The Sabbath | Notes & Review

Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Sabbath: its meaning for modern man. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951, 1979. (118 pages)

[VIA: This is one one of the few books in my library where every page is worth quoting. Below is a small sliver of quotes that hopefully summarize each heading; though their mere abstraction does an injustice to the whole of the work.]

Architecture of Time

Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space. … Yet to have more does not mean to be more. The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time. But time is the heart of existence. (3)

Nothing is more useful than power, nothing more frightful. (3)

In deed, we know what to do with space but do not know what to do about time, except to make it subservient to space. (5)

The Bible is more concerned with time than with space. (6)

To Israel the unique events of historic time were spiritually more significant than the repetitive processes in the cycle of nature, even though physical sustenance depended on the latter. While the deities of other peoples were associated with places or things, the God of Israel was the God of events: the Redeemer from slavery, the Revealer of the Torah, manifesting Himself in the events of history rather than in things or places. (7-8)

Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. (8)

The sanctity of time came first, the sanctity of man came second, and the sanctity of space last. Time was hallowed by God; space, the Tabernacle, was consecrated by Moses. (10)

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things and space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world. (10)

A Palace in Time

He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. (13)

Three acts of god denoted the seventh day: He rested, He blessed and He hallowed the seventh day. (Genesis 2:2-3)( (14)

This is what the ancient rabbis felt: the Sabbath demands all of man’s attention, the service and single-minded devotion of total love. (17)

The glorification of the day, the insistence upon strict observance, did not, however, lead the rabbis to a deification of the law. “The Sabbath is given unto you, not you unto the Sabbath.” (Mekilta to 31:13) [VIA: Mark 2:27] The ancient rabbis knew that excessive piety may endanger the fulfillment of the essence of the law. (Genesis Rabba 19,3) “There is nothing more important, according to the Torah, than to preserve human life … Even when there is the slightest possibility that a life may be at stake one may disregard every prohibition of the law.” (Except the prohibition of idolatry, adultery and murder.) One must sacrifice mitzvot for the sake of man rather than sacrifice man “for the sake of mitzvot.” The purpose of the Torah is “to bring life to Israel, in this world and in the world to come. (Otzar ha-Geonim, Yoma, p. 30,32.) (17)

Just as heaven and earth were created in six days, menuha was created on the Sabbath. (22)

The Sabbath teaches all beings whom to praise. (24)

Beyond Civilization

Technical civilization is the product of labor,… (27)

The solution of mankind’s most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence of it. (28)

The Sabbath itself is a sanctuary which we build, a sanctuary in time. (29)

The Splendor of Space

To Rabbi Shimeon eternity was not attained by those who bartered time for space but by those who knew how to fill their time with spirit. To him the great problem was time rather than space; the task was how to convert time into eternity rather than how to fill space with buildings, bridges and roads; and the solution of the problem lay in study and prayer rather than in geometry and engineering. (41)

Only Heaven and Nothing Else?

The tudy to study Torah — which was the way to attain eternity — had an exclusive claim on all of life: “This book of the Torah shall not depart out of thy mouth but thou shalt meditate therein day and night” (Joshua 1:8). To abate, to relent even for an hour was to forfeit a part of eternal life, an act of partial suicide. (45)

This, then, is the answer to the problem of civilization: not to flee from the realm of space; to work with things of space but to be in love with eternity. Things are our tools; eternity, the Sabbath, is our mate. (48)

“Thou Art One”

After the work of creation was completed, the Seventh Day pleaded: Master of the universe, all that Thou hast created is in couples; to every day of the week Thou gavest a mate; only I was left alone. And God answered: The Community of Israel will be your mate. – Rabbi Shimeon ben Yohai (51)

The Sabbath is meaningful to man and is meaningful to God. (53)

The Sabbath is a bride, and its celebration is like a wedding. (54)

The Presence of a Day

To name it queen, to call it bride is merely to allude to the fact that its spirit is a reality we meet rather than an empty span of time which we choose to set aside for comfort or recuperation. (59)

To most of us a person, a human being, seems to be a maximum of being, the ceiling of reality; we think that to personify is to glorify. Yet do not some of us realize at times that a person is no superlative, that to personify the spiritually real is to belittle it? A personification may be both a distortion and a depreciation. There are many persons in the world but only one Sabbath. (60)

The distinction of the Sabbath is reflected in the twin meanings of the phrase kabbalat Shabbat which means to accept the sovereignty as well as to welcome the presence of the day. The Sabbath is a queen as well as a bride. (62)

Eternity Utters a Day

Six days a week the spirit is alone, disregarded, forsaken, forgotten. … Then comes the sixth day. Anxiety and tension give place to the excitement that precedes a great event. The Sabbath is still away but the thought of its imminent arrival stirs in the heart a passionate eagerness to be ready and worthy to receive it. (65)

Intuitions of Eternity

That the Sabbath and eternity are one — or of the same essence — is an ancient idea. (“The Seventh day is the sign of the resurrection and the world to come,” and there shall therefore be no mourning on that day. Vita Adae et Evae, 41:1, The Apocrypha and Pseudopigrapha, ed. Charles, II, 151. According to Louis Ginzberg, The Book of Adam, Jewish Encyclopedia, the book is of purely Jewish origin.) A legend relates that “at the time when God was giving the Torah to Israel, He said to them: My children! If you accept the Torah and observe my mitzvot, I will give you for all eternity a thing most precious that I have in my possession. — And what, asked Israel, is that precious thing which Thou wilt give us if we obey Thy Torah? — The world to come. — Show us in this world an example of the world to come. — The Sabbath is an example of the world to come.” (Alphabet of R. Akiba, Otzar Midrashim, p. 407; see also p. 430. Cf. also the Midrash quoted in Kad ha-Qemah, Shabbat, end.) (73)

Unless one learn show to relish the taste of Sabbath while still in this world, unless one is initiated in the appreciation of eternal life, one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come. Sad is the lot of him who arrives inexperienced and when led to heaven has no power to perceive the beauty of the Sabbath…(Rabbi Solomon of Karlin.) (74)

To Jewish piety the ultimate human dichotomy is not that of mind and matter but that of the sacred and profane. (75)

We usually think that the earth is our mother, that time is money and profit our mate. The seventh day is a reminder that God is our father, that time is life and the spirit our mate. (76)

Great are the laws that govern the processes of nature. Yet without holiness there would be neither greatness nor nature. (76)

Holiness in Time

Holiness in space, in nature, was known in other religions. New in the teaching of Judaism was that the idea of holiness was gradually shifted from space to time, from the realm of nature to the realm of history from things to events. (79)

“The day of the Lord” is more important to the prophets than “the house of the Lord.” (79)

The ancient rabbis discern three aspects of holiness: the holiness of the Name of God, the holiness of the Sabbath, and the holiness of Israel. (Yalkut Shimoni I, 830. See the Midrash quoted in Tosafot Hagigah 3b.) (82)

Every seventh day a miracle comes to pass, the resurrection of the soul, of the soul of man and of the soul of all things. (83)

Thou Shalt Covet

Something happens to a man on the Sabbath day. On the eve of the Sabbath the Lord gives man neshamah yeterah, and at the conclusion of the Sabbath He takes it away from him, Says Rabbi Shimeon ben Laqish. (Bezah 16a; Ta’anit 27b. The author of that saying is Rabbi Shimeon ben Laqish, who lived in the third century. See above, chap. 5, n. 11.) (87)

Neshamah yeterah means additional spirit. (87)

According to ancient legend, the light created at the very beginning of creation was not the same as the light emitted by the sun, the moon, and the stars. The light of the first day was of a sort that would have enabled man to see the world at a glance form one end to the other. (88)

Judaism tries to foster the vision of a life as a pilgrimage to the seventh day; the longing for the Sabbath all days of the week which is a form of longing for the eternal Sabbath all the days of our lives. (The awareness of the spirit of the Sabbath is not restricted to one seventh of the week. The Ten Commandments are found in two versions: in the Book of Exodus and in the Book of Deuteronomy. In the first version the commandment of the Sabbath begins with the words: Remember [zahor] the seventh day, and in the second: Keep [shamor] the seventh day. Said a medieval sage: “Remember it always, wait for its arrival [shemor means also to wait eagerly] … Wait, look forward to it like one who looks forward to meeting a person he loves.” [Al Nakawa, Menorat ha-Maor, III, 575]) It seeks to displace the coveting of things in space for the coveting the things in time, teaching man to covet the seventh day all days of the week. God himself coveted that day, He called it Hemdat Yamim, a day to be coveted. (In the Sabbath liturgy we say: “Thou wast pleased with the seventh day and dist sanctify it, the most coveted of days didst Thou call it.” Where in the Bible is the Sabbath called “the most coveted of days”? The verse in Genesis 2:2, which we usually translate: “and God completed on the seventh day,” reads in an ancient Aramaic version “and God coveted theseventh day.” See M. Ginsburger, Das Fragmententhargum [Targum Jeruschalmi zum Pentateuch], Berlin, 1899.) It is as if the command: Do not covet things of space, were correlated with the unspoken word: Do covet things of time. (90-1)

Epilogue – To Sanctify Time

Time to us is a measuring device rather than a realm in which we abide. (96)

…temporality may be defined as the relation of space to time. (97)

Creation, we are taught, is not an act that happened once upon a time, once and for ever. … God called the world into being, and that call goes on. … Every instant is an act of creation. (100)

Eternity utters a day. (101)

— VIA —

Few authors have the ability to speak so eloquently on a subject in so few words. Heschel is one of them. Simply put, one of my favorite books, and one that I hope becomes more widely read and practiced.

Since the first publication of this book, the pursuit of the conquering of space has only increased exponentially. I’m not sure where Sabbath wisdom will fall in our cultural conscious over the next 20 years, but I cynically lament my feelings that it will slide further and further to the mere distant history of an ancient people. If we could only one day receive that ancient wisdom and revive it from the reputation of being archaic and inane to recognizing it for the beautiful and brilliant commentary that it is of what it means to be human, not only in their world, but in ours, and in the world(s) that are coming…

About VIA


  1. joe onstead

    This is one of five books in my library that I call important. A well of wisdom and inspiration

  2. Pingback: Stewards of Eden | Reflections & Notes | vialogue

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