Book Review: The Sabbath
Posted December 12, 2011on:
The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1951, 118 pp.
I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to read this book. After adding it to my list nearly 10 year ago, then receiving a copy as a gift from a dear friend when I left Boston six years ago, it was the Macedonian Ministries program that finally got me to actually sit down and read this classic work on the Sabbath. What a gem!
Heschel’s style is part mystic, part philosopher, part rabbi. This is a book that begs to be read and reread, and I am certain that each and every reading would produce new and deeper insights. On my first reading, I felt certain that there were many levels of meaning that would only reveal themselves on subsequent readings.
Heschel begins by defining the difference between the realm of space and the realm of time. The realm of space is the world of “thing-ness,” the place where we work to control the world and the things in it, to acquire and produce, to build and occupy and transform. It is the world of six days of the week, and it dominates our senses, even our theology, as we try to construction notions of God as a “thing” in a place, with a form, taking up space. The Bible, Heschel argues, is far more concerned with time than with space. Judaism is about holiness in time, beginning with the celebration of God’s deeds and historic acts and culminating in the Sabbath. The practice of faith, he says, is an “architecture of time,” with the Sabbath as a “palace in time,” created for our luxury with God.
The practice of keeping Sabbath changes the very nature of our relationship to time and space, as we set aside the work of the body for the nurture of the soul. The Sabbath is an “example of the world to come,” (73) and a seed of eternal life planted within us. (74) When we keep Sabbath, we connect with that world to come and the power of eternal life. Heschel even argues that the Sabbath gives us additional soul. (88)
It is the dimension of time wherein man meets God, wherein man becomes aware that every instant is an act of creation, a Beginning, opening up new roads for ultimate realizations. Time is the presence of God in the world of space, and it is within time that we are able to sense the unity of all beings. (100)
I have read the work of many of Heschel’s disciples who have written on the Sabbath (Tilden Edwards, Wayne Muller, Marva J. Dawn, Donna Schaper, Dorothy Bass). I appreciated each of those works for their practicality and insight about why sabbath-keeping matters to the spiritual life. But none of them had the mysticism of Heschel, the cosmic sense that the Sabbath fundamentally changes our relationship to the world and to God.
I look forward to reading this book again and again, and to my sabbatical time this winter, when I hope to “grow my soul” by spending time away from work and closer to God.