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Authors: Judith Shulevitz

The Sabbath World

BOOK: The Sabbath World
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To my mother

There was some puzzling, tormenting residue of the Sunday world within her, some persistent Sunday self, which insisted upon a relationship with the now shed-away vision world. How could one keep up a relationship with that which one denied?

D. H. L
The Rainbow

Whether I see it scattered down among tangled woods, or beaming broad across the fields, or hemmed in between brick buildings, or tracing out the figure of the casement on my chamber floor, still I recognize the Sabbath sunshine.—And ever let me recognize it! Some illusions, and this among them, are the shadows of great truths.

Sunday at Home











Reader’s Guide


what we call it. Organized religion need not be involved. As a child upset about having been moved from a house with a garden in a suburb of Detroit to a cramped apartment in downtown San Juan, Puerto Rico, I curled up in the space between a file cabinet and a freezer early on Saturday mornings. Not the freezer on top of the refrigerator in our kitchen but the full-size appliance my mother had put in a corner of our small sunroom. She had bought it to store the kosher meat she got flown in from the mainland every few months—there were no kosher butchers in San Juan. The Sabbath not being a day for taking meat out of the freezer, I didn’t have to worry about my mother coming in. Nestled among thick electrical cords, I hugged my legs, rested my head and ribs against the metal side, and let the vibrations lull me into a prayerful self-pity. This was
Sabbath, hidden inside hers.

My mother went to the synagogue later that day, taking us children with her. The Conservative synagogue in San Juan, unlike the thriving Reform one across the street, seemed reserved for the aged and infirm—refugees from Batista’s Cuba, some of them also refugees from what people were just starting to call the Holocaust. These old men and occasional women smelled funny, and sang funny, too. My siblings and I referred to one of them as “the foghorn.” The building, a ruined mansion starting to crumble, smelled of wood rot. It had termites. The specks of wood they had chewed and shat out would fall from the tops of the prayer books in a fine spray of golden dust when you pulled them off their shelves.

Almost nothing is as hard to empathize with as the words and things that other people find comforting, especially when they seek that comfort in squalid surroundings. Seen from the outside, the quest for religious solace looks preposterous. Søren Kierkegaard said that religion has a truth so purely interior that it approaches madness. The encounter with the holy has been described as a flash of hidden knowledge, a suspicion, an awe, an elation, a dread, a mystery, a
mysterium tremendum
. Whatever it is, it requires a courage that is as much social as spiritual. The state associated with holiness “is perfectly
sui generis
and irreducible to any other,” the theologian Rudolf Otto wrote in
The Idea of the Holy
. Insofar as it is untranslatable, the holy, not to mention the search for it, has the powerful potential to be lonely.

Why associate the Sabbath with solitude? By common consensus, the day is all about getting connected. It’s the ancient equivalent of social-networking software. With its laws proscribing work and mandating social encounters—meals, gatherings, study sessions—the Sabbath blocks out time for shedding one’s professional or workaday identity and weaving the bonds of a collective identity. All this is true. Yet at the core of the Sabbath lies an unassuageable longing. The Sabbath grasps after something that is out of reach.
, the Hebrew word for “holy,” comes from a root that means “apart, separate, withdrawn.” In Judaism, that which is holy is that which has been fenced off. The Sabbath rituals create this boundary, and the boundary creates the experience of otherness that we call the holy. But the inverse of this process is a yearning for an impossible ideal, a utopia that is by definition unattainable. The Law, the legal theorist Robert Cover says, is a bridge between our imperfect world and the vision of its perfection. Religious laws and rituals remind us that we live in exile, not in perfect harmony, neither with one another nor with God. Had my mother come upon me, she would have seen a troubled child in a dusty corner, not a girl using a freezer full of steak as her personal altar to the Midwest. When I entered that synagogue, I had no idea what my mother saw in it.

she see in it? I’ve never asked her, because she couldn’t have told me what I wanted to know. How do you single out precisely which aspect of the Sabbath mitigates your particular loneliness? The setting, the rites, the prayer book—the Sabbath dramaturgy mixes them all up. Each element of the Jewish Sabbath bears traces of every period in which Jews kept it, which is every period in Jewish history. At any given moment, several different movies about the Sabbath will be playing simultaneously inside the head of the Sabbath observer. “Holy days, rituals, liturgies—all are like musical notations which, in themselves, cannot convey the nuances and textures of live performance,” the historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi writes.

You might as well ask, What did God see on his Sabbath? There is an answer to that, believe it or not. It’s angels, created by God so that
Sabbaths wouldn’t be lonely, as they were before he gave the Sabbath to the Jews so that they would keep it with him. These angels are stock figures in the vast body of legends that has grown up around the Sabbath. They can be found in a retelling of the story of Creation in the book of Jubilees, written two hundred years before Christ was born, and in a hymnal found among the Dead Sea Scrolls called “Songs for the Sabbath Sacrifice,” compiled a century later by the Essenes, a desert sect awaiting the end of the world. In the songs, the angels collect themselves on the Sabbath into a heavenly choir. When worshippers joined their voices to those of the angels, the two choruses formed a sort of otherworldly conference call, connecting the earthly and the divine.

In the centuries that followed, the rabbinic sages—teachers and consolers of a people nearly exterminated, then enslaved and scattered, after Judea’s revolt against Roman rule in the second century
.—concocted myths about the Sabbath in which the Sabbath figured as
saving angel, their rescue from God’s abandonment.

The Sabbath, said the rabbis, is a bride given by God to her groom, the people of Israel. Once a week, they go forth in wedding clothes to marry her.

The Sabbath, said the rabbis, is a gift from God’s treasury. Once a week, his people receive it and are enriched.

The Sabbath, said the rabbis, is the Temple in time rather than space. Once a week, every Jew becomes a priest and enters it.

The Sabbath, said the rabbis, is the Chosen Day, just as the children of Israel are the Chosen People.

My favorite story makes the Sabbath a place in space rather than a point in time. “How do you know that Saturday is the Sabbath?” a Roman governor named Tinius Rufus is said to have asked the great sage Akiva in the second century. “Because of the river Sambatyon,” Rabbi Akiva says. For it “carries stones the whole week but allows them to rest on the Sabbath,” by which Akiva meant that six days a week the current of the Sambatyon is so strong that it pushes boulders along, but on the seventh it stops flowing entirely.

Akiva was not making this up, exactly. Other ancient writers—Greek as well as Jewish, Pliny the Elder and Josephus among them—also spoke of this magical river, though they put it in different places: Persia, Lebanon, Ethiopia. Six centuries later, Eldad the Danite, a dark-skinned Jew, appeared out of nowhere in a town called Kairouan in North Africa (now Tunisia), claiming to have been shipwrecked and captured by cannibals, and told a tale of the Sambatyon. Delivered in a Hebrew peppered with Arabisms, Eldad’s stories had such a powerful effect on his audience that the elders of the town grew alarmed and wrote to the exilarch in Babylon, a princely figure who ruled over all Jews living in exile, asking for advice. The exilarch wrote back to the Jews of Kairouan saying that Eldad may have been telling the truth, since there were enough references to the ten lost tribes and the Sambatyon in rabbinic texts to back him up.

On the far side of the Sambatyon, said Eldad, live the sons of Moses, carried there by God when the Jews were marched away from Israel as slaves to the Babylonians in the sixth century
Protected by God’s cloud and by the sea, unable to cross their Sabbath-keeping river (since it’s fordable only on the Sabbath and they, of course, keep the Sabbath, too), the sons of Moses dwell in perfect isolation and holiness. They occupy mansions and castles miraculously free of flies, lice, scorpions, and other swarming creatures deemed unclean by the Bible. They raise sheep, oxen, and chickens that give birth twice a year; tend to gardens of olives, pomegranates, figs, and melons that bear fruit just as often; speak Hebrew; take ritual baths; never swear; live to the age of a hundred or a hundred and twenty; and do all their own chores, “for they have no manservants or maidservants, and they are all equal.”

Tinius Rufus didn’t ask Rabbi Akiva where this phantasmagorical Sabbatical river had its source. But Akiva might have had an answer. The rabbis tell us that it flows from a spring in Paradise. That is the detail that breaks my heart. For, unlike the bride of the Sabbath and the gift of the Sabbath, the river of the Sabbath lies forever hidden from view, offering ordinary humans neither the longed-for transport nor relief. That the Sambatyon partakes of earthly geography suggests that God is present in his creation, but that the river has its source in Paradise hints darkly that he can never be reached.

In any event, Akiva did not convert Tinius Rufus to Judaism (though some rabbinic legends have him converting Tinius Rufus’s wife). This interfaith dialogue with Akiva took place—was imagined as taking place—because Akiva had been arrested for participating in a revolt against the Romans and defying a ban against the study of Torah. He was sentenced to death. Stories have him reciting the Shema (“Hear, O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is one”) while Roman soldiers tore lumps of flesh from his body with iron combs.


, I began to take a passionate interest in the Sabbath, the ancient weekly day of rest. I told myself that this was purely a matter of intellectual curiosity, but it wasn’t. My feelings were murkier than that. I was ravenous for something, though I didn’t know what. I tried to get my hands on everything having to do with the Sabbath. Tales of good Sabbaths and of bad Sabbaths. Angry screeds against the dour Sabbath (“Sunday comes, and brings with it a day of general gloom and austerity. The man who has been toiling hard all the week, has been looking towards the Sabbath, not as to a day of rest from labour, and healthy recreation, but as one of grievous tyranny and grinding oppression”—Charles Dickens) and fulsome praise for its blessings (“In the Universe of Shabbat, a person finds everything new, different, more elevated and exalted”—Dov Peretz Elkins).

BOOK: The Sabbath World
11.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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