Heschel on Sabbath rest and beauty

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In Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath, he uses a phrase big enough to hold the entire book, "The seventh day is like a palace in time." The word "palace" conveys the sense of beauty and delight that comprises this day of rest. Like a palace, the day is set apart from the surrounding days. Honored. Protected.

"How should we weigh the difference between the Sabbath and the other days of the week? When a day like Wednesday arrives, the hours are blank, and unless we lend significance to them, they remain without character. The hours of the seventh day are significant in themselves; their significance and beauty do not depend on any work, profit or progress we may achieve. They have the beauty of grandeur."

"In time" distinguishes the day from existing "in space." Our civilization is "a conquest of space,” wrote Heschel. We increase our space, enhance it by acquiring things to occupy it; by so doing we increase our power. But space is bought with time and time is the domain of God. On the Sabbath we admit the holiness of time and refrain from using it on things of space.

"What is so luminous about a day? What is so precious to captivate the hearts? It is because the seventh day is a mine where spirit's precious metal can be found with which to construct the palace in time, a dimension in which the human is at home with the divine; a dimension in which man aspires to approach the likeness of the divine."

Using poetic language and style, Heschel weaves together allegory, quotation, liturgy, midrash, exegesis, and reflection to construct a defense for the Jewish understanding of the Sabbath. Heschel's work is a classic authority on the topic of the Sabbath, quoted in most serious works on the subject, and has given this Christian Protestant woman much to ponder about the Sabbath and the architecture of time.

The honoring of the Sabbath – the second commandment – as described by Heschel has no hint of sacrifice, sternness, or restriction but instead rings of abundance, joy, delight, and beauty. No thought of work or worry shall touch the Sabbath. No collapsed exhaustion shall fill its hours. It is the feast of the week. The festival for which the six days of work prepare.

"The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living."

So what shall the day ahead hold? A long walk; worship; good simple food; silence; an afternoon nap; coffee with someone I love; no worries for tomorrow (always hard to do); music; time in the sunshine; a half-finished book. Your day ahead?


[Photo: taken at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden last summer, on a Sunday outing.]