The Sabbath (Heschel)

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“Shabbat comes with its own holiness; we enter not simply a day, but an atmosphere.  Observing the Sabbath is not only about refraining from work, but about creating menuha, a restfulness that is also a celebration. The Sabbath is a day for body as well as soul.

It is a sin to be sad on the Sabbath, a lesson my father often repeated and always observed. With the Sabbath comes a miracle: the soul is resurrected, an additional soul arrives, and the effulgence of Sabbath holiness fills every corner of the household. Anger is lifted, tensions are gone, and there is a glow on the face. Creating Shabbat begins with a sense of longing. Strikingly, my father turns our expectations around. It is not we who long for a day of rest, but the Sabbath spirit that is lonely and longs for us. We are the mate of the Sabbath, and each week, through our sanctification of the Sabbath, we marry the day.

My father’s approach to the Sabbath did reflect some of the political concerns and language of the day; the themes of freedom and liberty recur in the book. He writes that we need the Sabbath in order to survive civilization.

”Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, man must fight for inner liberty” to remain independent of the enslavement of the material world. “Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people. There are many who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only very few are not enslaved to things. This is our constant problem—how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.”

My father defines Judaism as a religion centrally concerned with holiness in time. Some religions build great cathedrals or temples, but Judaism constructs the Sabbath as an architecture of time. Creating holiness in time requires a different sensibility than building a cathedral in space: “We must conquer space in order to sanctify time.”

My father did not mean to imply, as some have suggested, a denigration of space or a denial of the significance of the land of Israel. His commitment to Israel and its sanctity is attested to in his book Israel: An Echo of Eternity. In the cases of both the Sabbath and Israel, he emphasizes that sanctification is dependent upon human behavior and attitude. Sanctifying the Sabbath is part of our imitation of God, but it also becomes a way to find God’s presence. It is not in space but in time, he writes, that we find God’s likeness.

In the Bible, no thing or place is holy by itself; not even the Promised Land is called holy. While the holiness of the land and of festivals depends on the actions of the Jewish people, who have to sanctify them, the holiness of the Sabbath, he writes, preceded the holiness of Israel. Even if people fail to observe the Sabbath, it remains holy.

How do we bring about the elusive atmosphere that is the Sabbath? Sanctity is a quality, my father emphasized, that we create. We know what to do with space, but how do we shape sacred time? Six days a week we live with a fury of acquisitiveness, he writes; Shabbat renews the soul and we rediscover who we are.

“The Sabbath is the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man.” God is not in things of space, but in moments of time. How do we perceive God’s presence? There are some helpful Sabbath laws—those that require shutting off secular demands and refraining from work. In enumerating the categories that constitute “work,” the Mishnah describes types of activities necessary to build technological civilization.

Yet my father goes further. Not only is it forbidden to light a fire on the Sabbath, but, he writes, “Ye shall kindle no fire—not even the fire of righteous indignation.” In our home, certain topics were avoided on the Sabbath—politics, the Holocaust, the war in Vietnam—while others were emphasized.

Observing the Sabbath is not only about refraining from work, but about creating menuha, a restfulness that is also a celebration. The Sabbath is a day for body as well as soul. It is a sin to be sad on the Sabbath, a lesson my father often repeated and always observed. With the Sabbath comes a miracle: the soul is resurrected, an additional soul arrives, and the effulgence of Sabbath holiness fills every corner of the household. Anger is lifted, tensions are gone, and there is a glow on the face. Creating Shabbat begins with a sense of longing. Strikingly, my father turns our expectations around. It is not we who long for a day of rest, but the Sabbath spirit that is lonely and longs for us. We are the mate of the Sabbath, and each week, through our sanctification of the Sabbath, we marry the day.

That marriage shapes us: “What we are depends on what the Sabbath is to us.” Similarly, the Sabbath does not simply come into being on Saturdays; the depth of its experience is created, he writes, by how we behave on the other six days of the week; they are a pilgrimage to the Sabbath.

Shabbat comes with its own holiness; we enter not simply a day, but an atmosphere. My father cites the Zohar: the Sabbath is the name of God. We are within the Sabbath rather than the Sabbath being within us. For my father, the question is how to perceive that holiness: not how much to observe, but how to observe. Strict adherence to the laws regulating Sabbath observance doesn’t suffice; the goal is creating the Sabbath as a foretaste of paradise.

The Sabbath is a metaphor for paradise and a testimony to God’s presence; in our prayers, we anticipate a messianic era that will be a Sabbath, and each Shabbat prepares us for that experience: “Unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath … one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come.” It was on the seventh day that God gave the world a soul, and “[ the world’s] survival depends upon the holiness of the seventh day.”

The task, he writes, becomes how to convert time into eternity, how to fill our time with spirit: “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.”

Susannah Heschel’s introduction to her father Abraham Heschel’s book, The Sabbath

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