Book review: Abraham Heschel’s “The Sabbath”

Lewis and Chesterton were both authors that helped me realize that my own religious tradition doesn’t have a monopoly on truth. Abraham Heschel (and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks) has helped me expand that sphere a little further into the Jewish tradition as well (if you have any recommendations from other faith traditions, please let me know). I have read his The Prophets and God in Search of Man, and I just felt it was time to try another one. What I really like about Heschel is his premise that religion is not a conservative force in society. Heschel finds in the prophetic voice a firm stand against the compromises of justice we make in society. The Sabbath is a little less go-get-em this time, but is still a call to action and a re-evaluation of our relationship with the world.

Latter-Day Saints have recently received a call from our own prophet to re-evaluate our attitude toward the Sabbath. President Nelson quoted the scripture that the Sabbath should be a delight. Heschel quotes this same scripture, but I felt that the Jewish tradition has a much deeper appreciation for the Sabbath than we do. President Nelson made clear that the Sabbath is more than a list of things not to do. But I don’t feel that we still don’t have any positive traditions to invest our Sabbath day with meaning. For me, the Sabbath is virtually equivalent with the day we go to church. In the Jewish tradition, it means a whole lot more than that.

Elder Cook once recalled in a conference talk his experience sharing a Jewish Shabbat:

My wife and I… recently participated in a Jewish Shabbat at the invitation of a dear friend… It commenced at the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath on a Friday evening. The focus was honoring God as Creator. It began by blessing the family and singing a Sabbath hymn. We joined in the ceremonial washing of hands, the blessing of bread, the prayers, the kosher meal, the recitation of scripture, and singing Sabbath songs in a celebratory mood…

The overwhelming impression from this wonderful evening was of family love, devotion, and accountability to God. As I thought about this event, I reflected on the extreme persecution that the Jews have experienced over centuries. Clearly, honoring the Sabbath has been a “perpetual covenant,” preserving and blessing the Jewish people in fulfillment of scripture.

Elder Cook captured the significance that the Sabbath holds in the Jewish faith. This book focuses less on the what of the Sabbath and more on establishing the why, why the Sabbath is so significant.

Heschel starts with a topic that may seem, well, broad? He establishes the importance of time over space. Many of the spiritual maladies of existence are from focusing on the things of space rather than time. He ultimately defines the spiritual life as attaining holiness in time:

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 a 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.

And here is the link to time. Notice how he said that the Sabbaths are our great cathedrals. In realized that the same way temples are so central to our theology, temples are central in Judaism. Not just in its centrality, but also in the emotions and setting around it:

Refreshed and renewed, attired in festive garments, with candles nodding dreamily to unutterable expectations, to intuitions of eternity, some of us are overcome with a feeling, as if almost all they would say would be like a veil. There is not enough grandeur in our souls to be able to unravel in words the knot of time and eternity.

Notice also in the previous quote how he acknowledges that the Sabbath cannot be destroyed– by neither foreign power nor individual apostasy. Heschel acknowledges the importance of physical things as well– for instance, the land of Israel and the temple at Jerusalem. But Heschel explains that their holiness is derived from the holiness of the people of Israel. Man made those things holy, but God pronounced the seventh day holy Himself.

Other religious traditions have elements of time as well. I really liked the discussion of liturgy in A Secular Age, where the liturgy gives structure and meaning to the world. We Latter-Day Saints are perhaps missing something in this dimension of time. Participating in Lent and Advent and establishing family Sabbath traditions could perhaps go a long ways. We have family home evening, but that rarely seems to get off the ground for whatever reason. Either way, perhaps its just my need to do some investing in time.

One of the most poetic lines of the whole book is when Heschel describes the Sabbath as “eternity utters a day.” The Sabbath day is what heaven is like, and if you don’t learn how to live in heaven now, you aren’t going to be prepared. That’s motivation enough for me. This is a great book for anyone who wants to reinvigorate their Sabbath day observance.

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