What we lost by rejecting the Sabbath

In 2019, lawmakers in North Dakota lifted their state’s Sunday trade ban. In the 19th century, business owners faced jail time and a fine for keeping their doors open on Sunday mornings. This was the last statewide blue law, and it followed the path of the rotary telephone and the smoking section of airplanes. The bill’s main GOP sponsor in the state legislature asserted that a majority “wants to make decisions for itself.” Ending the ban, officials argued, would increase purchases and, with it, revenues.

Who else but a few growls could complain? The proportion of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow, and even many believers reject the concept of the Sabbath as a divinely ordained day of rest. Instead, we are encouraged to lead a life of constant action and purpose, and we do. Smart devices allow white-collar workers to mix work and play freely. The concert economy and Covid-19’s work-from-home trend have further blurred the line between the two. The Sabbath does not match the rhythm of our lives. It looks like an imposition – it is an imposition.

Americans’ hijacking of the Sabbath has been going on for a long time. In the mid-20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest American Jewish thinkers, wrote about the Sabbath in terms of the “realm of time” and “the realm of space.” Modern life is about conquering space: conquering geopolitical territory, growing and prospering economically. But “the danger begins,” Heschel worried, “when by gaining power in the domain of space, we give up all aspirations in the domain of time”. In this area, “the goal is not to have but to be, not to possess but to give, not to control but to share, not to submit but to be in agreement”.

Many of his fellow Americans at the time saw the ritual as an obstacle to freedom: the freedom to shop, work, and socialize as much as they wanted. For Heschel, something deep was missing from this form of freedom. It barred entry to a whole dimension of existence: namely time, the passage of which reminds us that everything is contingent, everything passes, that is to say except God. The Sabbath, Heschel thought, is the guarantor of our “inner freedom,” while restless and Sabbath-free societies could easily fall into tyranny and barbarism.

He had learned it through bitter experience. Heschel was born in 1907 in Warsaw under Tsarist rule, where traditional and modern Jewish currents converged and clashed. He was a prince of the traditional Jewish world, heir to the Polish and Lithuanian Hasidic dynasties and trained from an early age to become a rabbi. Using photographic memory, he excelled at memorizing the Torah, the Jewish prayer book, and the founding medieval commentaries of the Bible.

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