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Loneliness is a Disease, and Judaism Has a Cure

Yes, seeing friends in person can be an inconvenience, but in building and maintaining connections, there's simply no substitute for it. 
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January 18, 2023
Vincent Besnault/Getty Images

Nearly a decade ago, while staying with my then-29-year-old cousin in Tel Aviv, I noticed something extraordinary: Several times a week, my cousin’s friends would each stop by unannounced, buzz from the downstairs apartment gate and declare, “I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d say hi.” My cousin and her friends would enjoy a cup of tea or a snack and simply connect in person with one another. Sometimes, it lasted a few minutes. Sometimes, more. 

As an Angeleno, I rarely have this experience. In LA, which spans over 500 square miles, dropping by a friend’s home is pathetically complicated, if not downright impossible. There are too many logistics and too many traffic considerations. If a friend who lives in Santa Monica decides to “drop-in’” unexpectedly to see me in Pico-Robertson, she should arrive by 1 p.m. and head back no later than 2 p.m. to avoid maddening traffic. 

Yes, in LA we more or less have one decent, traffic-free hour during daytime to plan visits with friends and even then, we’d rather spend that hour alone, scrolling social media.

There’s something that ravages our health even more than poor diet, lack of sleep or not enough exercise: loneliness. 

But there’s something that ravages our health even more than poor diet, lack of sleep or not enough exercise: loneliness. 

Loneliness kills. It’s even known to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s, diabetes and depression. And when it comes to loneliness, researchers are asking why Americans are spending less and less time in person with friends.

A May 2021 American Perspectives Survey report titled “The State of American Friendship: Change, Challenges, and Loss” found that Americans are spending less time in person with friends than ever before and that they also “report having fewer close friendships than they once did, talking to their friends less often, and relying less on their friends for personal support.” 

It’s tempting to blame the social isolation wreaked by the pandemic, but that doesn’t explain the fact that the number of Americans who made time to see friends in person was declining before COVID-19. In fact, that number actually increased slightly in 2020.

There’s got to be something more to this. Why are Americans seeing fewer friends in person and reporting more feelings of loneliness?

The simple answer is that social media, with its ability to “connect” us with thousands of others, has created an illusion of friendship that’s fooled many of us. I may not have actually seen a particular friend (in person) in four years, but I “see” my friend nearly each day through her social media posts. And there are other, closer friends whom I text once or twice a week. Isn’t that enough?

As it turns out, turning to social media as a way to curb loneliness and deepen friendships is a facade. It’s 2023 and many of us are so parched from loneliness that it almost seems like we’re fasting. Our solution? To constantly quench our deep thirst with sips of soda (social media), rather than gallons of water (in-person connections). 

Commenting on a friend’s picture doesn’t quell our loneliness; sharing a friend’s post isn’t a conversation. Yes, seeing friends in person can be an inconvenience, but in building and maintaining connections, there’s simply no substitute for it. 

The Torah recounts that God initially created a single person — in essence, a lonely being. But according to Genesis, “And God said: It is not good for man to be alone; I will make him a helper opposite him” (Genesis 2:18).

What happens when we’re virtually (digitally) surrounded by thousands and still feel alone? Amazingly, Judaism has a built-in antidote to loneliness: It’s called the miracle of Shabbat.

But what happens when we’re virtually (digitally) surrounded by thousands and still feel alone? Amazingly, Judaism has a built-in antidote to loneliness: It’s called the miracle of Shabbat. 

I’m referring specifically to attending a Shabbat meal, one of the last guaranteed ways to see friends on a weekly basis. Imagine a built-in system that ensures that you see at least one or two friends a week, each week, for an entire year, and for Jews who observe the laws of Shabbat, that your phones are nowhere in sight during the entire interaction.

A Shabbat meal with a few friends, whether we’re hosts or guests, also offers an antidote to the majority of excuses we offer when explaining why we don’t make time to see friends in person. If your friends are inaccessible, a Shabbat dinner or lunch invite is hard to turn down. Simply put, everyone has to eat, and who would turn down a warm meal at a friend’s home?

A Shabbat meal also solves parents’ problem of feeling that they have to choose between their friends and their children on weekends. During a Shabbat meal, parents can spend time with both their kids and their friends, and as an added perk, kids have more chances to become socialized with other children and to associate Shabbat with fun and friendship. Of course, anyone who’s ever tried to rein in their younger kids during a Shabbat meal knows it’s impossible to give equal time to friends at the table, but again, there’s no substitution for seeing friends in person, even if you’re changing a diaper and pulling a copious amount of cholent out of your hair. 

I believe it’s important for children to see that their parents have friends. It’s worth asking if your child sees you in the presence of your phone more than in the presence of other people, including your partner.

If you’re concerned that hosting is too hard, order a few takeout items from the supermarket or host a potluck meal. If you’re not receiving enough invitations for a Shabbat meal, there’s a solution for that as well. It will take a little courage, but write a post on social media or in a group chat, and make it cute: “Extremely interesting young woman (you) would love to be hosted for Shabbat lunch this week. Will bring as much wine as needed.” Text a friend and ask if he or she is hosting soon. In the worst case, the answer will be “not this week,” but your friend will hopefully have you in mind for a meal in the near future. 

Recently, one of my friends posted in a group chat, “Who would like to host a couple and their two adorable children for Shabbat lunch this week? We’ll bring dessert and wipe all hands and noses before entry.” That kind of vulnerability touched my heart and I invited them right away. 

Before I was married, I spent many Shabbat lunches at home by myself because I wrongly believed that in order to host a good Shabbat meal, I needed to invite dozens of people. But that was too hard to manage. In hindsight, I should have invited at least one friend over. It doesn’t take more than that to relieve loneliness.

In January, we rush to commit to healthier habits, including a near-ubiquitous commitment to lose weight. With just one meal a week with a friend on Shabbat, we can take a break from focusing on what we’d like to lose, and open our eyes to everything we want to gain.


Tabby Refael is an award-winning, LA-based writer, speaker and civic action activist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @TabbyRefael.

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