His mother was also a descendant of Avraham Yehoshua Heshel and other Hasidic dynasties. Their father Moshe died of influenza in when Abraham was nine. His mentor in Berlin was David Koigen. He joined a Yiddish poetry group, Jung Vilna, and in , published a volume of Yiddish poems, Der Shem Hamefoyrosh: Mentsch, dedicated to his father.
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In a civilization that cherishes production, tangible products carry utmost importance. It is not a place, or an object, but the seventh day. It is this time that God sanctifies, and in the next ten chapters, Heschel makes a compelling argument for the return to observance of the Sabbath as holy time.
This is not in opposition to labor or the civilized spaces of this world, but rather that which gives meaning to these other endeavors. He likens abstention from labor and activity as comparable to negative theology, that is, the description of God in negative terms, what God is not. For Heschel, we describe eternity not by what it is, but by what it is not. Eternity is not concerned with the commercial endeavors of this world, but rather with tranquility and peace, the absence of the need for such endeavors.
Rather, it is paradoxically the creation of an absence. Heschel identifies this created absence as menuha, a stillness and peace. Heschel begins chapter two by affirming the divine nature of work. He again invokes the book of Genesis, this time the command to Adam to dress and keep the Garden of Eden. Heschel frames Sabbath rest not as a renunciation of labor, but as a way of reminding ourselves that we are not dependent on technological civilization.
He seeks to create a harmony between labor and rest, that both may exist in a mutually beneficial relationship. Chapter three begins with an allegorical story of a Rabbi and his son denouncing the world and retreating to a cave, only to emerge after a total of 13 years and finding tranquility after encountering a man carrying herbs in preparation for the Sabbath.
At issue here is the way in which the Roman civilization of the time regarded eternity. It was believed that eternity could be captured in huge public monuments that would, because of their grandeur, presumably stand forever. Heschel here notes that Rome is often referred to as The Eternal City. Romans held no view of an afterlife, so eternity had to be found in what was left behind. The Rabbi of the allegory and by extension Heschel views this focus as misguided and dangerous.
The difference between the two views is again a question of space versus time. The Romans attempted to sanctify space through building and civilization; Heschel maintains that eternity is gained through sanctified time. His objective here is to present a complementary view of the world and the spirit. The Rabbi of the story holds to the doctrine of the primacy of the spiritual, but when he emerges from the cave, a voice from heaven corrects him.
Heschel goes on to propose that the old man carrying herbs in preparation for the Sabbath is analogous to the preparations made before a wedding. The old man uses things of the world in preparation for the Sabbath, itself the representation of eternity. Things are our tools; eternity, the Sabbath, is our mate. In chapter five, Heschel doubles down on the marriage metaphor.
Just as time needs division in order to be meaningful, Heschel argues, the Sabbath needs humanity in order to be fulfilled completely.
Here he provides perhaps his most drastic departure from how the broader culture as well as some religious adherents view the Sabbath: the observance of the Sabbath is not rote routine, but a relationship, and its celebration is like a wedding. Heschel brilliantly reframes religious observance in a way that reinvigorates it with meaning, moving it out of the realm of observance-for-observance-sake.
Heschel uses chapter six to hedge slightly on the metaphors used in the previous three chapters. He maintains that images of the Sabbath as a queen or a bride are helpful and true, but that is not all the Sabbath is.
It is a matter of expressing a value rather than a fact. Chapter seven begins with the frenzied preparations for the Sabbath, framed as preparations for the arrival of bride or other dignified guest. After the frantic arrangements are complete, Heschel ushers the reader into the calm that descends once the Sabbath arrives.
Heschel masterfully mirrors this slowing of pace by infusing the chapter with poetry and chants traditionally read during Sabbath observance. This requires the reader to slow the pace of reading, in a manner analogous to the slowing of pace during the observance of the Sabbath itself. In chapter eight, Heschel establishes the Sabbath as a glimpse of the world to come, of eternity.
To borrow a phrase from Lutheran liturgy, the Sabbath serves as a foretaste of the feast to come. It is also in this chapter that Heschel walks back slightly from a claim he made in chapter five, namely that humanity works with God as co-sanctifier of the Sabbath.
It was God who sanctified the seventh day. This addition to chapter eight seems an unnecessary hedge on an important point; Heschel here retreats too far into a conservative position. In chapter nine, Judaism is portrayed as distinct from other religious traditions in its emphasis on sacred times. While other religions have fixed places for prayer, Judaism has fixed times. Even when sacred places are involved in Judaism such as the now-destroyed Temples in Jerusalem , they are not intrinsically holy.
The experience of all other days should then be an almost gravitational pull toward the Sabbath. This coveting is a deep and passionate longing for the Sabbath, and the peace its observance instills. When understood this way, observance of the Sabbath does not demand restriction, but gives freedom.
The Sabbath [Abraham Giroux]
In a civilization that cherishes production, tangible products carry utmost importance. It is not a place, or an object, but the seventh day. It is this time that God sanctifies, and in the next ten chapters, Heschel makes a compelling argument for the return to observance of the Sabbath as holy time. This is not in opposition to labor or the civilized spaces of this world, but rather that which gives meaning to these other endeavors.
The Sabbath Quotes
The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, by Abraham Joshua Heschel