I first read Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man less than twenty years after its publication. It was already a classic among readers who cherished the few works of Jewish thought written in artful, eloquent English for a literate audience. Heschel summoned “modern man” to “lay down the profanity of clattering commerce” and “go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life.” This sounded rather dramatic, but not undeserved. There was a familiar tone of sermonic exhortation, insisting that the experience being described and advocated was available to all who have ears to hear. Surely there were people who needed to be told these things, though I had no idea how, or whether, listeners were really liberated from their bondage to toil (as opposed to healthy labor) and the things acquired through toil. Heschel was eager to assure his readers that respecting the Sabbath was not an escape from worldly striving and responsibility. The Sabbath observer gained “heaven and everything else.” There must have been people who had this wrong idea about the Sabbath and disdained it for that reason. Overall, Heschel’s message did not strike me as surprising or controversial.
One thesis in this book aroused controversy, however. Judaism, Heschel argued, is a religion that sanctifies time, as opposed to Christianity which sanctifies space, and the Sabbath exemplifies this difference. This idea may be influenced by nineteenth-century Jewish writers who fostered the image of the Jew whose aesthetic world was musical rather than visual. Heschel was forced to defend it at the time.
Subsequent historical research on Jewish art has weakened this too-neat dichotomy. The notion of a strong distinction between a religion of time, as opposed to one of space, perhaps made a virtue of the Jewish exile before large-scale Jewish return to the land of Israel. And then there are legal matters that speak against an exclusive focus on time. Sabbath observance includes restrictions on carrying objects outside the private domain and walking a certain distance outside of town. Many Jewish communities assign high priority to constructing eruvin to outline the communal arena in which the prohibition of carrying on the Sabbath applies. Expanding the nominally shared domain facilitates social intercourse on the Sabbath. So, Sabbath configures space as well as time.
Heschel’s poetic exhortations in The Sabbath muted legal prohibitions and ignored institutions like the eruv. This distanced his uplifting language from the dos and don’ts of the Sabbath, prominent in the Bible and Talmud, experienced by the practicing Jew. All Heschel had to say about adherence to these laws was a general warning against excessive legalism.
Sixty years after Heschel’s palatial prose poetry, Senator Joseph Lieberman published The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath. It opens with a scene reminiscent of film noir. On a Friday night, a police car observes two men sloshing through a torrential downpour on Pennsylvania Avenue. One of the men turns out to be Senator Lieberman, trudging to his home over four miles from the Capitol, where he has cast a vote. The senator is prohibited from traveling by car on the Sabbath; his companion is a Capitol Hill policeman. Reading Heschel, you will not learn about this aspect of Sabbath. Lieberman calls it the price he willingly pays for the privilege and obligation of observing the holy day.
Lieberman’s book differs from Heschel’s in many ways. One cannot imagine Heschel writing about his own routine, and surely not about his family life. Lieberman also entertains us with stories of other prominent politicians. He reports on his own efforts to combine Sabbath observance with his obligations as a public servant. Like a self-help book, Lieberman appends to his chapters advice about how others can benefit in some way from the kind of experiences he describes.
We get a distinct image of the kind of modern man or woman whom Lieberman hopes to influence. Two problems seem to plague this person. One is enslavement to the gadgetry of modern communications. Lieberman’s target audience seems less troubled about being dominated by acquisitiveness and lust for power as by the sense of being unable to disconnect from the incessant flow of electronic information, however trivial, useless, or even manipulative. The second, to some extent tied to the first, is the importance of building deep, satisfying family relations—and fear of failure in this area. Lieberman’s Sabbath silences the clamor of the Internet, at least for one day a week. It is an achievement all the more admirable because he is a leader with many demands on his attention. He also offers the example of a life in which serious, unhurried family time and community time are not marginalized by the pressure of worldly activity. Even non-Jews, he suggests, might benefit from living close enough to walk to their houses of worship, as Jews must do on the Sabbath.
Many of Lieberman’s observations about the natural human good of Sabbath rest can seem attractive to people looking to deepen their private and communal lives. Nonetheless, one can raise three skeptical questions. First, as we all know, the day-of-rest ideals of domestic and communal togetherness do not appeal to all individuals, families, or communities. For the Jew, the laws of Sabbath must be obeyed, and the social practices that form around them are hard to avoid, even by those who are not attracted to or enchanted by them. We all know this, but we do not always factor in the gap between the ideal and the reality, a gap that more often than not is overcome only by the power of obligation rather than good intentions.
Second, at least in my experience, the beauty of the Sabbath and its restrictions grow with familiarity and habit. The songs, the food, the rhythm sustain us to the degree that we take them for granted. When sundown approaches on Saturday night, one yearns to extend the holiness of the day, even if this means refraining from so many innocent or obsessive weekday activities, from taking notes on one’s reading to using electronic communications, and so forth. In truth, I did not feel quite this way fifty years ago: A lifetime of observance molds patterns of meaning and pleasure. Lastly, as Lieberman notes openly when he praises the opportunities and quality of Sabbath intimacy in married life, it doesn’t work unless you believe your observance is obligatory. It is not sufficient to adopt the Sabbath as one passing therapy among others. The day is an end in itself, not the means to other ends such as attaining inner peace or building strong relationships.
Discussions of the traditional Jewish Sabbath interest people these days, many of them non-Jews who confront the problems to which Lieberman alludes. They believe that something in the Sabbath idea and Sabbath reality can help them live more authentically in personal and social conditions that are difficult, and indeed often hostile to our best aspirations. I am encouraged by such interest, especially when one does not edit out the burdensome facts. Of this I am certain: Recovering our intimate relation with God, building community with family and friends, and freeing ourselves from dependence on mechanical connectedness and informational flooding require patience, persistence, frequent inconvenience, occasional suffering, and the consciousness of being commanded. Few of us look forward to long walks in drenching rains, but without the readiness to do so when it is demanded, the prospect of “heaven and everything else” is liable to remain wishful thinking.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva College and is editor of Tradition, the theological journal of the Rabbinical Council of America.