The Sabbath // Abraham Joshua Heschel.

With relentless energy Abraham Joshua Heschel seizes the soul and announces the beauty and grandeur of Sabbath: Here comes the queen and bride of humankind! She “is a bride, and its celebration is like a wedding” (54). But Sabbath is also a queen: she commands attention and graces presence. The legal and spiritual weights of Sabbath are melded; we observe with solemnity and exuberance (62). Thus Heschel distills the wisdom of Sabbath into such arresting analogy. 

Sabbath comes weekly as “a moment of resurrection” and “an example of the world to come” (66, 73). Regularly and briefly, humanity glimpses and tastes the Holy—life infused with “the spirit of the Messiah” (68). Sabbath marks and makes time holy; she blankets the seventh day as “a day of harmony and peace, peace between man and man, peace within man, and peace with all things…. All that is divine in the world is brought into union with God. This is Sabbath, and the true happiness of the universe” (31-2). She is bride, yes, but she is also “a sign of the covenant” between God and humanity (54). Deeper and more scandalous, she is “an illustration of God’s need for human love” (60). The Sabbath is God’s gift of rest to humanity—a sliver of eternity in a day, or as Heschel poets, “eternity utters a day”—but she is also humanity’s gift to God, not of equal value but one with infinite expectation. The Sabbath glimmers the truth that God desires us. 

Humanity returns to fulfill divine desire in blending the Sabbath command and the covet command: Thou shalt not covet things of space (property and things), but only covet things of time, namely the eternal Sabbath (90-1). One has to learn “how to relish the taste of Sabbath while still in this world,” and if not “one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come” (74). To covet Sabbath is to desire and relish life with God. 

Sabbath is a day of maximal delight, and it is a sin to be angry, sad, and even to repent and worry on such a day (29-31). It is “a delight to the soul and a delight to the body,” resting both from work (18). The Sabbath does not spite work, as if the other six days are unimportant; nor does Sabbath exist because of work, as if it is the week’s pitstop. Sabbath is not the interlude but “the climax of living” (14). To delight in Sabbath, to enjoy “perfect rest is an art… the art of painting on the canvas of time the mysterious grandeur of the climax of creation” (14, 16). It is the art of keeping Sabbath holy, to sanctify “with all thy heart, with all thy soul and with all thy senses.” God sheds light on how to sanctify Sabbath: “by choice meals, by beautitful garments; delight your soul with pleasure and I will reward you for this very pleasure” (18-9). Sabbath keeping is, therefore, both law and pleasure, both a queen to obey and a bride to delight. 

The Sabbath is a short, accessible work. Heschel reserves more philosophical lines to a minimum. Instead, within such tight economy of words, Heschel devotes nearly a third to Rabbinic parables and metaphors, especially Sabbath as queen and bride. This speaks to the nature of Sabbath: it is beyond philosophical comprehension and abstraction by being so elusive yet near. The Sabbath can only be gestured with words; instead, it is meant to be tasted with bodies in time. 

The bulk is devoted to the elevation of time above space. Humanity gained control of the world of space, Heschel claims, but at the expense of time (3). Humanity has more than ever before, but we have lost the ability to exist well in time. We sit uncomfortably with idle time—we rather have things to occupy our hands. We’re so uncomfortable with time that we make it subservient to the conquest of space; time becomes money (5). But we’re fooled: space is temporary and passing, but time is eternal (96-8). Thus the phrase “running out of time” means something profoundly different: time is not slipping through our fingers like gold coins, but rather space is running outside the realm of time. The higher goal of life is not to amass things of space, but “to face sacred moments”—to be seared and forged by them (6). Time is where humanity encounters God (100). So, the conquest of space must be subservient to sacred moments, labor and work subservient to rest. 


Heschel’s insistence on the greater importance of time over space is intriguing, betraying more mysticism than vague gnosticism. Heschel abandons neither space nor labor; both only have their place in right relation to time and eternity. Ordering time over space in importance resolves modern humanity’s vexing problem of materialism by “attaining some degree of independence” from the world of space (28). Again, Heschel makes conquest of space in service to holy moments. 

Willie James Jennings, on the other hand, glories in the beauty and power of place. Where we stand in the dirt tells us who we are and forms who we will be. This is not space in exclusion to time, however. How long we spend on this or that dirt is just as important and revealing as where this or that dirt is. For example, how many blue-collar jobs are overworking outside during this Covid-19 pandemic vs white-collar jobs safely quarantined within homes. Jennings would challenge Heschel’s notion of conquest of space, I believe. Instead of conquest, humanity’s cultivation of space. Holy moments burn our souls, but earthy roots grounds our bodies—both are essential to live well with God and others here and now unto forever. 

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