The Heart of Time

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“The Sabbath” by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, illustrated by Ilya Schor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975).

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his classic, “The Sabbath”: “There are few ideas … which contain so much spiritual power as the idea of the Sabbath.” His book draws from and reflects that power, which is why I have recommended it more often, and with more life-changing results, than any book other than the Bible.

I generally explain Shabbat by identifying some key laws and customs. On Shabbat, we wear lovely clothing, set a beautiful table and eat the best foods. Parents bless children; spouses bless one another. We enjoy the delights of naps, walks, meditation, singing, pleasure reading and lovemaking. We spend unhurried time with family, community and God. No errands. No commercialism. No petitions for more. Shabbat is a time to rejuvenate and re-soul.

I hate to be a stickler, but these are the rules.

When Shabbat is thus described, we readily understand why the ancient rabbis called it “a taste of the world to come.” But while my description is accurate, many Jews have a very different impression of Shabbat. They see it as restrictive: no cooking, no travel, no carrying. For kids, traditional observance means no TV, no computer, no coloring, no bike riding.

Heschel explains the love and meaning behind Shabbat restrictions. Melacha (labor eschewed on Shabbat) includes all energies used to manage creation, rather than accept and enjoy it as we find it. Even activities that foster relaxation or reduce physical labor are prohibited, if they generate something new. Obviously, creating and manipulating creation can be beneficial. In fact, we are commanded to do melacha six days out of seven. But one day is for menucha (Sabbath rest). This involves more than cessation of labor or collapse in front of the television. Menucha is what God created on the seventh day (Genesis 2:2) — an active, affirmative form of rest where “the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.”

Menucha is restorative, but that is its consequence, not its purpose.

“Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for … enhancing the efficiency of his work.”

For Heschel, Shabbat is “the climax of living…. Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit form the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.”

Sabbath prohibitions, associated with the commandment to keep the Sabbath, are meant to keep Shabbat different from the other days. Shabbat connects us to family and community by first unplugging us from business and technology. The “thou shalt nots” are designed to create space for something distinctive and holy to enter.

And that is precisely where the “thou shalt” commandments come in. They help create the oneg (pleasure, delight) of Shabbat. Reflecting the commandment to remember the Sabbath, the “thou shalt’s” remind us of Shabbat’s ultimate meaning as sign and covenant. Shabbat is simultaneously the source and culmination of creation. We imitate God, who rested and called Shabbat not just good, but holy. We recall the Exodus from Egypt, in that Shabbat grants us a measure of freedom. “Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people,” Heschel writes. Shabbat confers liberty by commanding independence from technology, routine, acquisitions, even civilization itself.

It is difficult to explain how Shabbat feels to those who observe and love it. As someone who has taught and written about Jewish ritual, I have come to know, perhaps better than most, the limits of language to convey the experience of ritual. A tractate on lighting Friday night candles can offer valuable background and even wisdom, but it will never yield the personal and deep insights gained by simply and consistently lighting candles.

Heschel has a way of explaining Shabbat that makes you want to observe it — if not with all the traditional restrictions, then certainly as a holy and distinctive day. His lush language conveys the depth and beauty of Shabbat, which he calls “spirit in the form of time,” “homeland, source, and destination,” “resurrection of the soul,” even “our mate.” For Heschel, the answer to our search for meaning lies in finding the balance between weekday and Shabbat, productivity and renewal, having and being. The goal is “to work with things of space [during the week] but to be in love with eternity [through Shabbat].”

This may be Heschel’s most important idea: that Shabbat, and Judaism in general, find holiness in time more than in space. Shabbat is our “cathedral in time.” In Heschel’s beautiful words: “Monuments of stone are destined to disappear; days of spirit never pass away…. We cannot solve the problem of time through the conquest of space, though either pyramids or fame. We can only solve the problem of time through the sanctification of time…. We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things…. All week long we are called upon to sanctify life through employing things of space. On the Sabbath it is given us to share in the holiness that is in the heart of time.”

Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue in Encino and editor of “Lifecycles 1: Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones” (Jewish Lights, 1994).