Judaism as a Religion of Time – Heschel on the Sabbath

Abraham Heschel, second from right

“Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time” (Abraham Heschel)

Earlier this week I read a wonderful little book by Abraham Heschel called The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. I became aware of this book through Moltmann’s use of it in his chapter on The Feast of Creation in God in Creation (GC). Readers familiar with The Crucified God will recall that Moltmann there used Heschel’s book, The Prophets, to develop the idea of the pathos of God. Moltmann loves to use Jewish theologians like Heschel in his work; perhaps this is because for Moltmann the first great schism in the people of God was between Christian and Jew.

I’ve included the passage where Moltmann uses Heschel at the bottom of this post. First, here are some of my favorite quotations from The Sabbath:

The mythical mind would expect that, after heaven and earth have been established, God would create a holy place- a holy mountain or a holy spring- whereupon a sanctuary is to be established. Yet it seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first. (p. 9)

Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. (p. 13)

The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. (p.14)

The solution of mankind’s most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence of it.” (p. 28)

Observance of the seventh day is more than a technique of fulfilling a commandment. The Sabbath is the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man. It is possible for the soul to respond in affection, to enter into fellowship with the consecrated day. (p. 60)

Zion is in ruins, Jerusalem lies in the dust. All week there is only hope of redemption. But when the Sabbath is entering the world, man is touched by a moment of actual redemption; as if for a moment the spirit of the Messiah moved over the face of the earth. (p. 68)

A legend relates that at the time when God was giving the Torah to Israel, He said to them: My children! If you accept the Torah and observe my mitzvot, I will give you for all eternity a thing most precious that I have in my possession.
-And what, asked Israel, is that precious thing which Thou wilt give us if we obey Thy Torah?
-The world to come.
-Show us in this world an example of the world to come.
-The Sabbath is an example of the world to come. (p. 73. This is a quote from: Alphabet of R. Akiba, Otzar Midrashim, p. 407)

Unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath while still in this world, unless one is initiated in the appreciation of eternal life, one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come. (p. 74)

To the philosopher the idea of the good is the most exalted idea. But to the Bible the idea of the good is penultimate; it cannot exist without the holy. (p. 75)

We usually think that the earth is our mother, that time is money and profit our mate. The seventh day is a reminder that God is our father, that time is life and the spirit our mate. (p.76)

The emphasis on time is a predominant feature of prophetic thinking. “The day of the Lord” is more important to the prophets than “the house of the Lord.” (p. 80)

Judaism tries to foster the vision of life as a pilgrimage to the seventh day; the longing for the Sabbath all days of the week which is a form of longing for the eternal Sabbath all the days of our lives. It seeks to displace the coveting of things in space for coveting the things in time, teaching man to covet the seventh day all days of the week. God himself coveted that day, He called it Hemdat Yamim, a day to be coveted. It is as if the command: Do not covet things of space, were correlated with the unspoken word: Do covet things of time. (p. 90-91)

Time is man’s greatest challenge. We all take part in a procession through its realm which never comes to an end but are unable to gain a foothold in it. Its reality is apart and away from us. Space is exposed to our will; we may shape and change the things in space as we please. Time, however, is beyond our reach, beyond our power. It is both near and far, intrinsic to all experience and transcending all experience. It belongs exclusively to God. (p. 99)

Here is the quote from God in Creation that I mentioned. This is what made me want to read The Sabbath for myself!

God ‘ hallowed’ the sabbath because ‘on it he rested from all his work which he had done in creation’ (Gen. 2.3). Here for the first time in the biblical traditions we find the word ‘hallow’. To hallow or sanctify means, roughly speaking, choosing or electing, separating off for oneself, declaring something to be one’s own property and inviolable. Significantly enough, the word is not applied either to a creature or to a space in creation; it is kept for a time, the seventh day. Again, one might say that the sanctification of any creature or space would be particular, whereas the sanctification of the sabbath benefits all created things on the seventh day; that is to say, it is universal.
But the sanctification of this time is singular in another way too. If what is sanctified is a time, and not a special domain, a mountain or a place, the result is a curious view of the world; for the world is then viewed predominantly in terms of time, in events and sequences of events, in generations and histories, not in spaces and regions. Is Judaism the religion of time, as Abraham Heschel maintained? Is the sabbath the Jewish cathedral, Judaism’s holy mountain? Spaces, precincts and domains are distributed according to power and possession, but time is the same for everyone, because it is there for everyone. In the temple, heaven and earth touch, according to the archaic view. According to the Jewish view, in the sabbath eternity and time touch. When the sabbath is sanctified, a time is sanctified which is there for the whole creation. When the sabbath is celebrated, it is celebrated for all creating being. The primary orientation towards time, which is grounded in the sanctification of the sabbath, seems breathtaking to peoples whose cultures are aligned to holy places and divine precincts.
Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, p. 283-284

There is a footnote to the above Moltmann passage which includes the following quote from The Sabbath: “Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year…The main themes of faith lie in the realm of time. We remember the day of the Exodus from Egypt, the day when Israel stood at Sinai; and our Messianic hope is the expectation of a day, of the end of days” (from Heschel, p. 8)

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