The Common Good

The Second-Best Book on Sabbath

100405-sabbath-worldIf you read only one book about the Sabbath, it should be Abraham Joshua Heschel's 1951 classic. If you have time to read another one, I recommend a book that was published just last week: The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time by Judith Shulevitz. (If you don't have time to read either book, you need both of them more than you realize.)

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I grew up keeping Sabbath. My parents were staunch Seventh-day Adventists, and every week by late Friday afternoon the house was clean, the next day's food was cooked, and baths were taken. Fridays were hell, but they ensured that for the next 24 hours we would have a total respite from paid work, house work, yard work, and school work. As a basically lazy person whose responsible behavior was motivated by guilt, I appreciated the weekly shift : every Sabbath, guilt attached itself not to sloth but to work.

In the three decades since I left the Adventist church, I have read a variety of Protestant books about the Sabbath. Most refer to the Jewish Sabbath, offer some wisdom about the Western enslavement to work, and suggest taking time off for worship and restoration: weekly, if possible (Tuesdays would be fine), less often if necessary, and don't forget the annual vacation. Good counsel, to be sure -- but from authors who do not understand Sabbath because they have never really lived it.

Judith Shulevitz understands Sabbath.

My friend the orthodox rabbi might disagree, since he has kept Sabbath faithfully for more than 60 years while Shulevitz keeps "the Sabbath, but only halfway -- by strict Jewish standards, at least -- which sometimes feels fine and sometimes feels shameful but has come to feel inevitable ... Probably the only way for me to trick myself into being shomer Shabbat," she writes, "would be to restrict myself to circles where such behavior is the norm, not subject to constant question."

Shulevitz's disclaimer is one reason I find her understanding of Sabbath so much deeper than that of most contemporary Protestants (though not than that of the observant rabbi): she knows you can't keep a real Sabbath on your own. Sabbath is a community affair, and no amount of individual days off can replicate it, even if you spend part of your Sabbath time in church.

Not only is Sabbath impossible without community, but community is much harder to create without Sabbath. "People who study the ways in which cultures evolve might say that the Sabbath gives societies a competitive advantage. It promotes social solidarity," Shulevitz writes. It does this by limiting work time in order to allow time for social bonding, by giving everyone the same day off so they can do things together, by insisting that this day be observed every week so that it becomes a habit, and by making the day festive, "filled with song, wine, food, and pretty clothes."

Adventists didn't get the memo about wine, but the SDA enclaves of my youth excelled in the other three categories, plus nature walks and games involving Bible verses. A festive day it was and still is, according to frequent Friday-afternoon status updates by my still-SDA Facebook friends. Now tired, overworked, fragmented adults, many of them can't wait for the sun to go down so that Sabbath can begin.

They may be as interested as I was by Shulevitz's brief but accurate history of the Christian Sabbath. Her handling of the Sabbath-to-Sunday switch is essentially what I learned from Seventh-day Adventist seminary professors, and Adventists may see traces of their own heritage in her comments on Sabbath and Bible reading, the Puritan Sabbath, the Transylvanian Sabbath (who knew?) and religious liberty, and the evangelical and romantic Sabbaths of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Shulevitz, who has written for Slate, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The New Republic, calls this book spiritual autobiography, but she focuses much more on Sabbath than on herself. She may begin a paragraph with "Sometimes I think that drinking wine is the only form of religiosity I can consistently muster," but before the next indent she will mention Elliott Horowitz, a contemporary social historian; the first-century biographer Plutarch; a 17th-century rabbi from Frankfurt; Passover rituals; and the French poet Charles Baudelaire. Sometimes her erudition is dizzying, but it is never heavy-handed. "Wine," the paragraph concludes, "is the Sabbath in a bottle."

The book is already attracting a lot of media attention. For example, read Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's highly personal review/response, "On the Seventh Day," in the New York Times Sunday Book Review (March 25), or listen to Terry Gross's interview of Shulevitz on NPR's Fresh Air (March 31). And last week on April 1, Shulevitz was a the guest of honor on The Colbert Report (no foolin'):

portrait-lavonne-neffLaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust.

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