The Sabbath World

Glimpses of a Different Order of Time

About the Book

What is the Sabbath, anyway? The holy day of rest? The first effort to protect the rights of workers? A smart way to manage stress in a world in which computers never get turned off and work never comes to an end? Or simply an oppressive, outmoded rite? In The Sabbath World, Judith Shulevitz explores the Jewish and Christian day of rest, from its origins in the ancient world to its complicated observance in the modern one. Braiding ideas together with memories, Shulevitz delves into the legends, history, and philosophy that have grown up around a custom that has lessons for all of us, not just the religious. The shared day of nonwork has built communities, sustained cultures, and connected us to the memory of our ancestors and to our better selves, but it has also aroused as much resentment as love. The Sabbath World tells this surprising story together with an account of Shulevitz’s own struggle to keep this difficult, rewarding day.
Read more

Praise for The Sabbath World

The Sabbath World is not merely riveting, wise, and at times breathtakingly beautiful, it just might change your life.”—Jonathan Safran Foer

“Compassionate, revealing, and deeply personal . . . destined to become a classic.”—Bruce Feiler, author of Walking the Bible

“What a brilliant idea. . . . Part history, part meditation . . . The Sabbath offers a way to live outside of time, even for a day a week—an act not just of renewal but of resistance in an obsessively over-scheduled and over-networked world.”—Los Angeles Times
“An intense book and intensely engaging, one that as a reader I didn’t want to end.”—Chicago Tribune
“Every chapter of [The Sabbath World] is a wise and winsome meditation on yet another aspect of this inexhaustible topic. ... Shulevitz asks all the right questions.”—Christianity Today
“A book of richness and depth.”—The New York Times Book Review
“A swift, penetrating book intent on shattering the habits of mindless workaholism.”—The New Yorker
Read more

The Sabbath World

Part One

Time Sickness 1. In the poetry of the prayer book, the Sabbath is a bride greeted by an impatient bridal party with an almost anguished relief. In the more prosaic dominion of my house, the Sabbath sees herself in and sits down to wait. As the woman of the house, and, more to the point, the only person in my family whose heart pounds anxiously at the approach of a religious obligation, it’s up to me to acknowledge her presence by lighting the candles eighteen minutes before sunset, when they should be lit. During the winter, however, I don’t light the candles on time. I ignore the clock at the bottom of my computer screen and when I don’t see the numbers turn to, say, 4:10, I don’t look out the window, where the shadows of our trees are beginning to black out the backyard.

I know without looking, though, that the room where the candles would be burning is having its last golden moment of the day, the sun having sunk low enough to gild the walls. The sun sets shortly thereafter and plunges the world inside my time zone into what Jewish tradition regards as a kind of temporal no-man’s-land. It’s neither the end of the sixth day nor the beginning of the seventh (the Jewish day beginning and ending at nightfall). It’s twilight. The rabbis, who mixed their prescriptions and proscriptions with legend, defined twilight as “from sunset as long as the face of the east has a reddish glow.” They also called the twilight before the Sabbath a witching hour. The story is told that on the very first Sabbath twilight God created ten magical objects that he would later use to make miracles: the rainbow that came after the flood to assure mankind that God wouldn’t destroy the world again; the staff with which Moses wrought the ten plagues; the mouth of the earth that opened up to swallow an Israelite who tried to launch a coup against Moses; and so on.

By the time I’m ready to enter the kitchen and start my Sabbath, the moment for miracles will have passed. So will my chance to cheat time. The rabbis were inflexible about punctuality. The Romans having leveled the Temple more than a century before the rabbis became the Jews’ highest religious authorities, the sages inherited an inoperative religion of space, and set about turning it into a religion of time. It’s no accident that in the very first passage of the Talmud, they try to determine the exact instant in the evening after which a Jew may say the Shema, the most important prayer in Judaism. To the rabbis, time is irreversible. Generally speaking, either you do things at the appointed time or you don’t do them at all.

Such is the magic of the twilight before the Sabbath, though, that for that moment the march of time pauses in mid-step. The Jew may no longer light candles, but he or she may complete a few last preparations. Of course, the rabbis disagreed about how long this reprieve should last. Is it still twilight if the lower half of the horizon is dark but the upper half is still red? Maybe a more precise measure is the time it takes for a man to walk half a mil (three-quarters of a mile). Finally, one nervous adjudicator declared that twilight is “as the twinkling of an eye” and impossible to define, so you should never do even what is permitted at twilight lest the Sabbath has already come and you violate it accidentally.

Nonetheless, the twilight before the Sabbath is an exception to the time-bound nature of most Jewish obligations, and, like most exceptions, it underscores the rule. Jewish law is like musical notation; it gives meaning to the stuff of life by regulating it in time. The Sabbath is its most sacred interval. That I can’t subsume my schedule to its sterner rhythms testifies, I feel, to a flaw in my character. But it also says something about how hard it is for a twenty-first-century American to accept being governed by a calendar so firmly bolted down to the ground that she doesn’t get to move it around, adjust it by an hour here, an hour there. A rabbi who no longer works at the synagogue in the small suburban town where I no longer live once horrified its congregants by insisting that if they couldn’t get home to light the candles on time they shouldn’t light them at all. This struck everyone as harsh, not to mention impolitic, since a large part of the modern rabbi’s job is to woo apostates back into the fold.

The old-time Sabbath does not fit comfortably into our lives. It scowls at our dewy dreams of total relaxation and freedom from obligation. The goal of the Sabbath may be rest, but it isn’t per- sonal liberty or unfettered leisure. The Sabbath seems designed to make life as inconvenient as possible. Our schedules are not the only thing the Sabbath would disrupt if it could. It would also rip a hole in all the shimmering webs that give modern life its pleasing aura of weightlessness—the networks that zap digitized voices and money and data from server to iPhone to GPS. In a world of brightness and portability and instantaneous intimacy, the Sabbath foists on the consciousness the blackness of night, the heaviness of objects, the miles that keep us apart. The Sabbath prefers natural to artificial light. If we want to travel, it would make us walk, though not too far. If we long for social interaction, it would have us meet our fellow man and woman face-to-face. If we wish to bend the world to our will, it would insist that we forgo the vast majority of the devices that extend our reach and multiply our efficacy. We would be deprived of money and, to a certain degree, of the labor of others. We would be allowed to use our hands and a few utensils, and then only for a limited repertoire of activities. There is something gorgeously naïve about the Sabbath. To forbid people their tools and machines and commercial transactions, to reduce their social contacts to those who live no more than a village’s distance away—it seems a child’s idea, really, of life before civilization. Human existence, by the time it became human, was never that concrete.

According to sociologists, modern life is complex. Indeed, to them, the word modern implies complexity. Our lives get their feeling of disjointedness from the fact that our social networks—family, profession, church, neighborhood—don’t fit neatly inside one another like Chinese boxes, as, supposedly, they did in premodern times. That means we often play several mutually conflicting roles, navigate among thousands of cross-cultural expectations, employ hundreds of thousands of systems of communication, from linguistic and gestural and sartorial to electronic and financial, in the course of a single day. On the other hand, I can’t imagine that life in the ancient world was much simpler. True, biblical man and woman had a more fixed place in the world. Their social circles were less segmented and contrapuntal. But men and women still had to feed and clothe and shelter themselves and their children. They had to get along with relatives and neighbors and authority figures; they had to contend with strangers and foreign aggressors. They had to achieve competence in all the social strategies required to secure status and resources and pass those on to their children. They lived in the world, not in the Garden of Eden.

The rabbis say that the Sabbath is a taste of the world to come. Me, I think it’s an aftertaste of infancy. It’s a fantasy of perfect wholeness. If adult life is divided, the Sabbath is when we become one—with our family, with our community, with God. The Kabbalists say that on the Sabbath each of us is granted an additional soul, a neshama yetera. I imagine that oversoul as a big, fleecy blanket.


It was, I think, that primal warmth, what Freud called religion’s oceanic feeling, that my mother was trying to summon up when she made Shabbat for us children. She wanted us to have the honey-tinged Friday-night experience described in our children’s books. But the event she choreographed could not have been less heartwarming, because my mother, when we arrived in Puerto Rico, went away—not physically, but her unhappiness made our apartment feel evacuated. She hated our beach condo and kept it clean with a mechanical efficiency, her thin lips pursed, her once fluffy curls limp with the wet salt air. She answered all questions with a bitter laugh. Her tone with salesmen and checkout clerks quivered with barely contained rage.

My father fled every morning to the industrial-laundry facility he was building in the suburbs; when he returned in the evening, he avoided her gaze and complained about the inefficiency of his Puerto Rican employees.

My mother had once dreamed of making aliyah—moving to ?Israel—and San Juan, to her, was about as far from Jerusalem as you could get. Friday night was the culmination of a week of hating her life. She would round up her reluctant husband and children, light her candles, and say the blessing over the wine and challah. When she said the kiddush, which in those days was strictly a man’s job, my father would signal his boredom by fiddling with the silverware. As she served dinner, she would force her voice to grow mellow, but it would soon grow tight and bitter. She launched us into grace after the meal with an officious air that accused us of having abandoned her.

The Sabbath was the opposite of a refuge in time. And yet refuge was what I craved most. My earliest memory of Puerto Rico involves light. In Detroit, sunlight had had a gentle, autumnal tinge. I can see the pavement now as if from my stroller, edged in a faded Kodak red the color of fallen leaves. In San Juan, the sidewalks were relentlessly white. To walk to school, I crossed a street just short of where it ended on a beach, the waves breaking in a gleaming spray. Then I cut through a parking lot between two buildings and followed Ashford Avenue, the main thoroughfare, as it curved along the shore, lined by one boxy albino condominium building after another. The school, a pale-green cinder-block construction, glowed helplessly in the sun.

Some crucial sense of shelter had vanished from my life. The year we arrived, my parents sent me to kindergarten at an American school in the suburbs. The first time I took the bus, the bus driver walked back to my seat and asked me my name so that he could look up my address on his roster. I couldn’t tell him. I didn’t remember my first name, and I didn’t remember my last name. Nor could I remember what part of town I lived in. I sat in the front row, mute with ?embarrassment, as he deposited every other child at his or her destination. Then we drove all the way back to school to find someone who could call my parents to come and get me. I nearly peed on the leatherette seat.

The Talmud asks, What if a person is traveling in the desert and forgets which day is Shabbat and there’s no one around to tell him? The answer takes the form of a dispute, as do all answers in the Talmud. One rabbi says the man should count six days from the day he first realizes he doesn’t know what day it is, then keep the seventh as the Sabbath. Another rabbi says no, he should keep the Sabbath on the very next day, then count six more before he keeps it again. Missing from this bizarrely numerical discussion is any acknowledgment of the desperation of someone in that situation. How lost do you have to be to forget which day it is?

When I first read this passage, I immediately thought of the aviator in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, a beloved book of my childhood. Can the ancient traveler be as isolated as a man who has crashed in the middle of the Sahara, “a thousand miles from any inhabited territory,” not to mention from food and water, a man who may or may not be hallucinating when he encounters a little boy in a swallow-tailed coat who has himself fallen from the too-bright sky?

The rabbis, I like to believe, were sufficiently acquainted with exile that they could imagine feeling as cut off as the aviator, and in their wisdom they understood that all you have left under those conditions is fantasy. For what they ask you to do, when you have lost the world, is to make one up. Another rabbi asks, How are we to understand the rabbi who says count six then keep one? He wants us to count as God counted when he was creating the world. And how are we to understand the second rabbi, the one who says to keep the Sabbath then count six more days? We are to count the way Adam counted. He was created on the sixth day and God rested on the seventh, so the first thing Adam did was rest.

The question underlying the dispute, I think, is this: When time has disappeared and space is a comfortless ripple of white sand, should you imagine yourself inside the skin of the first man or inside the mind of God? The Talmud gives an answer to this question. It is, the mind of God. To save yourself, you re-create the world.

About the Author

Judith Shulevitz
Judith Shulevitz is a literary critic and a former columnist for The New York Times and Slate. Her work has also appeared in The New Republic and The New Yorker. She lives in New York City with her husband, Nicholas Lemann, and children. More by Judith Shulevitz
Decorative Carat
Random House Publishing Group