In American parlance, we often speak of the “dog days of summer.”
The statement is not meant to be insulting to our canine friends, but rather entered the English language around 1500 and refers to the constellation Sirius, which in astrology represents a dog and shines brightly in the late summer months. The term is a direct translation of the Latin “caniculares dies,” describing the time when we see the constellation at its brightest.
Despite the term’s actual astrological history, many people have taken (or mistaken) the term to mean the days that are too hot for even a dog. These are the days when we are to sit back, to contemplate, to catch our breath and creatively do nothing.
Sociologically, this idea of connecting heat with idleness has impacted much of the way we live. For example, in most of the world during the hot periods of the year, schools and business close. In many parts of the world people do not work during the hottest part of the day, and in our own country July and August continue to be the two most popular months in which to vacation. It is only with the coolness of fall that life returns to regular routine.
How do we use our free time? Is free time simply a chance to loaf or is it an opportunity to seek spiritual and physical renewal? The question goes back to Biblical days. If we explore the Biblical text and its interpretations, we learn that there are numerous Biblical words and phrases that help to guide us through the “wilderness of idleness” and to spend our free time wisely rather than foolishly.
One such Hebrew term, known to most English speakers, is the word shabbat, from which English derives its word “sabbath.” The idea of a day of rest is so important to the Biblical mind that it is the only holy day mentioned in the Ten Commandments. The word shabbat is derived from the verbal root “sh-b-t” and means “to take a break from our activities, to pause, or to catch one’s breath.”
Shabbat, however, does not mean just stopping and doing nothing. Biblical man understood that taking a time out from work does not mean ceasing to live, but rather finding new ways to explore the spiritual and reflective side of life.
The concept of shabbat however is not the only Biblical term referring to not working. The Biblical tradition understood that not all idleness is good. Thus, we also have the concept of “sikhuk,” meaning to have too much free time on one’s hands, to be idle as a way of fleeing from ourselves or the act of doing nothing for nothing’s sake. This form of idleness often leads to boredom and even depression. On the other hand, there are positive forms of idleness. Thus, we also have the word “nofesh,” a word related to the word for soul, nefesh.
Nofesh is the opposite of sikhuk. it is a time to pause in a way in which we spiritually grow and seek new insights into the essence of our souls. It is not easy to use our free time as “nofesh.” To seek nofesh is to find those quiet moments in which we take the time to face inward, to confront ourselves. To use our idle time wisely is to hear the hushed voice of our conscience speaking to us and coming to understand our place in the world. Nofesh is our time to be in harmony with those around us and with the world in which we live. To enjoy and to benefit from nofesh is to seek the peace of the soul and to create balance in our lives.
To find the right balance between our working lives and our leisure lives is never easy. In reality, nothing comes to us without a price. To succeed in life means to make wise choices and to be willing to make sacrifices. Just as we choose the type of activities that fill our lives, so we also choose the way we spend our leisure. To cease to work comes at a cost, but so too does our avoidance of the renewal of our souls. Leisure can be the act of doing nothing or it can be the active pursuit of personal renewal, a time to grow and a time to think.
Although scholars tell us that “the dog days of summer” refer to the constellation Sirius, they also remind us that just as our pets know when to be active and when to slow down, for the sake of both our physical and spiritual health, we too need to learn this important lesson.
The author, Peter Tarlow, is the rabbi emeritus at Texas A&M Hillel Foundation in College Station. He directs the Center for Latino-Jewish Relations and teaches at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.