The Sabbath – Its Meaning for Modern Man – Epilogue

[First posted March 20,2013; continuing excerpts from the MUST READ/MUST OWN book featured in  The Sabbath – Its Meaning for Modern Man.  Reformatted and highlighted for this post. — Admin1]




EPILOGUE:  To Sanctify Time


Abraham Joshua Heschel’s

Pagans project their consciousness of God into a visible image or associate Him with a phenomenon in nature, with a thing of space.  In the Ten Commandments, the Creator of the universe identifies Himself by an event in history, by an event in time, the liberation of the people from Egypt, and proclaims: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth, or that is in the water under the earth.”


The most precious thing that has ever been on earth were the Two Tablets of stone which Moses received upon Mount Sinai; they were priceless beyond compare.  He had gone up into the Mount to receive them’ there he abode 40 days and 40 nights; he did neither eat bread nor drink water.  And the Lord delivered unto him the Two tablets of stone, and on them were written the Ten Commandments, the words which the Lord spoke with the people of Israel in the Mount out of the midst of fire.  But when coming down the Mount at the end of 40 days and 40 nights — the Two Tablets in his hands — Moses saw the people dance around the Golden Calf, he cast the Tablets out of his hands and broke them before their eyes.


“Every important cult center of Egypt asserted its primacy by the dogma that it was the site of creation.”In contrast, the book of Genesis speaks of the days rather than of the site of creation.2 In the myths there is no reference to the time of creation, whereas the Bible speaks of the creation of space in time.


. . . .  The historian Ranke claimed that every age is equally near to God.  Yet Jewish tradition claims that there is a hierarchy of moments within time, that all ages are not alike.  Man prays to God equally at all places, but God does not speak to man equally at all times.  At a certain moment, for example, the spirit of prophecy departed from Israel.


Time to us is a measuring device rather than a realm in which we abide.  Our consciousness of it comes about when we begin to compare two events and to notice that one event is later than the other; when listening to a tune we realize that one note follows the other.  Fundamental to the consciousness of time is the distinction between earlier and later.


But is time only a relation between events in time?  Is there no meaning to the present moment, regardless of its relation to the past?  Moreover, do we only know what is in time, merely events that have an impact on things of space?  If nothing happened that is related to the world of space, would there be no time?


A special consciousness is required to recognize the ultimate significance of time.  We all live it and are so close to being identical with it that we fail to notice it. The world of space surrounds our existence.3 It is but a thing of living, the rest is time.  Things are the shore, the voyage is in time.


Existence is never explicable through itself but only through time.  When closing our eyes in moments of intellectual concentration, we are able to have time without space, but we can never have space without time.  To the spiritual eye space is frozen in time, and all things are petrified events.


There are two points of view from which time can be sensed:

  •  from the point of view of space and
  • from the point of view of spirit. . . .

—–when we learn to understand that it is the spatial things that are constantly running out, we realize that time is that which never expires, that it is the world of space which is rolling through the infinite expanse of time.  Thus temporality may be defined as the relation of space to time.


The boundless continuous but vacuous entity which realistically is called space is not the ultimate form of reality.  Our world is a world of space moving through time — from the Beginning to the End of Days.


To the common mind the essence of time is evanescence, temporality.  The truth, however, is that the fact of evanescence flashes upon our minds when poring over things of space.  It is the world of space that communicates to us the sense of temporality. Time, that which is beyond and independent of space, is everlasting; it is the world of space which is perishing. Things perish within time; time itself does not change.  We should not speak of the flow or passage of space through time. It is not time that dies; it is the human body that dies in time.  Temporality is an attribute of the world of space, of things of space.  Time which is beyond space is beyond the division in past, present and future.


Monuments of stone are destined to disappear; days of spirit never pass away.  About the arrival of the people at Sinai we read in the Book of Exodus:  “In the 3rd month after the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, on this day they came into the wilderness of Sinai” (19:1). Here was an expression that puzzled the ancient rabbis: on this day? It should have been said:  on that day.  This can only mean that the day of giving the Torah can never become past; that day is this day, every day. The Torah, whenever we study it, must be to us “as if it were given us today.”The same applies to the day of the exodus from Egypt:  “In every age man must see himself as if he himself went out of Egypt.”5


The worth of a great day is not measured by the space it occupies in the calendar.  Exclaimed Rabbi Akiba:  “All of time is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the songs are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holiest of holies.”6


In the realm of spirit, there is no difference between a second and a century, between an hour and an age.  Rabbi Judah the Patriarch cried:  “There are those who gain eternity in a lifetime, others who gain it in one brief hour.”One good hour may be worth a lifetime; an instant of returning to God may restore what has been lost in years of escaping from Him.  “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the whole life in the world to come.”8


Technical civilization, we have said, is man’s triumph over space.  Yet time remains impervious.  We can overcome distance but can neither recapture the past nor dig out the future.  Man transcends space, and time transcends man.


Time is man’s greatest challenge.  We all take part in a procession through its realm which never comes to an end but are unable to gain a foothold in it.  Its reality is apart and away from us.  Space is exposed to our will; we may shape and change the things in space as we please.  Time, however, is beyond our reach, beyond our power.  It is both near and far, intrinsic to all experience and transcending all experience.  It belongs exclusively to God.


Time, then, is otherness, a mystery that hovers above all categories.  It is as if time and the mind were a world apart.  Yet, it is only within time that there is fellowship and togetherness  of all beings.


Every one of us occupies a portion of space.  He takes it up exclusively.  The portion of space which my body occupies is taken up by myself in exclusion of anyone else.  Yet, no one possesses time.  There is no moment which I possess exclusively.  This very moment belongs to all living men as it belongs to me.  We share time, we own space.  Through my ownership of space, I am a rival of all other beings; through my living in time, I am a contemporary of all other beings.  We pass through time , we occupy space.  We easily succumb to the illusion that the world of space is for our sake, for man’s sake.  In regard to time, we are immune to such an illusion.


Immense is the distance that lies between God and a thing.  For a thing is that which has separate or individual existence as distinct from the totality of beings.  To see a thing is to see something which is detached and isolated.  A thing is, furthermore, something which is and can become the possession of man.  Time does not permit an instant to be in and for itself.  Time is either all or nothing.  It cannot be divided except in our minds.  It remains beyond our grasp.  It is almost holy.


It is easy to pass by the great sight of eternal time.


According to the Book of Exodus, Moses beheld his first vision “in a flame of fire, out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed” (3:2). Time is like an eternal burning bush.  Through each instant must vanish to open the way to the next one, time itself is not consumed.


Time has independent ultimate significance; it is of more majesty and more provocative of awe than even a sky studded with stars.  Gliding gently in the most ancient of all splendors, it tells so much more than space can say in its broken language of things, playing symphonies upon the instruments of isolated beings, unlocking the earth and making it happen.


Time is the process of creation, and things of space are results of creation.  When looking at space we see the products of creation; when intuiting time we hear the process of creation.  Things of space exhibit a deceptive independence.  They show off a veneer of limited permanence.  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.


Creation, we are taught, is not an act that happened once upon a time, once and for ever.  The act of bringing the world into existence is a continuous process.God called the world into being, and that call goes on.  There is this present moment because God is present.  Every instant is an act of creation.  A moment is not a terminal but a flash, a signal of Beginning.  Time is a perpetual innovation, a synonym for continuous creation.  Time is God’s gift to the world of space.


A world without time would be a world without God, a world existing in and by itself, without renewal, without a Creator.  A world without time would be a world detached from God, a thing in itself, reality without realization.  A world in time is a world going on through God; realization of an infinite design; not a thing in itself but at a thing for God.


To witness the perpetual marvel of the world’s coming into being is to sense the presence of the Giver in the given, to realize that the source of time is eternity, that the secret of being is the eternal within time.


We cannot solve the problem of time through the conquest of space, through either pyramids or fame.  We can only solve the problem of time through sanctification of time.  To men alone time is elusive; to men with God time is eternity in disguise.

Creation is the language of God, Time is His song, and things of space the consonants in the song.  To sanctify time is to sing the vowels in unison with Him.

This is the task of men: to conquer space and sanctify time.


We must conquer space in order to sanctify time. All week long we are called upon to sanctify life through employing things of space.  On the Sabbath it is given us to share in the holiness that is in the heart of time.  Even when the soul is seared, even when no prayer can come out of our tightened throats, the clean, silent rest of the Sabbath leads us to a realm of endless peace, or to the beginning of an awareness of what eternity means.  There are few ideas in the world of thought which contain so much spiritual power as the idea of the Sabbath.  Aeons hence, when of many of our cherished theories only shreds will remain, that cosmic tapestry will continue to shine.

Eternity utters a day.


1J.A. Wilson, “Egyptian Myths, Tales and Mortuary Texts” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p.8.

2The Legend of the eben shetiyah is of post-Biblical origin, cf. Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, V, 14-16.

3See A.J. Heschel, Man is Not Alone, A Philsophy of Religion, p 200.

4Tanhuma, ed. Buber, II, 76; see Rashi to Exodus 19:1.

5Mishnash Pesshim 10, 5.

6Yadayim 3,5.

7Abodah Zarah 10B, 17a, 18a.

8Abot, 4, 22.

9In the daily morning service we read:  “The Lord of marvels, in His goodness He renews the wonders of creation every day, constantly.”  The preservation of the world or the laws that account for the preservation of the world are due to an act of God. “Thou art the Lord, even Thou alone; Thou has made heaven, the heaven of heavens with all their hosts, the earth and all things that are thereon, the seas and all that is in them, and IThou preservest them all(Nehemiah 9:6). “How manifold are Thy works, O Lord . . . All of them wait for Thee, that Thou mayest give them their food in due season . . . Thou hidest Thy face, they vanish . . . Thou sendest forth Thy spirit, they  are created” (Psalms 104:24,27,29,30).  Note the present tense in Isaiah 48:13; 42:5; see also, 48:7.  Job 34:14-16; Kuzari, 3, 11.  On seeing the wonders of nature we pray:  “Blessed art Thou .v. . who performs the wonders of creation” (Mishnah Berachot 9,2; see the opinion of Resh Laqish, Hagigah 12b and RAshi ad locum).  The idea of continuous creation seems to have been the theme of an ancient controversy.  According to the School of Shammai, the benediction over the lights which is said at the outgoing of the Sabbath is: “Blessed art Thou who created the lights of fire”; whereas, according to the school of Hillel, we recite:  “Blessed art Thou . . . who creates the lights of fire” (Mishnah Berachot 7,5); see Joseph Salomo Delmedigo, Ta’alumot Hakmah, Nobelot Hokmah, Basel 1629, p. 94.


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