You say your taking a sabbatical…


When I told my family, friends and colleagues that I was going to be taking a year off to travel the world I received mixed reactions ranging from the extremely supportive to “why are you potentially ruining your life to travel”. Not particularly enjoying the lectures on ruining my life, I found through trial and error that calling it a sabbatical skewed the reactions toward the supportive. But after using it in many conversations, I wondered what is the origin of the sabbatical, and what I am supposed to accomplish.

Using my trusty 5th grade dictionary, the definition of a sabbatical is:

1. Any extended period of leave from one’s customary work, especially for rest, to acquire new skills, training, religious pilgrimage, travel etc.
2. (in religious usage) A year observed every seventh year under the Mosaic law as a “sabbath” during which the land was allowed to rest.
3. (modern usage) A period of paid leave granted to a college teacher for study or travel, traditionally every seventh year.

Religious Usage

You may plant your land for six years and gather its crops. But during the seventh year, you must leave it alone and withdraw from it. (Exodus 23:10-11)

The biblical foundations of the sabbatical comes from the Shmita (sabbatical year) in the Torah, where the land of Israel is left fallow and all agricultural activity is forbidden in the seventh year of the agricultural cycle. The law was first given by Moses in Exodus 23:10-11 and expanded on in Leviticus 25:1-7, where the people are assured that enough plenty will be forthcoming in years 1 through 6 that they will be able to survive year 7.

Straying slightly from the traditional usage, there are additional religious parallels to taking time away from regular work to seek skills/training (or enlightenment) through travel. Consider for example, the part that travel/wanderings played in the lives of the founders of the four leading religions in the world.

Confucius: After rising to the position of Justice minister in the state of Lu, Confucius resigns from his post after being disappointed with the misbehavior of the Duke. According to tradition, after leaving his post, Confucius went on a series of long journeys around the small kingdoms of northeastern and central china.

Buddha: At the age of 29, Siddhartha’s father was preparing to crown him his heir, but Siddhartha is disenchanted with his life of leisure and after seeing the suffering of his people decides to live an ascetic life.  Siddhartha spends six years travelling and meditating until he finds his awakening under a Bodhi tree.

Jesus: Around the age of 30, Jesus is working as a carpenter and meets John the Baptist on the banks of the river Jordan. After being baptized by John, Jesus  starts his own ministry and travels around Israel learning about and helping the people as he goes.

Muhammad: Discontented with life in Mecca, he travelled to a cave in the surrounding mountains for meditation and reflection. According to Islamic beliefs it was here, at age 40, in the month of Ramadan, where he received his first revelation from God.

While most of us can’t have the kind of personal transformation that founds a religion, we can be content with travelling in the footsteps of those that have. Pilgrimages have served this purpose for a long time and continue to attract millions every year.

Modern Usage

In John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), it was argued that knowledge comes from the external senses, that what one knows comes from the physical stimuli to which one has been exposed. So according to Locke, travel is necessary for one to develop the mind and expand knowledge of the world. This philosophical idea of travel being needed to develop the mind has manifested itself in many modern forms.

The European Grand Tour: Originally started in the 1600’s, wealthy young men would tour the major cities of Europe, in the company of a tutor, as a cultural finishing experience after university. In the 18th century, after the arrival of cheaper rail travel, it was expanded to the middle class and today thrifty backpackers travel essentially the same routes as 17th century nobility.

University Sabbatical: Since their early years of existence, Universities have granted leaves of absence to their faculty for a variety of special purposes. Traditionally, they were sporadic but starting with Harvard in the 1880s the practice developed into a definitive system of leaves every 7 to 10 years. Typically, university sabbaticals require a significant plan of research or writing that requires extensive travel or time that is more than the typical amount available in regular research. In a University system, a sabbatical is beneficial to both the faculty for reasons of personal development, as well as the university at large which gains from the enhanced knowledge and experience of its staff.

Company sabbaticals (Google, etc): According to data from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 11 percent of large companies offer paid sabbaticals and 29 percent offer unpaid sabbaticals. Call it enlightened or call it shrewd, but employers that offer sabbaticals know that making it easy for employees to explore their interests beyond their career is a good way to build loyalty, increase retention and foster greater creativity at work. While some place restrictions on what you can do with your time, most give you free rein as long as you don’t work for another company. Teach, nap, garden, pet ponies … your call.

Personal Aside: So it does seem like I can call my year off a sabbatical. I’ve worked and saved for 8 1/2 years and am now going to be leaving my field of work fallow for a year of rest. I will be wandering and travelling around the world to places of both secular and religious pilgrimage.  Along the way, I will be learning about a great many things that I could not learn about from home. As part of my sabbatical I will write, photograph and otherwise try creatively to share/teach what I learn with whoever wants to pay attention. Hopefully I will have a lot of fun doing it, but some trials and tribulations are also good for both personal development and to make the stories more interesting.