Shabbat UK: Digital detox call for the Sabbath

Image caption Preparations for the great challah bake off

Could you switch off your phone, and turn off your computer, and the television, for 25 hours? All Jews are being encouraged to take part in observing the Sabbath day of rest more strictly as part of Shabbat UK.

It's not just a digital detox, but the "ultimate challenge" for the Jewish community in the UK and elsewhere around the world.

A delicious smell of baking bread fills the house. In the kitchen, Joanne Dove is with friends, baking challah bread - the traditional plaited loaf eaten on the Sabbath, or Shabbat, and holidays.

She's the wife of a rabbi, so needs no reminding of what to do as she says a prayer over the dough before it is braided into three thick strands for each loaf.

In Jewish tradition, the loaves commemorate the manna that fell from the heavens after the exodus from Egypt.

But this Thursday night was special.

Joanne has been practising with the helpers preparing to assist several thousand people in a mass challah bake at the Allianz Park stadium in north London - part of the preparations across the country by Jewish communities for Friday's Shabbat UK.

Families and friends will gather at the table, light the Shabbat candles, and "make kiddush" - a ritual of words and drink, with verses from Genesis and two blessings - one for the wine and one thanking God for giving the day of rest.

Then it's time to break bread together - to eat, to talk, not on the phone but to each other.

"I'm normally attached to my telephone," Joanne says.

"But what I love about Shabbat is just not having that attachment. People actually talk to each other - and families need to sit around a table and communicate and connect.

"Shabbat is built for us to have that connecting time, and disconnecting from what the rest of our week is about. And making sure we use it properly.

"It is a gift: You can spend that weekend thinking about what have I done that's been good and productive this week, and what will I do next week to be better?"

What is the Sabbath?

Every week religious Jews observe the Sabbath, the Jewish holy day, and keep its laws and customs.

In practical terms the Sabbath starts a few minutes before sunset on Friday and runs until an hour after sunset on Saturday, so it lasts about 25 hours.

The idea of a day of rest comes from the Bible story of the creation: God rested from creating the universe on the seventh day of that first week, so Jews rest from work on the Sabbath.

Jews often call the day Shabbat, which is Hebrew for Sabbath, and which comes from the Hebrew word for rest.

'Disconnecting from everything'

From sundown this evening, to sundown 25 hours later on Saturday night, the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis hopes that many of Britain's 260,000-strong Jewish community - the second largest in Europe - will make extra efforts to observe the Sabbath as fully as possible.

It is part of an international endeavour to promote Sabbath observance across the world, inspired by the South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldsmith's Shabbos Project.

In north London, the Nathan family will be among those observing Shabbat more fully than normal.

Their son, 17-year-old Toby, is a little nervous about 25 hours with no mobile phone, no internet and no TV.

Image caption The Nathan family are preparing for the occasion

"Going cold turkey - he'll be sweating all weekend," his mother Marcia jokes, with a smile.

Toby has signed up to the challenge along with many friends on Facebook, but admits it won't be easy.

"It's disconnecting from everything. My whole life revolves around technology and my phone. But I'm actually excited to see what happens without my phone for 25 hours," he says.

His father Clive, a businessman, says this weekend will be special.

"It will bring us together because there won't be the distractions of other things outside. It's a chance to think 'what am I doing with my life?' - that's the essence."

"It'll help to spend more time thinking and less time doing."

His wife Marcia agrees: "It's about connecting with the people close to you - because there's nothing else to do apart from talk and eat."

They have also spent time debating how best to observe the strictest rules. For example, not switching lights on or off, and not carrying anything.

Image caption But Jessica admits she is not sure she can last for 25 hours without her mobile

"We've been agonising over whether we leave the kitchen lights on overnight, or whether we ask a neighbour to come round to switch them off," says Marcia.

On Friday night, in another household, 22-year-old Jessica Goldstein will be doing her best to switch off her phone and turn off email, though she admits she's not sure she can last for 25 hours.

Jessica works in PR, and says it will be a struggle not to answer or attend to work emails and calls. But she wants to try, not least as she is planning to cook for the whole family, including her parents.

"I'm making chicken soup - of course - and roast chicken, so it'll be lovely, and everyone's coming over. It will be a family weekend relaxing together and enjoying each other's company," she says.

"We live in one of the biggest cities in the world so it's nice to stop, forget about it, and get excited again about the things we love most: our families, being at home and everything we grew up loving, which - for whatever reason - has faded into the background slightly.

"Sometimes it's nice to get back to your roots."

Elsewhere, synagogues will be preparing meals for large numbers of attendees, while rabbis have been encouraging both the observant and the not so observant to join the Shabbat UK project.

Universal message

For many British Jews, this summer was a testing time - a period during which anti-Jewish attacks rose sharply across much of Europe, including the UK, during the conflict in Gaza.

Image caption The chief rabbi hopes Shabbat UK will strengthen communities

France, Belgium, Holland and Germany were all affected, while Britain saw an increase of 400% in attacks reported as anti-Semitic.

Many took place in London and Manchester, where most of Britain's Jewish community is concentrated, according to the Community Security Trust, which monitors anti-Semitism in the UK.

The Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis hopes that Shabbat UK will strengthen Jewish families and communities as they come together this Friday night - and in the future.

He says there is also a more universal message.

"It's about family togetherness, personal growth and development, and being masters over our environment - rather than enabling our fast-moving, sophisticated world and electronic equipment to dominate us."

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