BUSINESS
10/29/2013 02:08 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2013

The Idea Behind Work-Life Balance Is As Old As The Bible

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Mathew Hoffman doesn’t remember one of the biggest milestones of his career, because he wasn’t there when it happened.

One Friday three decades ago, Hoffman, then 27 years old and a newly minted lawyer, was growing increasingly agitated as he waited to hear the outcome of his first-ever jury trial. Every second the jury deliberated, the sun lowered in the afternoon sky. Finally, Hoffman got up to leave. As he walked towards the door, the surprised judge reminded him that if he left, he wouldn't get to see the jury come back. For a moment Hoffman felt conflicted, but he just kept walking.

As an observant Jew, Hoffman had to race home in time for the Jewish sabbath -- a weekly break from work and other activities that starts Friday night at sundown and lasts for the next 25 hours.

Now 59 and with three more decades of career success behind him, Hoffman says he doesn’t regret his decision to leave that first trial early. He's picked Shabbat over work every week since. "Life is way more important than winning my next case," he said.

For most professionals, the idea of leaving work at a crucial moment seems almost impossible. Yet a sizable number of American Jews -- approximately 500,000 -- who observe Shabbat say no to their jobs for 25 hours each week, setting a hard deadline to leave the office on Friday and turn off their phones and computers. This religious commitment to unplugging is now inspiring secular Jews and non-Jews alike to take a regular break from the always-on demands of the connected workplace.

Traditional observers of Shabbat use the day to study, go to synagogue and eat ritual meals. But Americans are so desperate to detach that rabbis are tapping into the impulse as a way to sell Shabbat to the less observant, said Jonathan Sarna, the director of the Jewish Professional Center at Brandeis University.

“Rabbis are now more able to justify the idea of the sabbath in terms of its impact on stress and mental health and disconnecting,” he said.

After he spent several months running himself ragged to start his business a few years ago, Dan Rollman found himself inspired by religious Jews' commitment to unplug. Rollman, who is Jewish but not strictly observant, joined with a group of friends and vowed to once a week detach from technology, spend time with family and friends and go outside. Their so-called Sabbath Manifesto caught on, sparking a movement of thousands who commit to turn off their devices at least one day per year.

“I’m saying I’ve worked really hard this week and now I need a day in which no matter how busy or stressed I am, this is my day off,” Rollman explained. “It’s a chance to recharge my batteries and really embrace the concept of the sabbath that goes back centuries.”

Observant Muslims and Christians similarly follow the Bible's instruction to take a day off from work, but their sabbaths -- which take place on Friday and Sunday, respectively -- don't necessarily require a break from electronics.

Joe Lieberman kept the Jewish Shabbat during his decades-long career as a U.S. Senator from Connecticut and on the campaign trail running for vice president. He said the weekly ritual helped him function the other six days he was booked solid with commitments.

“I don’t know how I could be a U.S. senator and not observe the sabbath,” Lieberman, who wrote a book on the topic, said in a recent interview.

There were times he had to choose between his job and his observance, he said, and the results were mixed. Because driving is prohibited on Shabbat, he remembers walking the 4.5 miles from his house to the Capitol on several Saturdays to participate in tense votes.

But he typically shut himself off from politics on Shabbat, letting those trying to reach him leave a message on his voicemail. “It really creates a sanctuary, which has a great feeling in itself,” he said.

Mitchell Rich, a New York-based consultant, offered a similar reflection, noting that without Shabbat he’d have no idea “that I’m completely addicted to my phone.”

During the week, Rich says he’s sometimes distracted from family dinners because he’s busy responding to emails as they come in, no matter the hour. But on Shabbat, he sets up an auto-response and puts one of his employees in charge. He passes the time praying, eating and playing with his kids.

Cutting himself off from work isn’t always easy; Rich said he once hung up in the middle of a conference call because it was extending into Friday evening. But "so far, nothing’s fallen apart," he said.

For those newer to the working world, striking a balance can be a more delicate matter. Reena Bloom, a 24-year-old student who lives in Teaneck, N.J., said she’s concerned that in an increasingly competitive job market, her commitment to observance may make her seem like a less desirable worker. She's discussed the conundrum with other observant friends, and everyone has an opinion on when to break the news to a potential employer.

“Once you’re hired you have to talk to them about it,” said Bloom, who is studying to be an audiologist at Montclair State University. “I’ve heard some people don’t have the best response.”

Hoffman said he "makes no secret" of his religious commitment to his clients, and he finds they admire that his ethics are "of the highest caliber." His observance has other benefits, too, he said.

"I don't do it because I'm more effective during the week," he said, "but I know that I'm more effective during the week because of it."

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