I began by confiding my thoughts hesitantly to an older friend, who told me her story. She led me to other women, who told me theirs. And then I came to realize what was missing from our culture: a new narrative for marriage. And when I found the narrative, I discovered the grace within the tension: a way to reconcile my desires for both commitment and freedom, a way to honor both my marriage and myself. Rooted in language that goes back two thousand years, the narrative is contemporary, the model ancient. The Bible tells us that after God created the heavens and the earth, "he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done." And then he blessed the day. Honoring the Sabbath (from shabbat, to rest) became one of the Ten Commandments and a distinguishing feature of the Jewish faith. Today, most religions of the world honor periods of rest. The ancient Hebrews extended the principle to agriculture: According to Mosaic law, the land and vineyards were to lie fallow every seventh year "as a Sabbath to the Lord." The belief was that fields could be grazed for only so long without losing nutrients. They needed replenishing. The Hebrews called the respite a "sabbatical year."
Modern interpretations give the word a deeper dimension. Theologians have defined the Sabbath as spirit in the form of time, a day of re-creation or reconnection. One Jewish scholar believes it is intended to be an invigorating experience, focused on human fulfillment. With its theological underpinnings, the concept spread to the secular world: If God needed to rest from the work of creation, then surely mortal men and women needed to rest, too. In 1880, Harvard University became the first American institution to grant sabbaticals to its faculty. While today the practice is most widespread in the teaching profession, sabbaticals can be found in journalism, medicine, law, government, and business. The connotation has remained essentially the same over the last hundred years: time off from daily routines to develop intellectually, focus creatively, renew physically. The parameters, however, have changed considerably. Sabbaticals today are accelerated, shortened, and variable. On! e college offers them after just three years; another offers faculty development leaves over six-week short terms. Some companies require that sabbaticals be spent on social service. Others urge employees to go after a dream. A paid sabbatical in business typically lasts four to six weeks.