Friday, September 9, 2011

The Sabbath: Sanctifying A Space In Modern Times

Personal Reflections

The Isrealite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Isreal. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed.
Shemot (Exodus) 31: 16-17, Hebrew Tanakh

On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion. You shall do no work; it shall be a sabbath of the LORD throughout your settlements.
VaYikra (Leviticus) 23:3, Hebrew Tanakh

The Sabbath is no time for personal anxiety or care, for any activity that might dampen the spirit of joy. The Sabbath is no time to remember sins, to confess, to repent or even to pray for relief or anything we might need. It is a day for praise, not a day for petitions. Fasting, mourning, demonstrations of grief are forbidden.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, p. 30

More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.
Ahad Ha'am, Hebrew writer

The Sabbath: Book cover of The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Herschel, 2005 edition. "The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath. It is not an interlude but a climax of living," Heschel writes.
Photo Credit: Perry J Greenbaum, 2011
I have not always shown interest in the practice of Judaism. As with many people of my generation growing up in Montreal—I was born in 1957—I followed the traditions of my parents with mixed feelings. I knew that I was Jewish, but I was also a Canadian, a Montrealer, a sports fan, a music fan and interested in science, literature, knowledge and the pursuit of social justice, to name a few things that caught my attention.

The idea of taking a day of rest, ceasing from work and any creative activity, seemed out of place in my world of modernity. Resting is not something that young boys or young men take to easily. Today, my level of observance of Judaism is greater than the time of my youth, mostly as a nod to tradition, community and familial obligations. Shabbat (שַׁבָּת) or the Sabbath, which means "to cease," forms an important part of that observance. As readers of this blog know, I have always advocated that religion has a place in our society, as does science, music, the arts and commerce—all the underpinnings of a well-functioning democratic society.

As for religious practices or observances, I have come to understand their importance, not as a dominant singular force common to some, but as a participating influence reminding us of a need beyond the everyday, the common current of life. Part of us desires a look into holiness. In a book that I have been rereading, The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes:
Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, qualitiless, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time, there are no two hours alike. every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endless precious.

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of the year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate: the Day of Atonement. According to the ancient rabbis, it is not the observance of the Day of Atonement, but the Day itself, the "essence of the Day," which, with man's repentance, atones for the sins of man. (8)
Kiddish Cup: A typical silver kiddish cup used to recite a blessing over wine or grape juice for Shabbat and the Jewish holidays. Kiddish (Hebrew: קידוש‎) means "sanctification," separating the day from the others, in a sense elevating it.
Source: Wikipedia

The Modern Mind

Such is a hard concept for our Western-trained and scientifically inclined minds to understand and accept. Granted, the idea of entering, at least for one day out of seven, a state of holiness or sanctification (or kiddish, קידוש‎), appeals to our sense of nobility, of poetry. Yet, the "problem" is that we live in a modern age, a point that Rabbi Heschel conceded 60 years ago. It's more so now, with many modern distractions and pursuits, some noble, compassionate and meaningful in their own right, all of which don't cease at the doorstep of The Sabbath.

Then there's the scientific rational mind at work. Like others, I am still trying to understand such ancient ideas and how to apply these practically in my life. It's not so much the idea and practice of ceasing from doing a list of 39 prohibited activities (melachot), but doing it with sufficient understanding to free ourselves from doubt and skepticism. We can, as humans, understand and agree with the need to rest, or even to have positive thoughts. Yet there's more that we want. The rabbis say "do first and understand later," contrary to the scientific method of understanding first and then doing or applying the laws. Therein lies the problem.  Or at least the resulting tension.

The conundrum. It's a matter of religious faith, and for many that is sufficient in itself. For the rest of us, we want answers, and answers to hard questions that are not easy to answer. We might follow the religious observances, but not with complete abandon or disregard to our inquiring self. Our modern mind wants to weigh, investigate and analyze the evidence. Although uncertain of its validity today, of how religious practices fit into our lives, we continue forward, not in perfect step, perhaps, but clumsily and awkwardly, with the harmonies of tradition, continuity and familial obligations playing in our heads.


  1. My parents, who came to the United States from Poland in their 20s, kept a kosher home and observed the High Holidays. But they disapproved of the Sabbath, which, they felt, deprived humanity of one-seventh of its working life.
    However, when we had Lubavitcher tenants in our summer bungalows, we observed the Sabbath to be polite. My mother grew sentimental. "Shabbos is very beautiful," she said. "It's as hard as work."

  2. Prof Jochnowitz:

    Such are my sentiments. It's both beautiful, even poetic, but an effort in itself. Some people have other, beautiful even important interests that might occupy their time, and they need not justify their actions.


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