13 independent guides, cheat sheets, personal notes, and summaries of just Deep Work, one of his many books, available on Amazon.
In addition to being effective at communication and motivating a population through written work, Judaism’s mechanism of Shabbat leads to many benefits in the realm of happiness. There are a few basic desires that drive humans, and seeking happiness is certainly one of them. The methods suggested for this deceptively complex goal are abundant, but there are some common themes between the self-help tips and those through the teachings of Shabbat. Among the most prominent secular happiness tips are meditation and journaling. These are touted by folks like Oprah, Robert Kiyosaki and Hal Elrod, the authors of an extremely popular self-help book called The Miracle Morning, Tony Robbins, and countless others including Cal Newport.
The way these practices lead to happiness is multifaceted. Meditation, in principle, raises one’s awareness of a couple key things, whether it is bringing awareness to the fact that you are alive in the first place, or just having a better handle on situations, meditation gives people a greater sense of control over their lives.
Journaling can mean a few things and can be practiced in an unlimited number of ways, but a few common themes emerge. First, journaling often raises one’s awareness of the positive things in their life such as having basic needs such as food, shelter, and social support. Journaling also allows one to get a more accurate picture of their lives by looking back on entries over a long period of time and getting an honest perspective of where one was at different stages in life. Typically, keeping a regular journal can heighten someone’s awareness of progress and improvements that they have been consistently making over time, yet failed to notice on the day-to-day.
These practices are very similar to what one does throughout the practice of Shabbat. The Shabbat prayers heighten appreciation for having basic needs such as a fruitful meal, the Motzi, having a pleasant and nourishing drink, the Kiddush, and for the sense of community and social support through sharing a moment with whoever is present and through a sense of belonging to a timeless tradition practiced by millions over the world and throughout history.
Shabbat is also remarkably helpful for instilling a sense of intentionality, holiness, mindfulness, and minimalism in one’s life. In Deep Work, Newport reflects on the phenomenon of people enjoying engaging in Deep Work after an extended period of time. He specifically discusses craftsmanship as playing a substantial role in this phenomenon.
Artists, programmers, engineers, blacksmiths, machinists, and others who actively create for a living, hardly notice how much time they spend completely absorbed in their craft, and he believes their sense of pride in their work helps them enjoy what they are doing and find meaning in how they spend their time.
Another major tenant of achieving Deep Work is reducing screen time and being intentional with the time and place for various digital technologies. Cal Newport explicitly mentions many circumstances when phones, computers, and TVs are inappropriate, and his list basically includes any sort of important moment or event. This includes at night, when with family, when trying to work, or when doing anything requiring a smidgen of concentration. Moreover, Newport and others are outspoken about minimalism, which is the practice of living more purposefully. This includes only keeping items and possessions that truly bring value to your life. It also entails having a richer appreciation for what one does have without an unhealthy desire to constantly have more.
Unsurprisingly, Shabbat addresses each of these common situations with key parts of the ritual. The idea of Kiddush, or to make holy, echoes the sentiment both craftsmen and minimalists feel toward their possessions and actions. By blessing wine, food, candles, or anything else, Jews instill holiness which can be interpreted to mean godliness or just, in general, a level of respect and recognizing the special qualities in what they are interacting with. That is why possessions such as the Kiddush cup and Shabbat candles bring so much joy and meaning to those who use them. At a blatant level, Shabbat predates Newport and the new generation of digital minimalists by an embarrassing margin.
The teachings of Shabbat and its orientation toward electricity serve as an ancient reminder and source of wisdom about the delicate balance between enjoying modern luxuries without interfering with timeless sources of value. On Shabbat, it’s as if many modern inventions don’t exist. This allows for focusing on what has always been and will continue to be most important: enjoying and appreciating those around you, having tremendous gratitude for being fed, and feeling contented and satisfied with the world as it is.
Abraham Heschel makes a great point on this subject: “The solution of mankind’s most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence of it.”
On the subject of minimalism and creation, Shabbat and Jewish wisdom prove their value yet again. From the biblical roots of Shabbat where g-d rests on the seventh day to more modern scholars’ interpretations of the rules of observing Shabbat, Jewish teachings have been communicating the principles of minimalism for ages. Consider the teaching of Heschel, “Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”
This is the entire principle of minimalism: to learn to appreciate the physical things we possess and to focus more efforts on appreciating the intangibles in life. Heschel continues “This is our constant problem — how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.” In the age of overstuffed houses, monumental landfills of waste, and chronic hoarders, Herschel’s extractions of the meaning of Shabbat being a teaching to not let items control our lives, but to instead focus on “aspirations in the realm of time” accomplish yet again the major goal of a hugely popular modern movement, all in one day of observance per week.
The subject of personal effectiveness and productivity is what fueled my journey into self-help obscurity in the first place, and many of the lessons I have extracted in my efforts to be more productive are present in the observance of Shabbat. Cal Newport is a huge proponent of scheduling leisure and work. He believes in the practice of a daily cut-off time where once a certain hour is reached, all work ceases and there is no longer any pressure to achieve or do anything strenuous or taxing: “I call this commitment fixed-schedule productivity, as I fix the firm goal of not working past a certain time, then work backward to find productivity strategies that allow me to satisfy this declaration.”
This is a fundamental premise of Shabbat. Once the sun sets on Friday night, all work ceases and the focus shifts to the spiritual, relaxing, and restorative practice of following the rituals of Shabbat. Humans are not machines that can simply work to no end. Through Newport, the secular community is coming to terms to this fact that has been known to the Jewish community for millennia.
Another huge aspect of Cal Newport’s work revolves around habit formation. In order to fully implement Newport’s countless systems and mechanisms for productivity, happiness, success, organization, and exercise, Newport discusses common techniques for building strong habits. His most prominent advice boils down to ensuring desired changes are implemented on a regular schedule — be it daily, weekly, or monthly.
For example, when deciding to become a Deep Worker, Newport recommends carrying a journal and being sure to engage in Deep Work every single day. For other changes, he recommends picking a day each week to do the new desired action, such as making every Sunday a planning day where one would handle all their organizational needs including scheduling tasks, necessary emailing, food preparation, and maintaining order in the home.
For the Jews, Shabbat has served as a similar bedrock of habit formation throughout Jewish history. How do Jews ensure they practice mindfulness, maintain their social ties, stay connected to their past, connect with g-d, and remember their best recipes? By practicing Shabbat! A Shabbat observant Jew doesn’t need to burden their minds with trying to maintain all these otherwise difficult obligations, rather it is just second nature that on every Friday night they will practice each one of these behaviors.
This is the end goal for someone reading about making any positive change in their life: a point where getting proper rest, studying ample hours per week, maintaining relationships, and being healthy are as automatic as Jews congregating for Shabbat.
For example, after some time intentionally trying to devise these positive habits, it is second nature that on Sunday, you handle cooking cleaning, scheduling and have already run three miles all before noon. At a certain point, that just becomes what Sunday is. Likewise, it isn’t a question when you will find time for studying, you just know that you study for an hour before the first class of the day every day, that Wednesday you study from 5 pm to 7 pm and that for every test you start studying precisely 10 days in advance. There is a quote from The Dignity of Difference that summarizes this point very well: “The Sabbath is a weekly reminder of the integrity of nature and the boundaries of human striving.”
While studying with the Rabbi in my University’s Chabad’s Sinai Scholars course, I learned an especially powerful lesson that really resonated with me. Calling the Jewish canon vast is a monumental understatement. There are 613 commandments alone, 39 rules for Shabbat, and innumerable extrapolations throughout the history of the Jewish people on interpreting and applying those commandments and rules to ever-changing modern life.
Likewise, with self-help, Cal Newport is just one author. He has written over 6 books. I have read 5 of them. One book, How to Win at College, is seventy-five chapters of specific tips for ‘winning at college’ (4). Each chapter contains multiple tips and nuances to follow each piece of advice leaving the reader with hundreds of pointers to implement. His next book, How to Become a Straight-A Student is equally daunting. It is a 3-part program for being an effective student, and each part has roughly 20 attributes to consider to reap the full benefits of his systemic approach to academics. Additionally, Deep Work contains four specific rules for the most effective Deep Work sessions and for fully living the Deep Work lifestyle. Predictably, each ‘rule’ is composed of tens of specifics to be fully in tune with the philosophy of Deep Work. This protracted list excludes the life-advice espoused in his three other published books.
The takeaway for handling this overwhelming amount of life tips comes from the most memorable and meaningful discussion question of my class: “Why are there only ten commandments in the ten commandments?” This deceivingly simple question had me stumped for a satisfying answer. I suggested that the ten commandments were the most important commandments, and in general my classmates agreed or thought along similar lines.
Although we were on the right track, the Rabbi’s framing of his answer really crystallized many of the pieces of advice and philosophies I have been trying to implement as a self-help junkie. As Rabbis famously do, the Rabbi answered his own question with a follow-up exercise: “Imagine the world we would live in if all people only followed the ten commandments ignoring the remaining 603”. Of course, a world without murder, idolatry, jealousy, theft, etc. would be Utopian; it would be peace on earth as far as I’m concerned. Nonetheless, Jews and self-improvement obsessed individuals alike continually miss the point of this simple exercise and lose the forest for hundreds of little trees.
If an ambitious individual really wants to up their game and improve substantially in a major area such as happiness, productivity, or habit formation, they need to re-evaluate their approach. If a Jew wants to feel a greater connection to their faith and culture, they need to undergo the same reflection.
Every situation has a few important principles from which everything else originates.
If a Jew started keeping the Sabbath with greater intentionality and purpose, additional Jewish connections and knowledge will serendipitously follow.
If a student desires to gain control of their time and academics, simply weening themselves off their addictions to constant entertainment and engagement through social media, television, and, in general, will do far more for their effectiveness than any other piece of ‘life improving advice’. Further, the regained sense of control and time freed in the day from mindless activities will open the door to be able to consider more changes such as random study hacks and productivity tips and tricks.
Across every major pain point of self-improvement discussed, a Jewish teaching found in the ritual of Shabbat addresses practical and philosophical ways to approach the problem at hand. Shabbat is a treasure trove of learning, spirituality, community, appreciation for history and culture, and time for restoration.
If an individual desires structure, happiness, or balance in their life, I implore them to consider participating in the time-tested ritual that has preserved the Jewish people through centuries of hardship and instability. Instead of devouring today’s hot ‘How to’ book on the subject, there is no need to look any further than the timeless principles taught in Judaism, and the perfect starting point is this coming Friday at the nearest Shabbat table.
 “19 Self Improvement Industry Statistics and Trends.” BrandonGaille.com, 23 May 2017, brandongaille.com/18-self-improvement-industry-statistics-and-trends/.
 BimBam. “What Is Shabbat? Intro to the Jewish Sabbath.” YouTube, YouTube, 15 Mar. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjmjZWHXKFY.
 Newport, Cal. Deep Work. Piatkus, 2016.
 Newport, Cal. How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Countrys Top Students. Broadway Books, 2005.
 LaRosa, John. “What’s Next for the $9.9 Billion Personal Development Industry.” Market Research Blog, blog.marketresearch.com/whats-next-for-the-9–9-billion-personal-development-industry.
 Mjl. “Jewish Texts.” My Jewish Learning, My Jewish Learning, www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-texts/.
 “Shabbat Archives — Page 2 of 2.” Rabbi Sacks, rabbisacks.org/topics/shabbat-2/page/2/.
(Written January 2019 with edits in June 2019)