Sabbath

Oliver Sacks, in a wonderful essay last year for the New York Times Sunday Review entitled “Sabbath” (worth reading here), quotes his cousin and Nobel Prize winner in economics Robert John Aumann:

“The observance of the Sabbath is extremely beautiful,” he said, “and is impossible without being religious. It is not even a question of improving society — it is about improving one’s own quality of life.”

The essay also describes the complexities involved in this observance as an Orthodox Jewish person in the 21st century, but the inner message is unmistakable and presents a challenge to the implementation of “Sabbath” in our modern age, where its external traditions have been severely eroded.

How can we understand this concept, whether religious or not, and adopt its goodness?

The word means “day of rest” from the Hebrew verb shavath, “repose, desist (from exertion), rest, cease” and has descended from antiquity. In the Abrahamic faiths, the first mention is in Genesis:

And he [God] rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. (2:2)

Further on in the Bible, this statement from the creation story becomes a part of the covenant between the Supreme Being and the physical incarnations of that Supreme Being in the creation. In Exodus 19, the Lord instructs Moses to “tell the children of Israel”;

4 Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself.

5 Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine:

6 And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.

The covenant includes the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20, where the description of Genesis becomes an injunction:

8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:

10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work…

The message here is that to be a part of the “holy nation” and to connect with the divine, we must remember to rest, to take a deliberate break from all the activities with which our days are filled, and to provide space for spontaneity and connection, as well as for perspective and detachment.

Walt Whitman describes this blessed hiatus and its gifts in his poem Leaves of Grass:

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.(1)

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.(2)

Whitman also transforms his own experience into an invitation to us, transmuting the stern commandment of Exodus into a gentle summons.

Just as an octave in music begins from rest at “do” and ascends or descends to again rest on “do”, so every human activity, every day, and certainly every week and even every life (the point of Sacks’ essay) can begin from rest and end in rest, back at the final note of the octave.

Only in this way can we be “born on eagles’ wings” and “brought unto” the divine within ourselves.

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