He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life.
He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man. 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 soil.
The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self…
To the biblical mind, labor is the means towards an end, and the Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. “Last in creation, first in intention,” the Sabbath is “the end of the creation of heaven and earth.”
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 the climax of living.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath
Reflection – As we move into some of the most beautiful passages in this beautiful book that treat of the Sabbath itself, the Jewish sense of love and joy in the seventh day and their profound observance of it, of course we again are reading this as Christians, and bring to bear on it our Christian sensibility and understanding of things.
This is fine, as long as we have respect and reverence for the original Jewish context and sense of it all. We may not keep Sabbath quite the way a religious Jew does, and the difference does flow from our specific Christian theology of the first day as opposed to the seventh, the Lord’s Day, the day of the resurrection and the new creation, as opposed to the day of the completion of creation. We have a different story, and so our way of entering Sunday is not the same as the Jewish way of entering Shabbat.
But there is tremendous wisdom and goodness in the Jewish observance of Sabbath, and we are well advised to learn from them and from it to the enrichment and blessing of our lives. This whole business of ‘stopping’, for example. That, by the way, is the Hebrew root word of Shabbat—the verb means simply ‘to stop’.
We have a hard time ‘stopping’, at least in North America. I have read (for example) American commentators who positively brag about the complete inability/refusal of Americans to stop working, ever, even for a day. The ceaseless industry and activity of our times, the so-called ‘Protestant work ethic’, the tendency, even when we stop, to simply find other modes of economic commercial life—this is wildly out of balance.
This year, the shopping frenzy of ‘Black Friday’, the day after American Thanksgiving, got moved by many stores… to Thanksgiving Day itself! Why do something pointless like stay home and spend time with your family and your loved ones when you can run around like a lunatic looking for bargain prices, right?
There is a real tendency to eliminate any sense of Sabbath from our lives. It is as if we behold the real sin of indolence and are so horrified by it that we recoil into endless frenetic activity. Technology is our enemy in this matter, too, as when we do sit down and stop, we tend to fire up the screens of our devices and plunge into yet another form of restless activity.
There is a great need for silence, for contemplation, certainly for prayer, but also for the simple capacity to sit quietly and watch the world unfold without our help. To watch the sun move across the heavens and the wind stir the trees. To look at the flight of a bird, the scamper of a chipmunk, the fall of snow.
God made the world without our help, and the world goes along without our help, you know. And there is something deeply spiritually healthy in taking a moment or two (or – gasp – even a whole day) to take note of that salutary fact. I am not needed for the proper operation of the world, and neither are you. Because we are not strictly necessary, our creation by God comes out of his love for and delight in us—we are not merely some needful utilitarian cog in some cosmic machine.
There is a whole way of being in the world that is not defined by the ceaseless struggle and labor of life and the extracting of a living out of the soil of the world. I can hear all the arguments, of course, of how tough life is and how we all have to work that hard or we’ll all starve to death, etc., etc. You know, somehow the Jews have managed to keep the Sabbath holy all these millennia, and haven’t starved to death doing so. Why, in our world of technological mastery, industrial food production, and unparalleled (truly) generalized wealth and luxury (at least in North America) we are unable to ever stop for a single hour let alone one day a week has more to do with spiritual pathology than economic necessity. As the line goes, somebody stop us, before it's too late!
We have a great deal to learn from the Jewish Sabbath, and a great blessing to derive from taking it to heart and adapting it to our own Christian way of life. Man is not a beast of burden, but a child of God, and it is only by laying down our burdens from time to time that we come to know this.