Educational Materials

Study Guide

The Sabbath

One of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s most enduring works is a short volume published in 1951 called The Sabbath. In that book, Heschel reflects on the importance of Sabbath-keeping as a way of reconnecting with God, family, and community; of honoring God’s gift of rest and renewal; of reorientation and stepping out of the rush of ordinary time; and of practicing important rituals and traditions that reinforce religious and cultural identities.

Sabbath-keeping is especially important in the Hasidic tradition from which Heschel descended, an acknowledgement of God’s gift of creation and the wonder of it. In The Sabbath, Heschel writes of Judaism itself as “a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time.” Rather than focusing on holy spaces, Heschel suggests that, by insisting on the demarcation between ordinary time and sacred time, Jewish ritual “may be characterized as . . . [an] architecture of time.” Christianity may have its magnificent churches and Islam its grand mosques, but for Jews, Heschel asserts that “[t]he Sabbaths are our great cathedrals”—the times when we pause, pray, worship, and reorient ourselves to God, one another, and creation.

Questions to Consider
  1. What do you think Heschel means when he suggests that Judaism is a “religion in time” rather than of space? Here is a quote to consider:

“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the creation of the world” (The Sabbath, 10).

 

  1. Rabbi Sharon Brous suggests that “it is actually Shabbat, the experience of the Sabbath, that has kept the Jewish people alive over the course of thousands of years through all kinds of struggle.” What do you think she means by this? How might Sabbath-keeping have helped Jews to maintain their unique identity and to survive diaspora and persecution over the centuries? Would secular Jews disagree with this assessment?

 

  1. Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary suggests that Sabbath-keeping has helped American Jews maintain their cultural and religious identities over against the powerful forces of assimilation. Eisen suggests that part of Heschel’s message to readers of The Sabbath is, “Your space is now Gentile space [America], but your time can be Jewish time. You can make a place in your life that is sacred, that is going to enable you to be fully Jewish in the larger society. ”

Do you agree with Eisen’s assessment? Has Sabbath-keeping enabled American Jews to retain a unique identity within the larger, diverse American culture?

 

  1. Scholar Benjamin Sax asserts that, “When you live in a world in which you look forward to a Sabbath day every week, it gives you hope, it gives you some sort of redemption.” Do you practice a Sabbath day in your tradition (whether Jewish or not)? Do you agree with Sax’s assessment that Sabbath-keeping offers a sense of hope or redemption? Why or why not? What difference might it make if you did practice a Sabbath day each week, as Heschel suggests?

 

  1. In Jewish tradition and many others, Sabbath-keeping is associated with specific and recurring rituals and practices that help to reinforce its meaning and What are some of the important rituals that Heschel and his family practiced? If you practice Sabbath-keeping in your own tradition, what rituals do you associate with it? How does the practice of specific rituals and traditions help to make the Sabbath “eternal” as Heschel suggests it is?

 

  1. Consider Heschel’s assertion in The Sabbath that “[t]he Jewish contribution to the idea of love is the conception of love of the Sabbath, the love of a day, of spirit in the form of time” (16). What do you think he means by this? How might the Jewish love of the Sabbath be a contribution to an understanding of love itself?

 

  1. In the film, Christian theologian Walter Brueggemann suggests that, in The Sabbath, Heschel’s “articulation helped us see that Sabbath is intensely Jewish, but then, it’s not Jewish at all, it’s human. “ Is the idea of Sabbath and of Sabbath-keeping something that could or does have universal application? Could it apply to everyone, regardless of tradition? What does Sabbath mean in your tradition?

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