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Sa b b a t h

“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
dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.”

“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a
week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to
become attuned to holiness in time.
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.”

“When history began, there was only one holiness in the world, holiness in time.
When at Sinai the word of God was about to be voiced, a call for holiness in man
was proclaimed: "Thou shalt be unto me a holy people." It was only after the
people had succumbed to the temptation of worshipping a thing, a golden calf,
that the erection of a Tabernacle, of holiness in space, was commanded. 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.”

“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.”

“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

T 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 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 old fashioned. 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… 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 (1907-1972)
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 JewishTheological 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.