The Sabbath

By Abraham Joshua Heschel

This book was recommended to me by the Reform rabbi at Yale as part of my education during conversion. When she recommended it, she did so with the specific observation that it would help me to understand spirituality in modern Judaism better, so that perhaps I could introduce more spirituality into my understanding of Jewish life as I was crafting what I wanted Jewish life to look like for myself. I didn’t get around to reading it for a long time, but while fasting on my first Yom Kippur I decided it would be a good way to spend some of my empty-belly time.

The book is short, and very easy to read, but I can’t say that I found it to be profound or inspiring. It reads to me like an invitation to spiritualism written by and for a person who already feels spiritual—a person who already believes in a deep way in the human soul. For me (a person who does not feel intrinsically connected to the spiritual aspects of the world or myself) the book was vaguely annoying. I wanted to ask too many questions of it: isn’t the gendered language describing the Sabbath interesting, and what does it mean for a modern Jew who isn’t a cis man? Is the dichotomy between the work of the week and the rest of the Sabbath a pure one, or can rest really be a form of work, and work a form of rest for some people, and what does that mean for practicing this ritual? How is the practice of resting on the Sabbath tied up in one’s socio-economic privilege, and what do we do about people—like myself—who feel like resting on the Sabbath would hinder many of their other career and general life goals and needs? The book isn’t interested in asking these questions, nor does it seem self-conscious of the fact that it might spur them. It reads more like pastoral stream of consciousness poetry, evocative maybe of Whitman or Wordsworth at times; a piece of art reflecting a worldview, but not really arguing for that worldview in a dense way. In short, I didn’t really like it, just like I don’t like Whitman and Wordsworth. But, I could see it being powerful for those already of a mind to enjoy it, and I don’t think it was a waste of time to read it.