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Monday, October 25, 2010

RevGalBookPals: The Sabbath World

Over the summer, I read The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, by Judith Shulevitz, who has been a columnist at The New York Times Book Review and Slate, the cultural editor of Slate, the deputy editor of New York Magazine, and the editor of Lingua Franca. Her essays have also appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, and other publications. It's a *very* interesting, engaging book about Sabbath, written by a somewhat-but-not-very (by her own admission) observant Jew. I heard about the book when Shulevitz appeared on Fresh Air. She also paid a visit to Stephen Colbert. Charmed by her conversational manner, I ordered the book immediately. It lived up to the interview. 
Shulevitz places Sabbath practices, both Jewish and Christian, in scriptural and historical context. She wonders what we have lost as a culture in our understanding of time by no longer setting time aside. She writes knowingly about Jesus--really, I could have been talking to a colleague or classmate, I felt, as she wrote about Mark's gospel--and invokes literature from D.H. Lawrence to Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Here's an example of Shulevitz's take on the Sabbath:
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 personal 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 you want to read a book that explores Sabbath without making you feel personally guilty for not keeping one "just so," I highly recommend The Sabbath World.

And now, a few discussion questions.
1) How are you at keeping Sabbath? Do you find a time for it?
2) Can you imagine putting down the devices and taking a Sabbath from them?
3) What habits of rest did you learn in childhood, and have you maintained or adapted them for use as an adult?
4) Does your congregation encourage Sabbath rest for individuals or families?
5) What's your idea of the ultimate Sabbath?

Please share your thoughts in the comments. And if you would like to share a book review some other month, let me know via email. 


  1. This book sounds so intriguing! I have a question about it. Some scholars assert that the sabbath is intended as much for others as for ourselves. Both versions of the Ten Commandments, but especially Deuteronomy 5, emphasize that children, slaves, aliens, and livestock should also get to rest. Does this book speak to how we might honor this part of sabbath today? I would love to read a book that addresses sabbath from both angles--the personal and the communal.

  2. What a great question! The book contains a lot of historical material about both Jewish and Christian Sabbath practices, so it does touch on a lot of aspects of Sabbath. But it's not really a book of advice about how to do particular things; rather it gets you thinking about what you do and what you wish you were doing or not doing.

  3. Thank you for this review. I've never heard of this book before, but based on your review and the exerpt (so provocative and well-written) I think I'd like to get it. When I teach the Sabbath commandment (3rd, in our ordering of the 10C) to confirmation students, I teach that the Sabbath is for us to "rest and remember" or to "pray and play" -- that is, to both invoke and worship God, and to s-t-o-p and put down our work/consumption/franticness. I find there's some tension in those two things. Are they both part of Sabbath, according to her history and thinking?
    I'm sorry you haven't gotten more comments -- maybe your discussion questions should become a Friday Five!

  4. Thanks for this, Songbird! I read this book and loved it, but didn't take the time with it that I'd have liked to: it was recalled by another library patron. :) I'll have to give it another go.

    1) I try to keep Sabbath by taking some time each weekend just to be outdoors (if possible) or sit quietly by a window. Not reading, not listening to music. Just being.

    In the past month I spent three weekends engaged in caretaking (some situations MUCH more intensive than others) and realized that I did not take that time even then. And I could have, I should have. I need to. It goes back to the idea of putting on my own oxygen mask first...before I try to assist others).

    2) It is hard to imagine taking Sabbath from the phone, which now has EVERYTHING on it. (Well, not pizza, but I'm sure that'll be next.) But I can try.

    3) When I was a little girl, we came home from church on Sunday and read the paper. And then read other things. And we didn't go places or do things. I think that was partly due to the Texas Blue Laws still in effect; but I miss those afternoons. There was not ever any comment that we were doing this because it was Sunday, etc. - but that is how Sunday afternoon NEEDS to feel, to me.

    4) Our rector does take his vacation and study leave; he writes icons and shares with us the spiritual fulfillment he finds there.

    5) Ultimate Sabbath: Going to the beach the way we used to: with books and no telephone, no TV, no AC. Just me and the ocean.



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