The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel

Availability: Amazon, San Jose

This post includes reviews from:

Our member Robert Bergman writes:

I opened the book and started reading and on the first page Heschel started writing about space. The human race has sought to conquer space and has learned to survive in harsh conditions. We acquire things that occupy space which we admire. Our daily comfort level centers on things in that space, in our homes and environment where we live. We as humans have used physical space in which we have built temples where we worship our deities, defined by the notion that the deities reside in that space. In contrast, Heschel posits that Judaism, and especially the Sabbath isn’t about that space at all, but it is about time. Time is a much more difficult concept than space. You can’t see it, feel it or taste it. Space can be defined with boundaries and other traits that can be experienced by our senses of sight and touch.

As I started reading Heschel it all sounded so familiar – that I had read this before, and then it hit me. Michael Isaacson, a Jewish composer, wrote a book called Jewish Music and Midrash that we had studied with Cantor Felder-Levy a few years ago. At the time, I was struck by the thought that Isaacson differentiates musical arts from other fine arts by their nature. Music is art that occupies no space but occupies only time. Music, especially live music, only lives in one’s memory after it has been experienced, and no two performances are ever identical. The notes for Beethoven’s 9th Symphony will be the same but the musical performance will be slightly faster or slower, slightly louder or softer, the timbre slightly brighter or darker. Compare that to works of art by Van Gogh or da Vinci. The Mona Lisa and Starry Night will always be the Mona Lisa and Starry Night exactly as they are.

I realized that Heschel and Isaacson were really talking about the same thing – spirituality. Spirituality exists in our minds, our thoughts, and in our memories. The Sabbath can transform ones spirituality, to which anyone who has been in Jerusalem on Shabbat can attest. The Sabbath is an experience. When it’s over, we move on and all we have to cling to is the memory of the experience. So it is with a musical performance. At the end of a concert, all we have is our experience with our impression of the performance in our memory. A musical performance can also be equally spiritually transformative.

Perhaps this is just one reasons why I enjoy being a lay cantor and singing in the choir. Having the opportunity to meld the spirituality of Shabbat with the spirituality of Shabbat’s music brings special a meaning to my Shabbat experience.

Our member Deborah Trevisan writes:

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was well known for both his social activism and his writings on the relationship between God and man.  Because of books like The Sabbath, Heschel became one of the most influential modern philosophers of religion, acclaimed by Christian groups as well as Jewish ones.  During his long career, Abraham Heschel tried to both teach and exemplify classical Jewish learning in a way that would ring more clearly in the modern Jewish ear.  Rabbi Rachel Sabath-Beit Halachmi states that Abraham Heschel was a traditionalist who believed that a Jew encounters God through traditional practice.  However, this did not prevent him from being on the front lines of social activism in the U.S., demonstrating and speaking out against racism, poverty, and the war in Vietnam.  In his writings, he blends scholarship with the heart of a poet.

In his book The Sabbath, originally published in 1951, Heschel reflects on the underlying themes of the Jewish Sabbath.  He starts by challenging the all too consuming goal of “technical civilization”, to expand the control over space.  The author sees the results as another form of poverty for individuals, the poverty of time.  Abraham Heschel’s answer to this conundrum is for individuals to use the tools of civilization, but to be “in love with eternity.”  For Heschel, the Sabbath is the key.

Themes in The Sabbath

The observance of the Sabbath helps to minimize the human infatuation with space and things, which can limit our abilities to relate in ways other than with things and places.  According to Heschel, this attention to the merely physical blinds us to other realities.  He calls this an “enslavement to things.”

According to Heschel, “Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time,” and that Judaism aims at the sanctification of time, rather than things or places.  The Sabbath then is a palace in time, to which we bring ourselves; after the six days of the week, we are to leave the tyranny of things to become attuned to holiness in time.  One day a week, we are called to contemplate the mystery of creation, rather than focus on the created things themselves.

The concept of the Sabbath was looked down upon by the Romans and other pagans.  They did not at all grasp the Jewish view that there was another aspect of life, an attempt to draw closer to the divine on the seventh day of each week, a day set apart  for more than mere relaxation.

The representation of the Sabbath as the bride or queen, is meant to illustrate God’s relationship to humankind, God’s need for human love.  Ultimately, it is meant to represent the presence of God.  This expresses a value rather than a fact, an invitation to fellowship.

Short Excerpts from The Sabbath

Time and space are interrelated.  To overlook either of them is to be partially blind.  What we plead against is man’s unconditional surrender to space, his enslavement to things.  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. (p. 6)

Is our civilization a way to disaster, as many of us are prone to believe?  Is civilization essentially evil, to be rejected and condemned?  The faith of the Jew is not a way out of this world, but a way of being within and above  this world; not to reject but to surpass civilization.  The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of  surpassing civilization.  (p. 22)

While Jewish tradition offers us no definition of the concept of eternity, it tells us how to experience the taste of eternity or eternal life within time.  Eternal life does not grow away from us; it is “planted within us,” growing beyond us. (p. 74)

Things created conceal the Creator.  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. (p. 100)