The Sabbath – Its Meaning for Modern Man – Prologue


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Image from Engraving done by Ilya Schor Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

[First posted  March 20, 2013; one of our favorite authors whom we feature over and over in this website.—Admin1]



One of my most worn-out books— from thumbing through over and over and highlighting almost from top to bottom page after page—-is another GREAT and short pamphlet-length book by my favorite Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel.  For the longest time, I thought we had already posted this particular work on this website, only to discover we had not.  So, here it is . . . I wish I could just quote all of it word for word, but ‘not allowed’ plus you would greatly benefit from having your own copy, this is not only a MUST READ but more so a MUST OWN.


If you look at the cover design, the centerpiece appears to be the Tree of Life, but designed like a Menorah with 6 branches and the center branch (the servant light).  


The message we must not miss is this: the Tree of Life (Torah)/Menorah (Light/Israel and YHWH’s revelation) symbolism are all intertwined, yet the Sabbath, later legislated as the 4th commandment in the Decalogue, precedes all! The 7th day rest was modeled by the Creator Himself as the culmination after  Creation ‘week’ before any commandment to mankind was even issued.


It is claimed that the Christian Son-God Jesus did away with the Sabbath, but when you think of it, he was a Jew and would never have violated it.  It is Christianity (NT and Councils of men) that shifted to Sunday to commemorate the resurrection of its acclaimed divine-human Savior; well-intentioned perhaps, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt but nevertheless a violation of the one commandment not only enshrined in the 10, but observed by the Creator Himself as early as Bereshiyth 2:1-3. 


How important is the Sabbath to the Creator?  Sabbath precedes Law.  Sabbath reiterated in Law. There is divine reason for the Sabbath and AJHeschel explains it best.


We will feature here only excerpts from the Prologue and Epilogue, and urge you to secure your copy. It is also worthwhile to get other books by AJH, namely:  The Wisdom of Heschel; A Passion for Truth; Israel: An Echo of Eternity; The Insecurity of Freedom; Who is Man?; Theology of Ancient Judaism (2 volumes); The Earth is the Lord’s; Man’s Quest for God; God in Search of Man; Man is Not Alone; Maimonides; Abrvanel; The Quest for Certainty in Saadia’s Philosophy; The Prophets, and Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.


Highlighted and reformatted for post. —NSB@S6K.






Prologue:  Architecture of Time


I.  A Palace in Time

II.  Beyond Civilization


III.  The Splendor of Space

IV.  Only Heaven and Nothing Else?

VI.  The Presence of a Day


VII.  Eternity Utters a Day

VIII.  Intuitions of Eternity

IX.  Holiness in Time

X.  Thou Shalt Covet

Epilogue:  To Sanctify Time


Excerpts from PROLOGUE

Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space.  It is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing an essential ingredient of existence, namely, time.  In technical civilization, we expend time to gain space.  To enhance our power in the world of space is our main objective.  Yet to have more does not mean to be more.  The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time.  But time is the heart of existence.


To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks.  The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time.  There is a realm of time where the goal is—-

  • not to have but to be,
  • not to own but to give,
  • not to control but to share,
  • not to subdue but to be in accord.

 Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.


Nothing is more useful than power, nothing more frightful.  We have often suffered from degradation by poverty, now we are threatened with degradation through power.  There is happiness in the love of labor, there is misery in the love of gain. Many hearts and pitchers are broken at the fountain of profit.  Selling himself into slavery to things, man becomes a utensil that is broken at the fountain.


Technical civilization stems primarily from the desire of man to subdue and manage the forces of nature.  The manufacture of tools, the art of spinning and farming, the building of houses, the craft of sailing —all this goes on in man’s spatial surroundings.  The mind’s preoccupation with things of space affects, to this day, all activities of man.


Even religions are frequently dominated by the notion that the deity resides in space, within particular localities like mountains, forests, trees or stones, which are, therefore, singled out as holy places; the deity is bound to a particular land; holiness a quality associated with things of space and the primary question is:  Where is the god?  There is much enthusiasm for the idea that God is present in the universe, but that idea is taken to mean His presence in space rather than in time, in nature rather than in history; as if He were a thing, not a spirit. . . .


. . . . We are all infatuated with the splendor of space, with the grandeur of things of space.  Thing is a category that lies heavy on our minds, tyrannizing all our thoughts.  Our imagination tends to mold all concepts in its image.  In our daily lives we attend primarily to that which the senses are spelling out for us: to what the eyes perceive, to what the fingers touch.  Reality to us is thinghood, consisting of substances that occupy space; even God is conceived by most of us as a thing.


The result of our thinginess is our blindness to all reality that fails to identify itself as a thing, as a matter of fact.  This is obvious in our understanding of time, which, being thingless and insubstantial, appears to us as if it had no reality.


Indeed, we know what to do with space but do not know what to do about time, except to make it subservient to space.  Most of us seem to labor for the sake of things of space.  As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face.  Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives.  Shrinking, therefore, from facing time, we escape for shelter to things of space.  The intentions we are unable to carry out we deposit in space; possessions become the symbols of our repressions, jubilees of frustrations.  But things of space are not fireproof; they only add fuel to the flames.  Is the joy of possession an antidote to the terror of time which grows to be a dread of inevitable death?  Things, when magnified, are forgeries of happiness, they are a threat to our very lives; we are more harassed than supported by the Frankensteins of spatial things.


It is impossible for man to shirk the problem of time. The more we think the more we realize; we cannot conquer time through space.  We can only master time in time.


The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a great wealth of information, but to face sacred moments. In a religious experience, for example, it is not a thing that imposes itself on man but a spiritual presence.  What is retained in the soul is the moment of insight rather than the place where the act came to pass.  A moment of insight is a fortune, transporting us beyond the confines of measured time.  Spiritual life begins to decay when we fail to sense the grandeur of what is eternal in time.


. . . . Time and space are interrelated.  To overlook either of them is to be partially blind. What we plead against is man’s unconditional surrender to space, his enslavement to things.


We must forget that it is not a thing the leads significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.


The Bible is more concerned—

  • with time than with space.
  • It sees the world in the dimension of time.  
  • It pays more attention to generations, to events, than to countries, to things;
  • it is more concerned with history than with geography.  

To understand the teaching of the Bible, one must accept its premise that time has a meaning for life which is at least equal to that of space; that time has a significance and sovereignty of its own.


There is no equivalent for the word “thing” in biblical Hebrew.  The word davar,” which in later Hebrew came to denote thing, means in biblical Hebrew: speech, word, message; report;tidings; advice; request; promise; decision; sentence; theme, story; saying, utterance; business,occupation; acts; good deeds; events; way, manner, reason, cause; but never “thing.”  Is this a sign of linguistic povert, or rather an indication of an unwarped view of the world, of not equating reality (derived from the Latin word res, thing) with thinghood?


One of the most important facts in the history of religion was the transformation of agricultural festivals into commemorations of historical events. The festivals of ancient peoples were intimately linked with nature’s seasons.  They celebrated what happened in the life of nature in the respective seasons. . . . To Israel the unique events of historic time were spiritually more significant than the repetitive processes in the cycle of nature, even though physical sustenance depended on the latter.  While the deities of other people were associated with places or things, the God of Israel was the God of events:

  • the Redeemer from slavery,
  • the Revealer of the Torah,

—-manifesting Himself in events of history rather than in things or places.

. . . . Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, qualitiless, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time.  There are no two hours alike.  Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.


. . . . The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate; the Day of Atonement.


. . . . In the Bible, words are employed with exquisite care, particularly those which, like pillars of fire, lead the way in the far-flung system of the biblical world of meaning.


One of the most distinguished words in the Bible is the word qadosh, holy; a word which more than any other representative of the mystery and majesty of the divine.  Now what was the first holy object in the history of the world?  Was it a mountain?  Was it an altar?


It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word qadosh is used for the first time:  in the Book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation.  How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time:  “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness.


That is a radical departure from accustomed religious thinking. The mythical mind would expect that, after heaven and earth have been established, God would create a holy place—a holy mountain or a holy spring—whereupon a sanctuary is to be established.  Yet it seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first.


When history began, there was only one holiness in the world, holiness in time.  When at Sinai the word of God was about to be voiced, a call for holiness in man was proclaimed:  “Thou shalt be unto me a holy people.” It was only after the people had succumbed to the temptation of worshipping a thing, a golden calf, that the essentials of the Tabernacle, of holiness in space, was commanded.  

  • The sanctity of time came first,
  • the sanctity of man came second,
  • and the sanctity of space last.

Time was hallowed by God; space, the Tabernacle, was consecrated by Moses.

While the festivals celebrate events that happened in time, the date of the month assigned for each festival in the calendar is determined by the life in nature. Passover and the Feast of Booths, for example, coincide with the full moon, and the date of all festivals is a day in the month, and the month is a reflection of what goes on periodically in the realm of nature, since the Jewish month begins with the new moon, with the reappearance of the lunar crescent in the evening sky.


In contrast, the Sabbath is entirely independent of the month and unrelated to the moon. Its date is not determined by any event in nature, such as the new moon, but by the act of creation.  Thus the essence of the Sabbath is completely detached from the world of space.


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 results of creation to the mystery of creation;
  • from the world of creation to the creation of the world.

Next: Epilogue


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