The Spirituality of Routine

Posted on October 13, 2021

by Rabbi Michael Schwab

For many of us, the word spiritual conjures up images of exceptional moments or singular events.  Perhaps we feel that to “be spiritual,” or to “feel spiritual” we need to do something outside the box – something unique and thrilling.  

In fact, sometimes this is absolutely true, like when we experience the birth of a child, witness the sunrise over the grand canyon or touch the Western Wall in Jerusalem for the first time.  Yet, often we pay too little attention to the spirituality of routine – the critical importance that repeated daily actions play in our spiritual lives and which, in turn, shape who we are.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that Immanuel Kant, arguably the most brilliant philosopher of modern times, was famous for his routine. As Heinrich Heine wrote “Getting up, drinking coffee, writing, giving lectures, eating, taking a walk, everything had its set time, and the neighbours knew precisely that the time was 3:30 pm when Kant stepped outside his door with his grey coat and the Spanish stick in his hand.”  Sacks notes that these details, together with more than 150 other examples drawn from the great philosophers, artists, composers and writers, come from a book by Mason Currey entitled Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work.  As Sacks wrote, “Note the paradox. These were all innovators, pioneers, ground-breakers, trail-blazers, who formulated new ideas, originated new forms of expression, did things no one had done before in quite that way. They broke the mould. They changed the landscape. They ventured into the unknown.”  The same people who created moments of singular greatness lived a life dedicated to a sacred routine.

A great way to understand the connection between these two concepts is to look at the Hebrew word for daily work, avodah. Perhaps not coincidentally this is also the word for “serving God”.  It seems that the Hebrew language is teaching us that spirituality has its roots in meaningful routine and hard work.  

As Sacks points out, the people who change the world “are those who turn peak experiences into daily routines”. That is why Judaism focuses so much on taking our lofty ideals and turning them into a way of life lived in the everyday.  In fact, Jewish law itself consists of a set of routines that shapes the way we view the world and how we act toward each other on a daily basis.

Yes, sometimes living a life of what I like to call, “sacred routine” could seem boring compared to the extraordinary experience of a singular thrill.  But, as Sacks writes, “that is all they are: experiences. They linger in the memory, but they are not part of everyday life. They are not woven into the texture of our character. They do not affect what we do or achieve or become. Judaism is about changing us so that we become creative artists whose greatest creation is our own life and that needs daily rituals: Shacharit, Mincha, Maariv, the food we eat, the way we behave at work or in the home, the choreography of holiness  . . .” Routine and spirituality are not categorically separate terms.  Rather, sacred routine lays the groundwork for spirituality, prepares us to see the sacred dimension of daily life and gives us context to enhance those unique moments we do experience and incorporate them more meaningfully into the rest of our lives.