Day of Dignity

Judith Shulevitz, an American writer from an assimilated Jewish family, describes her dawning love affair with Shabbat - the day that Heschel called a 'sanctuary in time'

Benjamin Balint
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Benjamin Balint

The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, by Judith Shulevitz Random House, 288 pages, $28

The Sabbath, encircled by innumerable rings of myth and ritual, of law and symbol, is surely one of the sublime inventions of the Jewish spirit. And it is very much an invention. There is something uniquely arbitrary about the Sabbath's call -- which answers to no lunar or celestial event -- to depart consciously from nature's rhythms.

The invention originates in the Bible. Genesis represents the seventh day, on which God rested from forming the heavens and the earth and all they contain, as the climax and completion of creation. It is the first thing the Bible calls "holy." The book of Exodus narrates how the Most High provided the wandering Israelites with a double portion of manna on the sixth day, and none on the seventh. At Sinai, the fourth commament, with its demand that even servants and beasts of burden must rest, brought the Sabbath into the heart of revelation (in fact, the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig considered the Sabbath the very symbol of revelation ). Observance of the day is said in Exodus to act not just as a reenactment of cosmic rhythms, nor merely as a remembrance of the liberation from Egyptian enslavement, but as a sign of the holiness of the people of Israel and their covenant with God -- a chosen day for a chosen people. For the prophets, the Sabbath also became a pillar of national survival. Jeremiah, for instance, makes the entire fate of sovereign Jerusalem depend on its observance. ("More than Israel has kept the Sabbath," the latter-day prophet of cultural Zionism Ahad Ha'am famously said, "the Sabbath has kept Israel." )

After the destruction of the Temple, as chronology supplanted geography, Jews endowed the Sabbath with new significance, making it a portable, intangible replacement in time for a lost space, or what Abraham Joshua Heschel called "a sanctuary in time." In the rabbinic imagination, the Sabbath was personified as a queen and a bride. It is a day of joy (even mourning is forbidden ), a fount of blessing and a source of solace. The Sabbath afternoon liturgy declares that on this day, "Abraham was glad, Isaac rejoiced, Jacob and his sons rested thereon -- a rest granted in love, a true and faithful rest, a rest in peace and tranquility, in quietude and safety, a perfect rest wherein you delight." Yehuda Halevi, the most revered of the medieval Hebrew poets, wrote paeans to the seventh day:

'Tis dusk, with sudden light, distilled From one sweet face, the world is filled; The tumult of my heart is stilled For thou art come, Sabbath my love! (translated by Hartwig Hirschfeld )

According to the Zohar, even the sinners in the inferno of Gehinnom find rest from their afflictions on this day. The Sabbath's delights are said to be one-sixtieth of the world to come, a foretaste of paradise, but also a harbinger of better times. "If Israel keeps one Sabbath as it should be kept," runs one midrashic saying, "the Messiah will come."

"As it should be kept" primarily means refraining from 39 kinds of intentional, creative labor. The rabbis derived these categories from the kinds of labor required to build the Sanctuary -- the most elaborate artistic enterprise in the Torah -- the construction of which ceased on the Sabbath. The Mishna admits that the vast bodies of Sabbath law -- categories upon subcategories -- are as mountains hanging by a hair, a huge proliferation rooted in only a few glancing biblical passages. (Tractate Shabbat, where many of the legal intricacies are elaborated, is the longest in the Talmud. ) But these are legalisms not lightly dismissed. The modern Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik once remarked that when he pored over the minute talmudic discourses in Tractate Shabbat and Tractate Eruvin, observing the various sages at their work, "I say to myself that these whom I see are in very truth artists of life in the throes of creation."

The kabbalists, meanwhile, reimagined the day in esoteric terms, not merely as a gift from God, but as a dimension of God. They exalted it as a day of divine union. With characteristic punning word play, they interpreted the verse in Genesis, "And God blessed the seventh day and hallowed [vayekaddesh] it" to mean that he betrothed it (from the word "kiddushin "). "It would be no exaggeration," remarked the great scholar Gershom Scholem, "to call the Sabbath the day of the kabbalah. On the Sabbath, the light of the upper world bursts into the profane world in which man lives during the six days of the week."

Personal quest

But coming to our own day, how does the Sabbath light appear in the eyes of a contemporary American Jew, estranged from her tradition, who lives in a dominantly Christian "Sunday world," a world that has substituted the leisures of "the weekend" for the precise rituals of the Sabbath?

To this question Judith Shulevitz, former culture editor of Slate, now gives an exceptionally illuminating book-length reply. While touching on some aspects of how the Sabbath appeared in the Jewish imagination, her new book documents a deeply personal quest to unearth the meaning of the Sabbath inheritance, and to come to terms with the author's deep ambivalence toward it. By turns historical and autobiographical, "The Sabbath World" offers an investigation into what she has come to think of as "a largely forgotten aspect of the history of Western civilization." To recover that history, Shulevitz traces the Christian replacement of the Jewish Sabbath with Sunday, the day of Christ's resurrection, from Paul to Calvin and Luther to the Puritans and the so-called blue laws requiring stores to be closed on Sundays in some American locales, stopping along the way to offer informative asides about groups -- like the Sabbatarians, Anabaptists and Seventh-Day Adventists -- who attempted to hew more closely to the original Sabbath. She gives an account of what she calls the Romantic Sabbath -- the pastoral idyll of Rousseau and Wordsworth and D.H. Lawrence, in which our musings are allowed to slacken a little. And she charts the modern secularization of the Lord's Day into a weekly exercise in self-improvement.

Umbilical chord to tradition

The most interesting discovery that Shulevitz's archaeology of the Sabbath unearths, however, is her own relation to the day. The author was born into the kind of assimilated family in which religion, she reports, was deemed "obsessive-compulsive, masochistic, intellectually narrow, irrational, tribalistic." Too curious to accept such a view, she began to dip into the Talmud, a text Shulevitz came to appreciate as a kind of umbilical cord linking her to a primordial tradition. One day, her study brought her to the classic case of a Jewish infant kidnapped and raised by non-Jews (tinok shenishba), and she emotionally identified her own obliviousness with the Talmud's discussion of cultural dislocation:

"By what enemy had I been captured? By the enemy, I thought, that is myself. By my disdainful teenage self, which sneered at the cheap brutalist architecture of the suburban synagogue that we joined ... By my willful, authority-baiting self, which smoked dope behind my after-school Hebrew school ... By my cynical self, which scoffed at my parents' Holocaust obsession and the endless pictures of dead Jews in their library."

Resolved to return from the captivity of Jewish illiteracy, so to speak, Shulevitz's study brought her to the Sabbath, a day she came to acknowledge as "a scene of instruction." This is the day, after all, on which from time immemorial the Torah was read aloud in a communal setting. (Philo and Josephus already remarked on the practice of public teaching on the Sabbath. ) She marveled at the day's pedagogical properties. The Sabbath, she writes, "may be the most effective machine for the reproduction of values anyone has ever come up with."

The more she opened herself to its values, the more Shulevitz became entranced by the choreographed rituals of the Sabbath, "the Sabbath dramaturgy," as she calls it. She began to welcome the power of the day to quiet the clamor and din of workday life, to stave off the encroachments of information overload, and to offer sustenance to the hunger pangs of "time famine." She contemplated the ways the day of rest "promotes social solidarity."

But looking beyond its utility, Shulevitz also came to be impressed by the idea of the Sabbath, by the notion that in insisting that men, women, strangers and animals have the right to abstain from work, "the Sabbath asserts the fundamental dignity of the human being, beyond his or her productive function." The abstention from action on Sabbath struck her as a way to acknowledge human finitude, the limits on our wills and on our banal strivings for achievement. In our weekly cessation, she realized, we reenact God's, and earn the chance to replace our heady drives for power and mastery over the world with the more humbling efforts of self-mastery.

In the last pages of her book, Shulevitz concedes that this realization changed her view of the Sabbath more than her practice of it:

"I have not changed that much, and everything has changed for me. I keep the Sabbath, but only halfway -- by strict Jewish standards, at least -- which sometimes feel fine and sometimes feels shameful, but has come to feel inevitable .... I still like the idea of the fully observed Sabbath more than I like observing it."

But in thus contemplating the Sabbath, that most enduring of the age-old Jewish inventions, and presenting it as a keen reminder that man is both creature and creator, Judith Shulevitz has produced an engaging spiritual autobiography skillfully embroidered around what can only be called her dawning American love affair with the Sabbath.

Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is a fellow at the Hudson Institute. "Running Commentary," his book on Commentary magazine and American Jewish culture, is due out in June.

Haaretz Books, April 2010,

A Jewish woman lights the Sabbath candles.Credit: Lior Mizrahi



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