The Sabbath
Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.

“The Sabbath, thus, is more than an armistice, more than an interlude;
it is a profound conscious harmony of man and the world, a sympathy for all things and a participation in the spirit that unites what is below and what is above.

In a nutshell
Set aside time in your life to honor God and all that has been created.

In a similar vein
Daniel C. Matt The Essential Kabbalah (p. 168) Rick Warren The Purpose-Drive Life (p. 282)



Abraham Joshua Heschel


hroughout history, humans have sought power through manipulating and transforming things in space; that is, the world of matter. We have conquered nature, created advanced machines, and built cities, but as philosopher and theologian Abraham Heschel argued, this has been at the expense of our sense of time. When life becomes only about doing and acquiring, we lose our grip on what is really important. Because we work in order to have the physical things we feel we need, and that work takes time, time generally has a negative quality for the modern person, Heschel says. Easily lost, it appears as the enemy and we have little of it for ourselves. But the idea of the Sabbath is to have a break from the anxious worries of work—of survival or gaining status. Many will feel that in their work they virtually sell their soul, but the Sabbath is a chance to get the soul back. At first glance, a whole book about the Sabbath may seem somewhat obscure. But The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, at only 100 pages, is an eloquent education in the Sabbath as the heart of Judaism. Although written over 50 years ago, the beautiful prose of Heschel’s work can make you ponder over what may be missing in your busy life.

Sacred time
Before Judaism, humans found God in nature, in sacred places, and in things such as mountains, springs, trees, and stones. Religious festivals had always been based on the seasons and the movements of sun and moon. Gods, to be made present, had to be represented in a figure or a totem or a shrine. The great leap of Hebrew cosmology was to go beyond space and physicality and put time at the center of spiritual understanding. By having a specific day for worship, the Jews had a 113


reminder that God was beyond matter, and that humans could transcend the material too. The God of Israel, Heschel suggested, became the God of history, its great events being the freeing of the Jews from slavery in Egypt and the revelation of the Torah. In place of the idol of the golden calf, Jews were given a golden day, a holy time in which they could renew their divine link. In biblical Hebrew, Heschel observed, there was no word for “thing.” In later Hebrew there was a word, davar, which came to mean this, but even then it referred to things like a message, a tiding, a story, a manner, a promise. The Sabbath is therefore a reminder of living no longer within a human sense of time and morality, but a divine one.

Honoring a holy guest
The word Sabbath comes from the Hebrew Shabbat. The Friday evening service is called kabbalat Shabbat, roughly meaning the obligation to accept the presence of God in the Sabbath. The candles that are lit on Friday evening mimic God’s statement “Let there be light” at the dawn of creation. Traditional Jews do not grudgingly observe the Sabbath, Heschel says, they love it. It is to be delighted in, a celebration. The feeling it can give is reminiscent of the absolute love written about in medieval chivalry books, except that the Sabbath “is the love of man for what he and God have in common.” This total love is the reason the ancient rabbis created so many rules and restrictions around the Sabbath: to protect its glory. In the mythology of the Bible, it took God six days to make the world, and on the seventh day He rested, pleased with what had been created. On this day was created menuha, in Hebrew stillness and peace. The Sabbath is therefore a place of still waters that soothes the soul; it is a different atmosphere that envelops those who celebrate it. There is a prayer said on the Sabbath evening: “Embrace us with a tent of thy peace.” Heschel notes that old rabbis likened the Sabbath to a bride or a queen, because the day was not merely an allotted space of time but a real presence that came into their lives.



Freed from materialism
With time appearing to be always shrinking, we seek comfort in the realm of space—in things. As Heschel put it, “possessions become the symbols of our repressions.” The Sabbath supplies the antidote to consumerist madness. It is designed for us to make friends again with time, to appreciate the “now” when we are not begetting things or worrying or regretting, but simply being in God’s presence. “Thou shalt not covet,” Heschel notes, is the only one of the Ten Commandments that is stated twice. It is given this extra importance because God wants us to have inner liberty, not wasting our time on earth hankering after the things of the world. The Sabbath reminds that life is not merely about earning money and creating things, which is why observant Jews do not handle money on the Sabbath. The rest of the week we spend our time, on the seventh day we collect time and in doing so collect ourselves. We turn “from the results of creation to the mystery of creation,” Heschel writes. We are given a regular opportunity to ponder eternity. Living in matter creates the sensation of constant change, of time moving. But in truth, Heschel notes, time is the constant and it is the things of this world that are turning over continually: “Things perish within time; time itself does not change. We should not speak of the flow or passage of time but of the flow or passage of space through time.” It is difficult to appreciate time because we live in a world of things. But it is possible to become friends with time and see the greater reality behind matter.

Final comments
The idea of a day of rest from the working week now seems a little oldfashioned. Shops trade seven days a week and are open late into the night, and it is a badge of honor for many people to have to work through the weekend. Why should we stop for anything? Heschel’s book is potentially more significant now than when it was written, because there is even greater pressure on us always to be doing something. A whole day set aside for contemplating our



connection to God may seem like an impossible luxury, yet bringing it back would lend quality to the rest of our week. Heschel’s book will open the eyes of any reader who does not know much about the importance of the Sabbath within Judaism, but perhaps one of the reasons it is a classic is because it goes beyond a single religion. Jews celebrate the Sabbath on a Saturday, Christians on a Sunday, and Muslims make Friday special, which suggests a basic human need to regain a still mind on a regular basis, to have a time for meditation or contemplation even as the world continues to rush on. Without this window into eternity we can become economic robots, so tied up with getting ahead on this Earth that we forget our place in the cosmic scheme of things.



Abraham Joshua Heschel
Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1907, Heschel received a classical Jewish education and later gained a doctorate from the Central Organization for Adult Jewish Education in Berlin, where he also taught. After the Nazis came to power he was deported to Poland, teaching in Warsaw and London, before moving to the United States in 1940. He joined the faculty at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and in 1945 was appointed professor of Jewish ethics and philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He would remain in this position until his death in 1972. Heschel’s many books include Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, The Insecurity of Freedom, the two-volume Theology of Ancient Judaism, Maimonides on the Jewish philosopher, Israel: An Echo of Eternity, and A Passion for Truth.


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