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Why Observing Shabbat Makes Me a Better Doctor

Why Observing Shabbat Makes Me a Better Doctor

For starters, it keeps me sane.


“Do you ever have any problems keeping Shabbat and being a doctor?” asked my new colleague at the hospital. I’ve been answering some variation of this question ever since I started medical school and my roommate asked me, “How the heck are you going to pass our big Anatomy test on Monday if you don’t study at all on Saturday?”

I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences explaining my Shabbat observance since entering the field of medicine. As a 3rd year med student there was the surgeon who looked at me incredulously one Friday afternoon when I told him that I was going to have to walk home from the hospital if he made me dictate any more of his post-operative notes. There was my colleague in residency training who complained that it wasn’t fair I never had to cover Saturdays until I offered to cover her patients that Thanksgiving.

Once I began observing the Jewish Sabbath back in 2005, negotiating my new career in medicine wasn’t half as hard as I thought it might be. The first step was seeking out a residency training program – and subsequently a hospital position – where the department chair was willing to accept my schedule. The interviews always included a few time-tested jokes about being “available 24/6” and “knowing exactly what my vacation schedule will look like for the next 224 years according to the Jewish calendar.” I also made some friends volunteering to cover Sundays and agreeing to help out every December 25th and January 1st. This allowed me to arrange for my colleagues to cover for me on Friday nights and Saturdays in what most people were able to accept as an even trade.

Come Shabbat I never truly shed my white coat and stethoscope. While my pager is reliably signed out on Friday afternoons, there have been emergencies that have kept me in the hospital longer than I would have expected and I’ve hiked home in the dark more than a few times. There have also been times at synagogue where I’ve been fortunate enough to have had the medical training to assist folks in the same way that I would have were it a regular Tuesday. Doing whatever you have to do to save someone’s life overrides Shabbat. Furthermore, caring for patients is not a violation of Shabbat for doctors, nurses like my sister Hannah, or for my buddy Noam who’s an EMT.

Observing Shabbat prevents me from being another victim of the burnout epidemic ravaging my colleagues in the medical field.

Keeping Shabbat keeps me sane. Back in med school when my roommate asked me how I’d identify all 3,481 parts of the human abdomen and thorax for our anatomy test, I explained to him, “Resting one day a week gives me the power to study hard through the other six days.” The mindfulness Shabbat provided me left me rejuvenated enough to brave the monsoon of medical school exams and I weathered the storm well enough to land at Harvard Medical School for a top-notch residency program.

Observing Shabbat prevents me from being another victim of the burnout epidemic ravaging my colleagues in the medical field. I never would have been able to resist the seduction of writing new academic papers, moonlighting a bit more to pay off my debts, or following up on labs tests and completing old patient notes. Luckily I have Shabbat to keep me balanced and engaged with my loved ones as a family member. Looking at the faces around the hospital on Monday mornings, you don’t have to be an expert psychiatrist to see despair in the eyes of the folks who worked straight through the weekend and didn’t spend any time with their loved ones. It’s the look of mental exhaustion, the look of preparing to quit by age 45, and the look of needing a good psychotherapist to talk about the tragedy of physician burnout. (In med school a friend of mine spent a record-breaking 137 straight days at the library!) It’s also worth noting that research shows physician burnout is directly linked to poor patient care and medical errors which means that Shabbat is good for my patients too.

Shabbat has been a much bigger savior than a hindrance. Many years ago while hiking in northern Israel, I met a young Chassidic man who was headed in a similar direction. We didn’t really share a language but we nonetheless communicated easily in the shared solitude of our beautiful surroundings by a mountain stream. At some point in our makeshift conversation he asked me – though an imperfect translation – if I “protected Shabbat.” The answer was easy: I don’t protect Shabbat; Shabbat protects me.

July 9, 2016

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Visitor Comments: 7

(7) Anonymous, February 12, 2017 3:22 AM

Well said!

As a Shomer Shabbat female physician, I couldn't have said it any better. I too never studied on Shabbat. I too did very, very well on my licensing exams and was fortunate to find a Shomer Shabbat residency in the geographic location of my choice. I echo your words: Shabbat keeps me sane. And yes, Dr Lifschutz physician burnout is really aka physician abuse. Thumbs up, Dr Wibble

(6) Eric Berkowitz, July 13, 2016 12:31 AM

Upon rereading...

Sorry. My mistake. You are clearly referring to your particular situation.

(5) Dina Leah, July 12, 2016 2:37 PM

As an RN, I know how hard it is for med students, etc.

I am an RN who also tried to maneuver my schedule at least for the High Holy Days and Pesach. As a student, we didn't have the grueling on call times as med students or interns & residents.

I wasn't keeping Shabbat back then (I'm now retired), but I also was able to trade to work Easter & Dec. 25.

Ironically, when I lived in Israel, for part of my career, I worked nights in CCU at Tel HaShomer Hospital. Well, I was slated to be off on Erev Yom Kippur, but I traded with another nurse who was Torah Observant & I was the typical secular Israeli.

I really felt good working that night of Erev Yom Kippur as I felt I was working for Hashem. We had patients who needed me there. One new patient to our unit was observant & his daughter & her husband spent all Yom Kippur at her father's bedside. They were very grateful that I was there to care for her father.

As Israelis know, the streets are full of people walking, and any cars get stones thrown. I was picked up & returned home via ambulance transport.

So, instead of fasting, I went without sleep that Yom Kippur. And, I felt good that I was able to help those who without me working would have not have had care.
I notice that Dr. Freedman is a psychiatrist so he can regulate his practice & get Shabbat & holidays off. Some, like hospital nurses & EMTs aren't always able to do this. But, we are working for Hashem in helping to save lives.

(4) Lori Kahn, July 11, 2016 12:44 PM

What an excellent reminder about the importance and rejuvenating factor of Shabbat!

(3) Nancy, July 11, 2016 11:27 AM


I am not letter perfect in my Shabbat observance. However, I appreciate and cherish that special island of time when it comes around each week. A long time ago I stopped talking on the phone and spending money on Shabbat. What a liberating feeling it is! Thank you for sharing your experience. Kol tuv.

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