The Books of Shabbos

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk about two impactful books about Shabbos and their authors.

Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa was a seminal work about the halachos of Shabbos in the modern day. The Sabbath was an ode to the beauty and spirituality of Shabbos. Together they give two complementary perspectives, the halachic and the spiritual, on our beloved Shabbos.

  • Why are Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa and The Sabbath such important works?
  • What do they each tell us about Shabbos that the other doesn’t?
  • How do the perspectives they bring, that of halacha and that of spirituality, complement each other, and how are they similar?

Tune in to hear a conversation about the books of Shabbos.

References:
Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa by Rabbi Yehoshua Neuwirth
The Sabbath by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
A Passion for Truth by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism by Gershom Scholem
The Earth is the Lord’s by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Man is Not Alone by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

This episode will explore the books perhaps most associated with Shabbos with those who knew the authors and their impact. The Sabbath, first published in 1951 has become a classic for its eloquent approach to the sanctity of time and the Jewish contribution to how we approach holiness. Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa was one of the first compendiums of halakha focused on the application of Jewish law to the modern world. First published in 1965, this work garnered a fair bit of controversy when it was first published. Learn the distinct focuses of each of these works and their respective contributions for how we understand Shabbos and Judaism in the modern world.

David Bashevkin:

Hello, and welcome to the 18Forty podcast, where each month we explore a different topic balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month we’re exploring Shabbos. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy, Jewish ideas. So be sure to check out 18Forty.org, that’s 1-8-F-O-R-T-Y.org, where you can also find videos, articles, and recommended readings.

I think if there’s one thing that we’ve been talking about this entire month related to Shabbos, it’s that Shabbos, in many ways, is a litmus test for our relationship with modernity itself. And how do we preserve those important ideas? And why, as modernity accelerated and Shabbos became all the more necessary and revolutionary, did in some ways the preservation of Shabbos become more difficult with so much technology? As the need to unplug becomes stronger, it also, in many ways, becomes far more difficult.

I really think for myself, and I’m speaking quite personally here, that my relationship to Shabbos is animated not by one thinker and one book, but by two books. And that’s what today’s podcast is really all about, the two books, that I think by holding both of them closely in your arms and embodying the ideals that they’re trying to convey, we can come closer to what preserving the ideal of Shabbos in modern times is all about. And the two books that we’ll be speaking about this week is firstly, Rav Yehoshua Neuwirth’s Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa, which was translated by Feldheim. There’s an English version and it is essentially a companion of all of the laws, the Halachos, as we say in Hebrew, the laws of Shabbos.

The English translation of Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa, which was first published, I believe, in 1984, was translated by W. Grangewood. So here’s the mystery I’ll start you off for. I have no idea who this is. Almost impossible to track down. Almost non existent. Who is the person who translated Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa? And who, in fact, is this W. Grangeworth? No first name there. I have some theories, but if anybody is listening and is a little bit of a detective, I would love to have more information on this.

The first book we’re going to be talking is Rav Yehoshua Neuwirth’s Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa, and the controversy surrounding it, and who he was, and why it was so controversial when it was first published. The second book we’re going to be talking about is the absolute classic Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath, which, much to my chagrin as a publisher myself, has sat as the number one book in Judaism on Amazon for years. I’ve never managed to knock off The Sabbath from that top spot. What can I do? And we’re, of course, going to talking about his life, some of the controversy surrounding him, and his book.

And I’m just so excited to position these two books as the two anchors of one being the laws of Shabbos as represented by Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa, and the second being the spirit of Shabbos as preserved through Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath, because, ultimately, I think the struggles that so many of us have is relating to both the law and the spirit of Shabbos.

I think that there are some people who find themselves decidedly in the category of the spirit of Shabbos, they get why Shabbos is so beautiful. They get why Shabbos is so sweet and serene. And they struggle with the necessity of the laws. They struggle with the sense of constriction that following the rules of Shabbos may give. They want Shabbos to be a little bit more flexible. They want Shabbos to be just something that they come to and is more convenient, and requires less work and less attention to detail. I think that’s an important feeling to even surface and come to grips with, because it’s something that we struggle with certainly as teenagers. There’s no teenager who doesn’t struggle with this. But it follows us into adulthood. And how do we balance that ultimately with the spirit of Shabbos?

And then there are people who the laws of Shabbos is quite natural. They appreciate the cadence and the structure of what Halacha, in general, provides to Jewish life. And very often they can look at themselves, or maybe they’re looking at their family, maybe they’re looking at their friends, and they’re wondering, why is Shabbos not appealing to the masses? It’s such an obvious idea. I think a lot of it has to do with stating the case for Shabbos with a spirit that resonates with the contemporary minds of the Jewish people. And I think the person who did that best, as we will discuss, is, of course, Abraham Joshua Heschel.

In my home, I’ll be honest and I think I’ve mentioned this before, we don’t really take vacations. I’ve rarely taken a vacation since we’ve had children three years ago. We go with our family, but a real vacation, myself, my wife, we rarely do it. But the mantra that we have in our house is that every single Shabbos is a vacation. I think financially we look at it the same way. Whatever we would budget for some fancy vacation to Puerto Rico or Hawaii or Florida or wherever people are going, we take that money and we spread it out across the year and we spend money on Shabbos. It is a luxury that we allow ourselves to have, not just because of the commandment and the importance of Shabbos in Jewish life, but I think the importance, on a very personal level, we need Shabbos every single week.

We spend money on the good meat, Grow and Behold meat. I’m not plugging them, but they make a killer Denver steak, which costs a fortune, but spread out over the course of the year that is our vacation budget. And we also have become, what a turn of events, we have become a little bit wine snobs. I am not a coffee snob. I drink coffee right from the can. But we like a nice bottle of wine on Shabbos. We afford ourselves these luxuries to really create that notion of Shabbos as a vacation. But part of that is is that I also don’t like vacations. I find it really tedious to plan. I find them really difficult and I hate the expectation of, you have to have fun now. There have been some shows that have explored the nature and the pressures that vacations and family vacations provide. But for me, I’ve never loved it.

But I think a lot of the stresses around vacation are in some ways the stresses that also pop up for many people around Shabbos itself. And that is that to have a really great wild vacation, assuming that you don’t have a travel agent to book every single step for you and do it for you, but is booking the flights, finding the hotel, finding the right places to go, finding the right vacation spot models that work for you. Then on the second hand is, once you’re actually on vacation is the active reminder of what this is supposed to be. How many times have people gone on vacation and they come back more stressed than they left? It does happen. All of our idiosyncrasies, insecurities, frustrations, they bubble up when you’re on vacation as well. Like that quote we mentioned from the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the Zen that you are going to find at the top of the mountain is ultimately the same Zen that you bring up with you on your way there. I think in many ways that’s the struggle of Shabbos. It’s the struggle of vacations. It’s our very struggle with our relationship with our contemporary modern lives.

So we’re going to be talking about two books, one, Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa by Rav Yehoshua Neuwirth, and the second is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath. I just want to make something very, very clear because, our beloved listeners, I’ve gotten in trouble before, and I just want to make something very clear. What am I doing in juxtaposing these two books? I am not comparing the personalities and saying they were the same. I’m not even recommending that you read both cover to cover or buy both. I am not getting a percentage of either of these. What we’re really trying to do is highlight two typologies that relate to Shabbos, that relate to our lives, that I think the struggle in really preserving and connecting to both is ultimately where the magic, the beauty of Shabbos emerges from.

Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa was first published in 1965 by Feldheim Publishers. It has been republished many, many times. What the book is essentially doing is taking all of the laws of Shabbos as presented from previous Halachic works like the Shulchan Aruch, like the Tur, like all the later commentaries, and really condensing them into the practical applications with a specific eye and focus towards the problems that emerge from contemporary Jewish life, from technology, from the way that homes and apartments are structured in different ways. It really goes through everything as it relates to Jewish life. Now that we have warming drawers and different kinds of ovens and just life looks totally different than it did several centuries ago, and so many of those changes have serious applications to the laws of Shabbos.

Now, the reason why he wrote this book is actually an absolutely fascinating story. Rav Neuwirth fled his home country when the Nazis began to occupy and he had to really run around and fleeing the Nazis. Ultimately him and his family found themselves living in a bunker, and supposedly they only had two works with them in that bunker. They had the Talmud Tractate Kesubos, and they also had the third volume of Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan, who’s oftentimes known as the Chofetz Chaim. His work Mishnah Berurah, which is a commentary on the section of Shulchan Aruch that deals with contemporary Jewish law, he had the third volume of that work, which deals exclusively with Shabbos. They basically sat in this bunker only studying hilchos Shabbos for many years.

Finally, in the spring of 1946, Rav Yehoshua Neuwirth joined a group of people, and this has been told over in so many outlets, and in his last volume, his most recent volume, he passed away a few years ago, but in his most recent volume, he retells this life story. Of course, it’s written in Hebrew, but it’s absolutely so jaw dropping. He finally had the opportunity to board a ship in France, but the issue was that he had to board the ship on Shabbos, which after studying for several years, he was, how could I do this on Shabbos? But he ultimately realized that in order to save your life, of course, you can do that on Shabbos, but he always had this lingering sense of guilt that in order to flee and finally get from France to Israel, he needed to violate the Shabbos, so to speak, in order to do so. And because of that abrogation of Jewish law that was necessary in order for Rav Neuwirth to flee, he made a promise to himself. That promise was that he was going to spend time clarifying and sharing the laws of Shabbos with the Jewish people, which ultimately led to the publication of Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa.

But the story doesn’t end there, that’s actually just the beginning of the story. When the book ultimately was published, it got an incredible amount of controversy. It was criticized by leading roshei yeshiva, by leading heads of the yeshivas and institutions in Israel at the time. One was the leader of the Slabodka Yeshiva. The other, probably even more well known, was someone named the Steipler Gaon, who was an incredible larger-than-life figure, whose writings are still read all across yeshivas and people who are studying Torah. And they criticize him on the grounds that, who are you to distill all of the laws of Shabbos in this concise code? How do we know that Shabbos, being so sanctified and so holy, how do we know that you did a proper job of this? They started flipping through the pages and looked at the ways that he negotiated the laws of Shabbos with contemporary modern problems, and they were not always pleased. They circulated pamphlets and they wrote essays really decrying the work. The very community that he was hoping to service, the very community, the Torah community that he was looking to provide a work for, actually initially rejected this.

He eventually had to publish a second volume where a lot of the rulings and leniencies that he initially had in that first volume were tempered or eased a little bit. And what’s really so remarkable, if you look at the second edition in that introduction, he actually makes reference to the people who attacked his work when he first published it, and he calls them beloved seekers of truth and pursuers of justice. He responded, even though it did take a toll, as we will discuss, it did take a toll on him, but he realized that what they were after was not him, but was the very beauty of Shabbos that was animating this very, very intense debate. How should the laws of Shabbos best be preserved? The issue is, when you make Shabbos more accessible to the masses, especially the laws of Shabbos to the masses, it’s sometimes very hard to get into all of the intricacies and all of the opinions. So ultimately he was criticized that it almost became too accessible, and some of the laws and opinions, maybe some of the leniencies that he shared, were not something that people really appreciated, and they criticized him for it.

But I think ultimately why he did this was animated by two moments. The first moment was that promise he made to himself on that boat. And secondly was what he wrote in the introduction that we quoted in an earlier episode. And that introduction talks about, Shabbos is the only commandment that is introduced with the Hebrew word “vayakhel,” meaning to gather a community. In order for Shabbos to be preserved, you need a community. It’s very difficult to preserve all by yourself. It’s very difficult to preserve alone, detached from that communal spirit that animates so much of Shabbos. I think that’s true of nearly all of religious life, but it’s particularly true of Shabbos. In order for Shabbos to be observed on a communal level, and this is really where so much of the pains of modernity and contemporary liberal values, is that it can’t be everyone picks and chooses, because in that sense, you’re going to be left with 100 different Shabboses, with 200 different Shabboses, where a community, where you don’t feel that collective sanctity, as difficult as that may be, because different people may have different opinions about this law or that law or that specific stringency or that specific leniency.

But in order to have a collective spirit of Shabbos in a community, when you walk down the streets and you feel a little bit, you come into a synagogue, you come into a Shabbos meal and you can feel that there is a collective standard, that is where the pain and also the opportunity of the law descends. The opportunity of Halacha, and the pain of Halacha, quite frankly, is that it is a collective standard. And sometimes different people want to interpret it in different ways. That’s how we’re grown up, self-expression. But if we’re left with that, then ultimately you can be left with 200, 300 different Shabboses. You’re not going to have necessarily the Shabbos of vayakhel, of that communal gathering. That’s exactly what this work attempts to do.

I was particularly lucky in that I found that it was very, very difficult to find an English speaking student of Rabbi Yehoshua Neuwirth, somebody who knew a little bit of his life. But I did find through my dear friend, Rabbi Sruli Motzen, who’s a Rabbi in Baltimore, his father, who is a world renowned cantor, Cantor Yaakov Motzen, was actually the personal secretary of Rav Neuwirth during these years. Now, his first language, as you will hear in a moment is of course Hebrew, but I did want to talk to him a little bit, even though his English isn’t fabulous and he sometimes peppers it with a lot of Hebrew words, but I think just for a little bit, to listen to somebody who knew and interacted directly with this towering figure Rav Neuwirth is worthwhile. Let’s hear about the interactions and experience directly from Cantor Yaakov Motzen.

Maybe we could start about how you know or how you came to be connected with Rav Neuwirth.

Cantor Motzen:

Okay. I was in [inaudible], and what happened is I came into grade three, shiur gimmel, and then… You know something? This is something that I never remember how really I start to be with him because he in this time he used to teach what you call shiur chutz la’aretz, people from out of Israel.

David Bashevkin:

Sure.

Cantor Motzen:

And I was in shiur gimmel by Rav Erlenger, so I don’t remember how it started, calling it the relation of a talmud and a rav, but I think part of the reason was because all the time I was interested in Halacha. And at this time he… The book came out, I think this was ’65 or ’66. Do you have the first edition, no?

David Bashevkin:

I don’t have the first edition, but I do believe that it was first published in 1965 by Feldheim.

Cantor Motzen:

That’s what I thought. Anyway, so I became somehow close to him. First of all, if you are asking about his personality, if you were going near him in the street, you say, “Look, look, a koller yungerman.” He was, the anava –

David Bashevkin:

The humility.

Cantor Motzen:

I’m sorry for my English because I can talk Hebrew better than English.

David Bashevkin:

No, I appreciate you making the effort to speak in English. It means a great deal. And there aren’t too many students of his who speak any English. So this is perfect.

Cantor Motzen:

I understand. I’m sure that there is people that studied by him at this time, but they didn’t have the connection to it. Anyway, so one of the things I remember, the book came out, and he right away, as you know, he got lot of very, very nasty letters. Oh sorry, I started to talk about he’s humble, humble person. And by the way he didn’t wear a frock. He had suits and a big hat. So really he didn’t look like, you walk by in the street and you would say, “Okay, a nice ben torah, but he was really amazing in everything, and just his middos. But what I remember is that I became very close to him, and I used to speak to him about the book. And then when the letters came in, I also, for some reason, again, this is something that I’m missing all the time, I used to come to the shiurs that he gave me from mishnayos shvi’is. And I was writing. And then, he gave me a typewriter. And of course, I didn’t know how to type. I used to with two fingers, I used to type the shiurim. Some of them I have by me still somewhere with lot of stuff that I had.

David Bashevkin:

Wow.

Cantor Motzen:

And then he said to me, and I became, even, I was babysitter sometime at night. I have to stay there for the kids because they’d go.

David Bashevkin:

You babysat for Rav Neuwirth’s children?

Cantor Motzen:

Yes, the two boys, the big boys. Then he said to me that… He told me about the letters that he got. Now, the letters, some of them was very nice. Some of them was very nasty. Now he wanted to show Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, he wanted to have all the people that said something that was either agree or disagree about certain Halachos that he put there, and he wanted to show Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach would see everything about the book to do with Halachos, but he didn’t want Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach to read the letters that was written, very nasty letters against Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. I know that today, you said, what? Yes. And by the way, it was not a people like today, so to speak, kanoyim. That was real kanoyim. But they figure out, and one of them is, of course I’m not going to say names, but one of the rabbonim, a big rabbi, said to me, he didn’t want him to see anything.

David Bashevkin:

Let me just jump in. He didn’t want his rebbe to see the letters that had writings inside of them that were against his rebbe because it would hurt Rav Shlomo Zalman.

Cantor Motzen:

Yeah, right.

David Bashevkin:

Wow.

Cantor Motzen:

And by the way, it was not… Matter of fact, if you want to hear a story, one of the Rabbis that wrote him letter after letter, he was [inaudible] by himself, according to my, I mean, I know – But he continued to write him. And one of the last letters, I think he mentioned even the name of the rosh yeshiva, and he said something about him, and I came to… Remember, I was 15, 16, not more. And here is, of course, he was also young at that time. And I said, Rav Neuwirth, I said, I don’t think that I Rav Neuwirth should answer to somebody that spoke about the rosh yeshiva as if he is not alive anymore. And he didn’t because Rav Neuwirth answered everybody. This is one thing that I tell, do you know [inaudible]?

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, sure.

Cantor Motzen:

He had stack of hundreds of, I talking hundreds of… He had a beautiful small handwriting, not so beautiful, but small handwriting. And he answered every letter that he got, and he got thousands of letters, telling you. He answered everybody, but only about the Halacha.

David Bashevkin:

So I’m so curious. One thing I’m very curious about is, as you mentioned, when the first edition of Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa came out, he got pushback from very serious talmidei chachamim, very serious rabbis came out against the book. And this book, as he writes in the introduction, the later volumes was a promise that he made after having to violate Shabbos for leaving the boat to literally flee the Nazis. So when all these people started to criticize him, was he depressed? Was he upset about it? Was he angry? How did he react when all these people, his life’s work, started to to put it in the garbage?

Cantor Motzen:

So I tell you something, number one, he was a smiling person. So even if he was maybe upset, and I’m sure he was upset, but I don’t, you didn’t see it on him. That’s number one. Another story I’ll tell you, you don’t know, maybe. I’m one… How many books do you think that was published in today without the English part? Probably a hundred thousand books. For sure. No?

David Bashevkin:

For sure. It’s been printed countless times.

Cantor Motzen:

Okay. I’m one of 250 people in the world that have first edition with the haskamah from Rav Wosner.

David Bashevkin:

Wow.

Cantor Motzen:

Rav Wosner gave him a haskamah, and then he came to Yerushalayim, I think, or yeah, probably came to Yerushalayim, and he begged him. He said, do me a favor. The kanoyim came. And it was kanoyim from Bnei Brak, one of them still alive, according to my knowledge. And it’s not, as I said, it’s not kanoyim of today. They came to Rav Wosner and said to him, please take the haskamah. And he couldn’t stand it. And he came to Rav Neuwirth and said, I have to tell you something. Remember the first edition was 500 books. He paid lot of money for this. Nobody believes that this will go anywhere. It was a new system. Matter of fact, all the people after who wrote books about Halacha took the same system from him.

David Bashevkin:

Everybody.

Cantor Motzen:

And I don’t think that they paid him royalty, that’s for sure.

David Bashevkin:

No.

Cantor Motzen:

Anyway, Rav Neuwirth cost him, then you have to take out from the 250 books that’s left all the pages with the haskamah from Rav Wosner, I think it was about thousand or 2000 lirot, something like this, lot of money. And I’m one of 250 with a beautiful writing book. But on the same time the same kanoyim came to Rav Chatzkel Avraham, I don’t know if he knew him or not, because he seems too young to know him.

David Bashevkin:

No the Chazon Yechezkel, of course I know who he is.

Cantor Motzen:

But I knew him personally because he used to daven, and I sent… I never forget this, like today, I was in the library of at night talking to Rav Neuwirth about some of the things of the Halacha. I like to talk to him, and that’s how I became very, how should I put it, love Halacha and the way how to make psakim. And that’s what I learned by Rav Neuwirth, not just paskening, but to enjoy it. Anyway, so he got the telephone, in the public phone, he came back, he said to me, do you know who was it? I said, how should I know? He said that was the son of Rav Chatzkel Abramsky, and he said that the same kanoyim came to Rav Chatzkel Abramsky. Now Rav Chatzkel Abramsky, forget about his geonus and knowledge, but he was very makpid on kavod hatorah, and so I said, what did Rav Chatzkel say? So his son told him, what do you think that I’m already senile? Get out of here. He didn’t want hear. And by the way, Rav Wosner asked for forgiveness from Rav Neuwirth, for doing.

David Bashevkin:

Wow.

Cantor Motzen:

And one more thing that, because of my story, Rav Neuwirth paid for the taking out this haskamah on his cheshbon, when there was a din torah about who the right belong to, I don’t remember if it was Maria or to the son or the kids. I think that one of the poskim was Rav Asher Weiss, he paskened for the kids because of my story. So that’s number one. So that was my job. And I saw many letters, but Neuwirth was ish emes, he answered everybody for the Halacha. Now, when it came, the second edition, people said he changed his mind. It’s not true. The kulos was in the first edition up and the chumros was on the bottom. Second edition, the chumros went up, the kulos went down. It’s true that after there were a few things that, so to speak, he said differently. And on this part, I don’t like to talk, I know the truth. But one more thing, if I can tell you about Rav Neuwirth.

David Bashevkin:

Please.

Cantor Motzen:

He was the biggest, biggest, he was meikel for other people, for him he was the most chumradige yid. Forget that he didn’t use electricity on Shabbos. He didn’t use even water on Shabbos. He had the special on top that he close it before Shabbos and only, regular water, forget about hot water. He’s the one that said that, you know, dud shemesh.

David Bashevkin:

Sure that was what a lot of the controversy was over, the heating system.

Cantor Motzen:

I said one more thing. When Rav Wosner gave the haskamah, the other page was him saying that he disagrees about the dud shemesh? And he never printed. So anything that Rav Wosner didn’t like, it was only one thing, dud shemesh. He wrote it there, he was not afraid of it. And I tell you now that Rav Shlomo Zalman was a big meikel, but lot of things for himself, he was the biggest machmir.

David Bashevkin:

Meaning they were very lenient for others and very stringent for themselves.

Cantor Motzen:

You have no idea.

David Bashevkin:

I wrote an article which we can link to that was published in a volume called the new Jewish cannon, which came out a few years ago, which really talks about major seminal works and articles that have really driven and shaped the American Jewish community. And I was invited to write an article about the work Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa by Rabbi Yehoshua Neuwirth, or Neuwirth as it’s probably pronounced in English. And I ended the essay with the following, because I really think it’s why his work, even through the controversies that the work had, and for many, they don’t realize that this work is controversial. It’s the most traditional, basic foundational texts of Shabbos, but it shows you how Shabbos in many ways and the preservation of Shabbos, and the way to continue Shabbos, is not always so simple, even from the community where Shabbos is most beloved, maybe particularly in that community, because we can lose Shabbos. It’s something that so many families have struggled with preserving, and so many families have witnessed in their own lifetime can be lost. And I ended the essay with the following:

The transitions from the old world to the new are at the center of Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa. At the end of his introduction for the third edition, Rabbi Neuwirth recalls the travails his family faced while fleeing Nazi occupied Berlin on their way toward Israel. Recounting the entire ordeal, he concludes with a story of being forced, as we mentioned, contrary to normative Halacha, to board a boat on Shabbos. I accepted upon myself then, he writes, that God should grant me the merit to do something on behalf of Shabbos. This book is the fulfillment of that promise he made in the aftermath of his own personal Shabbos desecration while fleeing to a new world.

For his contemporary readers that initial motivation remains the same. On any given shelf that houses Rabbi Neuwirth’s work, the work continues to fulfill a promise of preservation of a certain kind, ensuring worlds old and new continue to endure together to give us, and I concluded with those words, because ensuring that worlds old and new continue to endure together is taking the old ideals. And old, I don’t mean that they’re no longer relevant, but the laws of Shabbos as they were articulated when Halacha was canonized, whether in the Shulchan Aruch or the Tur or the Talmud, in all of the previous works of Halacha, and taking those Halachic ideals and applying it to a new world with dishwashers, with hot plates, with ovens, with all of the preparations that Shabbos entails, and being able to merge those two worlds. But not just merge worlds of Halachic worlds old and new, but merge a traditional society, which was organized in a very different way, and merge that with a new world, with new economic responsibility, with new economic and financial structures, in the way people need to operate their profession, and providing a way and a common standard where people can wade through all of the Halachic debates and find a way to preserve the laws of Shabbos in an easy and accessible way. And ultimately ensuring that those two worlds, both old and new, continue to endure together.

The second work that I really think is important to animating Shabbos is, of course, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath. And I think in order to talk about this, I think it’s also really important to talk about some of the controversy, not just around his work, but around the personality of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel himself. In many circles, particularly in the Orthodox community, his works are avoided. They’re avoided because of his institutional affiliations and the fact that in many ways he was affiliated and continues to be affiliated with the Conservative movement. So in many circles, particularly in the Orthodox community, the sad fact is that his works have not really been embraced or promoted.

I understand that, I understand the importance of communal boundaries, and I hope that at a certain time in the future we can talk about the denominational divisions and how those boundaries continue to both have relevance and in some ways have shifted. But the importance of boundaries is not something that I question. I think communal boundaries is something that have existed in Jewish communities, in one iteration or another, for many, many years. I do think that in relation to Heschel, we should not lose, no matter what your opinion is of those communal boundaries or where within those communal boundaries you find yourself, I don’t think we should lose The Sabbath of Abraham Joshua Heschel. And I think it’s for multiple reasons. There is a fabulous article that I want to project and promote to all of our listeners that was published in the 27th volume of Hakirah, which is a journal of Jewish thought. It’s a fabulous journal, but this is absolutely a fabulous article. It was written by Aaron Lieblich and is called An Introduction to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Theology.

What the article is trying to do ultimately, and the author does not mince about it, and frankly, I was kind of surprised that Hakirah published it, but I think it’s extraordinarily necessary and I agree with the author 100% in the need for this. What he’s trying to do is reintroduce Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to the contemporary Orthodox community, which for many years, either ignored or simply wasn’t aware of his writings and of this particular work. And the reason why he thinks it’s necessary is because looking at what the Jewish community needs, particularly the English speaking Jewish community needs, is an articulate spokesman and the language to understand the spirit of Judaism and the spirit particularly of Shabbos itself. We cannot be left bereft where our only relationship to Shabbos is just the Halacha. The Halacha is, of course, an extraordinarily important point, which is why even on this episode, I thought it was necessary to wed these two poles together. But that’s not that all Shabbos is. And that’s not all frankly that Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa the work is. It’s the bulk of what it’s trying to do, but even he in his introduction says and discusses the importance of preserving the spirit of Shabbos.

And I know in my own Jewish life and my own personal journey, the people who introduced The Sabbath to me were actually extraordinarily traditional Rabbis, very much anchored in the Orthodox world. I don’t want to say specifically their names now because they might deny it, but when I was studying in Ner Yisroel, my rebbe recommended The Sabbath to me. And when I spent a summer in an outreach camp, one of the leading Rabbis, and it was really one of the leading Rabbis in the outreach movement in itself, also recommended The Sabbath to me.

I have another friend who actually teaches in a gap year program in Israel who recommended another work from Heschel, which I want to give mention to now, because I think it’s the first one that I read. I don’t think the first work was The Sabbath. And that work is A Passion for Truth, which is Heschel’s presentation of the philosophy of Chassidus, particularly the world of Kotzk, which had this very serious commitment to truth.

And he also talks about how it relates to contemporary philosophy, or not contemporary philosophy like in modern times, but the romantic philosophers like Kierkegaard. It’s a fabulous read. I remember exactly where I was and when I was when I read it, and it’s something that really continues to animate my life. In Lieblich’s article, An Introduction to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Theology, he has a lot of important quotes about why Heschel is so important now in this moment. And he writes as follows quoting from Heschel. Heschel said, “I am not a halachist. My field is aggadah. But remember, there is no aggadah without Halacha. There can be no Jewish holiness without Jewish law. At least the essence of Jewish law. Jewish theology and tefillin go together. Why are you afraid of wearing tallis and tefillin every morning, my friends?” He’s addressing people who are not affiliated necessarily with Orthodox Judaism and in many ways weren’t affiliated with any traditional strands of Judaism.

And he’s asking, why are you afraid of Halachic Judaism? “There was a time when our adjustment to Western civilization was our supreme problem. By now, we are all well adjusted. Our task today is to adjust Western civilization to Judaism. America, for example, needs Shabbos. What is wrong with Shabbos, with saying a bracha every time with eat, with regularity of prayer? What is wrong with spiritual discipline?” This is Heschel speaking. “It is only out of such spiritual discipline that a new manifestation of human experience will emerge. I say human and not Jewish existence because Judaism, which can be very concrete, answers universal problems.” And I think what Heschel is really talking about here is that people pigeonholed him with exclusively talking about the spirit of Shabbos and neglecting and not really discussing the importance of halachic preservation as well of the laws that preserve Judaism. And he’s pushing back, he’s pushing back on his own audience and saying, I think you’re afraid of this.

And this is really a part of what we need. We need the rituals and the cadence to preserve the rhythm of what Judaism and the song of Judaism represents. And that, I think, is so much of the beauty of his writing. I think the question of boundaries needs its own discussion and exploration. There is a line that Lieblich does say in his article, which I think is very clever, though I think there’s a lot more to unpack, which we’re not going to do right now, where, when somebody asked Heschel about his denominational affiliation, he said, I am not a noun in search of an adjective. Which essentially, which is not a satisfying answer for many, which essentially says, I don’t affiliate with any of them. And maybe that’s the most true response. But I think the work that he has done to really articulate, not just the spirit of Shabbos, but the importance of time consciousness in Judaism, is something that cannot be overlooked and cannot be underestimated.

I myself criticize the book, The Sabbath, because I do think that it sometimes can be overly poetic and it doesn’t tell you the grit and the discipline and sometimes the frustration and the inconveniences that are necessary in order to preserve Shabbos. Shabbos is not always going to be sweet. Shabbos is not always going to be convenient. But if we want Shabbos to always be there and nurture us, we need to be there for Shabbos, even when it is inconvenient.

And I think that’s a fair criticism. I think that’s a fair pushback, but ultimately there is no more articulate spokesman for how Judaism preserves the sanctity of time itself and how Judaism is not a religion of space, it is not a religion of geography, specifically, a people who’s wandered in exile for years, for generations, for thousands of years, that is not who we are. What we preserve and where we find God is in the sanctity of time. And the number one tool and mechanism through which we are able to do that is through Shabbos, itself.

I felt that in an episode discussing the beauty of Heschel’s approach to Sabbath, I wanted to do two things. Number one, I wanted to listen directly to Heschel, and I found this clip where he discusses the sanctity of time itself to be so moving and so important right now.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

The ultimate truth is not to be found in space, but in time. God is closer to time than to space. You hear me? An important beginning for religious reflection is to ponder the meaning of time, right? If I suggest to you that in Judaism time is very important, tremendously important, now, what is time? If I may very briefly suggest a few definitions, I would say time is continuous creation. Time is God’s presence in the world of space. Time is holy. The present moment is the presence of God. Therefore, one ought to have reverence all the time for the presence for time. In a very deep sense, Judaism is a religion of time, tells you what to do with the moment. Judaism as a religion may be defined as sanctification of time. Every moment is a great opportunity for sanctification, for goodness, for service. Every moment, God is present in time.

If you want to search for God, don’t necessarily go to the peak of a mountain, or to the depth of a forest, just ponder the moment in the mystery of time. So I say to you that the real piety of a Jew is related to his sensitivity of time. Every moment is holy and therefore calls upon us to respond to it the way it really is. So marvelous to be alive, it is such a joy to be a contemporary of God, but very few of us pay attention to it, right? That’s the meaning of existence, to be aware of when you are being a contemporary of God. And every moment is an opportunity, an endless opportunity, to do the good, to accomplish, and to be creator. The true image of man is to be understood in time. A human being is not a piece of body in space. He is time. Time is a great mystery and the dignity of man is in his being time. Man lives in space, but he is time.

David Bashevkin:

And this is where I think Heschel is so important in contemporary Jewish life. Because I think no matter what community you find yourself in or what adjective you use to describe your noun, we’ve all become materialists. It is nearly inescapable. Particularly in contemporary times, we amass things, we amass space, we build homes, and Shabbos, in many ways, has benefited, but also suffered a great deal from the materialism of contemporary, modern life. And we’ve lost, in many ways, the window through which to see and peer out and see the sanctity of time. And that’s why for myself, I thought it was so important. And I was personally fascinated to speak with somebody who spent Shabbos with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. And that of course is his daughter, Professor Susannah Heschel, who I’ve interacted with in the past. She is so gracious and so kind. And she really shared with me, and I asked her not just about the Shabbos table of Heschel, but why was he doing this?

Why was this work so important to him in his publication that he wanted to have this published so early in his career? And we did also discuss about his positioning and what he thought of his own reception in the wider Jewish community, outside of the circles that he found himself. And she was so kind and candid in what she shared about him. And I think everybody has what to learn. I think everybody’s going to find something that they don’t like, but everybody will find something, I think, that is incredibly inspiring. And that is why I am so grateful and thankful to Professor Susannah Heschel for sharing her time, memories, and experience with us. Without further ado, our conversation with Dr. Susannah Heschel.

I am so excited to be sitting with Professor Susannah Heschel, who’s a professor at Dartmouth, has written several books that we will, of course, link to, and we’re talking this month about the topic of Shabbos. And we thought who better to speak to than someone who grew up in the home of the most prolific author, I think, of the idea of Shabbos for the American community, and that is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, her father.

Professor Heschel, thank you so much for joining us today.

Susannah Heschel:

My pleasure.

David Bashevkin:

So I want to begin with a little bit of a strange question, and that is what are your feelings going into an interview? You are a scholar in your own right. You’ve written about the interface between Judaism and Christianity. What are your feelings going into an interview where the focus is the work of your father?

Susannah Heschel:

I am delighted. I love to talk about my father and I’m always happy and grateful when people ask me about him.

David Bashevkin:

Oh, I’m so happy to hear that. I know people, I grew up in the home of an oncologist, so I spent most of my early years, people more interested in the work of my father than myself. And it’s just that now I can go on and on about my father. So it’s the most special thing in the world for me. So I wanted to begin with a question about what was Shabbos like growing up in your home as a child?

Susannah Heschel:

First let me mention a wonderful short essay that my father wrote about Yom Kippur. It’s just two pages. And it’s in a book of his articles that I edited called Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity. And the essay is about anticipation. He said the anticipation of Yom Kippur was in some ways even greater than the day itself, to anticipate what was about to happen was so extraordinary. And I think that’s a very important point. So it’s the anticipation of Shabbat, an anticipation that grows during the course of the week that I felt very strongly when I was a child.

David Bashevkin:

Describe to me a little bit about what the culture was in your home on Shabbos itself. Did your Shabbos table involve singing? Was it low key? What were the things, the memories that jump out at you about the Shabbos experience?

Susannah Heschel:

Well, so there are many things. I would say, first of all, it’s Friday itself. My father would go to his office to work. My mother was a pianist, she’d be playing the piano, but she would stop early. And when I was young and not yet in school, we would go shopping and go to the various shops. There would be a butcher store that had sawdust on the floor and a kosher bakery we would go to and so on and get the groceries and come home and start the preparations, the cooking in the kitchen. And the rhythm of the day increased during the course of the afternoon. In the wintertime, of course, Shabbos comes early. My father came home early from his office and I took a bath and got dressed and they would come in the kitchen and we would be with the last minute little things. Did we remember to do this or that? And did we boil the water and so on?

And then it was time and everything stopped. And we went in the dining room, that’s where my mother and I kindled the lights. And then we would go into the living room, which had windows facing west to the Hudson River. And that was very special. So we kindled the lights and then we would go and watch the sunset through those windows. And that’s how Shabbat began. And it felt very much like a physical transformation as well as a spiritual. And then dinner, yeah, my parents did not often have guests. We would just be the three of us. My mother did not enjoy cooking, especially. My father was more interested in food than she was. But it was usually chicken, maybe chicken soup, vegetables, salad. And then for dessert, my father would peel an apple.

And the question was how long the peel could go without breaking? And singing a little bit, not too much. My father did not have a great voice, nor did my mother, nor do I. So he was always hesitant about the singing, but yes, a little bit, and Birkat Hamazon, of course. And on Shabbat, my father always was reading, but on Shabbat it was always a sefer, it was always a Hebrew book, a traditional commentary, a Hasidic sefer, usually. And during the week it could be a book on philosophy, history. And we did not go to shul Friday night. We davened at home. But on Shabbat morning, my father left early for shul. Sometimes if we were awake, my mother and I would go with him. But more often we were a little slow in getting ready. Like a lot of women, came late.

My father used to say that he was getting a stiff neck because he was turning over to see if I had arrived in shul. And where we davened was a pretty traditional kind of modern Orthodox davening. Men and women sat separately, but side by side. And sometimes we would go to the Gerrer Shtiebel on the upper west side, which was a very special place with an extraordinary rabbi, Rabbi Tziviak, was something that… I worry, I don’t know how many people experience a little shtiebel and what it means. It wasn’t great for the women. We sat upstairs and could only hear through the dumb waiter.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah.

Susannah Heschel:

But Rabbi Tziviak was an amazing human being, really a very special person.

David Bashevkin:

He went to the Hasidic shul because he, himself, that’s the world that he grew up in, in a sense.

Susannah Heschel:

Yes. And he felt that’s where he could daven. I remember being there on Simchas Torah when I was very little and I could still dance with the men, and that was wonderful. But yes, that was… My father wrote once that these big modern synagogues, people sit back in their chair and they let the Rabbi and the chazzan do the davening. And he called it vicarious davening, and he sometimes… It’s so cold in the synagogue. He used to say that the sermon should be part of the davening. It should inspire you with your davening. It shouldn’t be a break. It should be continuous, a flow. And he said also that synagogues are where prayer goes to die. He didn’t find a lot of yiras shamayim in most synagogues. And I think that’s a problem to this day.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. I definitely have had similar struggles. I’m curious to go back and I’d love to hear more of these recollections. That’s exactly why I was so excited to have this conversation. Do you know why your father did not have students over on Shabbos?

Susannah Heschel:

No, we did sometimes, but more often students came for tea on Shabbat afternoon. So we would go shul in the morning. We come home and have lunch, a simple lunch –

David Bashevkin:

A cholent?

Susannah Heschel:

No, not cholent so much because my father, I mean, this was also a healthy, my father had high blood pressure and in those days there was no medicine for that. And my mother’s older brother was a physician who did research on heart disease.

David Bashevkin:

Cholent is a big no no if you…

Susannah Heschel:

It’s supposed to prove techiyas hameisim because you take a nap and then you get up after… Anyway, that’s an old joke. But no, no, but it, yeah, so we didn’t eat a lot of red meat and my mother cooked with minimal oil and no butter and milk and things. And so it was very healthy food and no desserts. Yeah. Anyway, so my parents would take a nap. And that was very difficult for me. I didn’t want to take a nap. Like little kids, I wanted to play, but I was by myself. At one point, my parents thought about moving to Borough Park because we had family there. And then I would have cousins that I could be with on Shabbat afternoon, but okay. So then when my parents would wake up, perhaps around three, my father would go for a walk and then come back at four o’clock and there would be tea. Sometimes I would walk with him. When I was very young, before he got married, Elie Wiesel would come over in the afternoon and go for a walk with my father.

David Bashevkin:

Really?

Susannah Heschel:

Yes, because he lived on Riverside Drive, not too far, just a few blocks away.

David Bashevkin:

Wow.

Susannah Heschel:

And so they would, they would walk and then, but then often on… So Shabbat afternoon tea was at four o’clock and there would be students and they would sit at the table. There would be perhaps 8 people, 10 people. And my mother would serve cheese and crackers and something that was called coffee cake in those days, you don’t hear that anymore, and, of course, tea. And sometimes she would make something, this European, it’s called a herrentorte, which is very complicated, very difficult thing to make. But sometimes she made that and yes, and the students, my father would talk to them, where were they from? Their families? What are they studying? What are their interests? And so on. And it was really very lovely. And then it would be, at some point, time to daven and make Havdalah. And so we did and then the students would leave and go home.

David Bashevkin:

I’m actually curious, because I know other leaders at that time, particularly Rabbi Soloveitchik, lamented their ability to transmit some of the majesty of Shabbos. Rabbi Soloveitchik lamented particularly being able to transmit the majesty of Erev Shabbos to his students in America. And I’m curious what your assessment would be of how successful your father felt, in his own eyes, of being able to transmit Shabbos to his students in America.

Susannah Heschel:

I think that there was a mixture of students, not all the students were the same. And I think my father felt confident about many of them and not so confident about others. What he worried about more than the individual students was the communities they were going to enter after they graduated, whether they were going to be teachers or rabbis, what would it be like for them? And it is after all not so easy for someone who’s a rabbi or chazzan to keep Shabbos when there are all kinds of demands from people and they can’t be with their family necessarily because they have to be with congregants and so on. So yeah, that concerned my father.

David Bashevkin:

This may be an extraordinarily sensitive question, and I am more than happy to skip it if you’d rather not talk about it. I’m curious what your father’s relationship was to your own Shabbos observance.

Susannah Heschel:

Well, I mean, at home we all kept Shabbos. There was no difference.

David Bashevkin:

Meaning when you were growing up, every child develops their own Shabbos relationship of their own. Sometimes there are times, I know for myself, my father would get very stressed if I didn’t come back to shul from mincha or from maariv, or he saw me change into clothes that he didn’t necessarily approve of. And I’m curious if in your own life there was ever friction between the way that you connected to Shabbos and the way that your father had hoped you would connect to Shabbos.

Susannah Heschel:

No, I don’t think so. I mean, I’ve always been a shul goer. I like to go to shul. I like to go during the week for mincha, for example. I like to go to a shul where I feel there’s yiras shamayim and real davening. And in terms of… I mean, Shabbos at home was lovely for me. I was sometimes lonely because I didn’t have friends to play with, but my father would take me Shabbos afternoon to Riverside Park. We lived across the street from Riverside Park ,and sometimes some of his students or colleagues would come and we would play games like Simon Says, for instance, or Red Light Green Light 1, 2, 3.

David Bashevkin:

Red Light Green Light. That’s a classic, a Shabbos classic.

Susannah Heschel:

Yeah. So we did things like that. But did I argue about things with my father about… no.

David Bashevkin:

Not really. That wasn’t –

Susannah Heschel:

I’m trying to think of something. I mean, I remember once as a child, we lived in Manhattan. So I had a tissue. I mention that because of the eruv question about Manhattan, but I had a tissue in the pocket of my coat and I felt very guilty about it. And I worried that I was preventing mashiach from coming.

David Bashevkin:

Wow, a sensitive child. That’s very moving.

Susannah Heschel:

But I didn’t tell my father that I had a tissue. I just felt the guilt inside of me.

David Bashevkin:

And you never did really tell him? It leads me to another point of the question. This is from an article that I wrote about that I had actually sent to you a while back. In the choice of focus of your father’s book, which is an absolute classic, I feel almost silly plugging The Sabbath. I always check. I wrote a book on Amazon. I always check every once in a while where it is. And the number one book in Judaism on Amazon almost throughout the entire year is always The Sabbath. You could check right now. It’s probably sitting in its number one perch. It rarely gets taken off. But one interesting thing about the book is that it is very magisterial in the way that it describes Judaism as a religion that prizes time over space, which is one of the most theologically profound ideas that I had ever heard. And when I first read it, probably as an older teen, it impacted me in ways that I can’t even describe. But something he doesn’t really talk about much in the book is the more formal legalistic component of Shabbos, the nitty gritties of the laws and the preparation and everything that goes into it. I’m curious what your father’s relationship was to the more legalistic Halachic aspects of Shabbos and how he was able to integrate and balance those two worlds in his own Shabbos experience and the way he educated about Shabbos.

Susannah Heschel:

So my father was not a kind of Shulchan Aruch Jew who worried at the table about whether it’s permissible to gather up the crumbs from the challah that have fallen on the table cloth, for instance. We just didn’t talk in those terms. I also know that my father… Sometimes people would call my father, strangers would call on the phone and say, “I’ve read your book. And I don’t know what to do if I want to keep the Sabbath, what should I do?” And my father would say, you just kindle the lights. Kindle the lights, and then you see where to go. And now I guess part of his approach is also coming from Hasidic teaching. And specifically, I think of the Kotzker, and the Kotzker saying that Judaism has to be authentic to who you are. And the Kotzker said, you can’t put on another person’s pair of shoes.

Of course, in those days, shoes were really molded to the foot. But Judaism has to be molded to who you are, has to be authentic. And that means you have to know who you are. So there’s no single prescription. And my father felt, especially when… In Israel, for instance, there were a lot of secular Jews in Israel, Israelis. He worried about that, but he also felt that there have to be some ways… In other words, you can’t just say you have to be Orthodox the way the Rabbanut wants you to be Orthodox. People can’t go to that right away. And it may not be appropriate for everyone. He felt that there needs to be, in a sense, different ways of expressing what is authentic. And he says, and man is not alone, and I’m paraphrasing, you can’t be Jewish the way your grandparents were Jewish. You know, it’s a kind of false nostalgia and it’s inauthentic. He said, to do that would be spiritual plagiarism.

David Bashevkin:

Wow. What a beautiful term.

Susannah Heschel:

It’s a great term, spiritual plagiarism. So that’s not appropriate. And that’s also very Kotzk. It’s very Hasidic that Hasidic rebbes also were prescribing, you must first get out the Shulchan Aruch and follow everything. And then you can come and talk to me. No.

David Bashevkin:

His book, A Passion for Truth, was really my introduction, which was about the Kotzker and the Baal Shem Tov with a little Kirkegaard sprinkled in there, was really my introduction to his writings. It was recommended to a friend of mine who’s actually now a teacher in a very major Yeshiva in Israel. And he had lent it to me. I remember exactly where I was when I read it, I couldn’t put it down.

I want to touch on a little bit of that because something that has always struck me is your father’s positionality vis a vis the other streams and all of the denominations in Jewish life. We always used the word loneliness to describe Rabbi Soloveitchik, but I think, and maybe I’m totally wrong on this, you’ll tell me, your father came from an extraordinarily Hasidic home and institutionally, he taught first in a Reform Rabbinic college and then in a Conservative Rabbinic college, in JTS, in the Rabbinical school.

And in some ways, especially during those heated years of the fifties, sixties, and seventies, when the denominations were really crystallizing their distinctive approaches, he was kind of left in almost a no man’s land where he wasn’t embraced by the Orthodox community because of his Conservative affiliations. In the Conservative community, he didn’t quite have that Talmudic personality that Rabbi Saul Lieberman had. But I’m curious if, for your father, it ever weighed on him or he ever lamented the fact that he didn’t have a lived community or an institution, so to speak, that really reflected who he was.

Susannah Heschel:

So, first of all, my father felt early on that, although it was expected that he would become a Hasidic rebbe, everyone expected that of him, and he came from an extraordinary Hasidic dynasty, the yichus was amazing on both sides of his mother and his father –

David Bashevkin:

From the Apter Rav.

Susannah Heschel:

And the [inaudible] and Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, and Chernobyl dynasty, and the… Many. And the maggid, the Maggid of Mezritch, and my father’s uncle was the Novominsker rebbe. His mother, my father’s mother was a twin and her twin brother was the Novominsker. And the Novominsker’s grandson, who unfortunately was nifter during COVID.

David Bashevkin:

You wrote a beautiful eulogy for him. That was so beautiful.

Susannah Heschel:

Oh, thank you. He was wonderful. He was the head of a Agudas Yisroel. But my father felt already at a young age that the world needed something from him. That there were great rebbes in the world, yes. But he felt he had to reach other people beyond the Hasidic realm, that he had to bring them something, some inspiration, some yiras shamayim, that they needed it desperately. And that the world also needed to know something about Chassidus. And I mean by that classic Hasidic ideas. There are great Hasidic ideas, more and more in Israel and yeshivas. They’re learning now from Hasidic seforim, they’re learning Kedushas Levi and the Mei Hashiloach and so on, which is wonderful, but that was not happening in those days. The Hasidic world was pretty cut off and other Jews, there was a hostility for Yiddish, and Hasidism was held in contempt.

Look at the last chapter of Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends, the chapter on Hasidism, it’s terrible. So that was the attitude. And that was the attitude of the seminary. First of all, let me just say, and my father was very frum, always. When my father was studying in Berlin or when he was teaching in Frankfurt, in the thirties, he was using negel vaser, which, to me, is very moving because there were the barbarians, these Nazis marching outside in the streets. What does a Jew do? A Jew wakes up in the morning and makes a bracha. Think of the difference. And to be able to preserve that, that ability to make a bracha, in the midst of this barbarism, it’s unbelievable. I have so much respect.

So the Hebrew Union College, the reform seminary, saved my father’s life. They went to Washington and they begged for visas. And in the end they received only five and they saved five Jewish scholars from death. And I wish they had gotten more. So my father spent the war years there and he lived in a little room in the dormitory with a little refrigerator for him because the dining room wasn’t kosher. He went to New York where he had family, he had a sister who was married, and he taught there at the seminary. Everybody on the faculty at the Jewish Theological Seminary was Orthodox, whether it was Professor Lieberman or Professor Halivni.

David Bashevkin:

Sure.

Susannah Heschel:

David Weiss Halivni. So I mean, they were all refugees and they were Orthodox and the davening was Orthodox. These were professors who would never daven in a Conservative synagogue. They just wouldn’t. And yet they were teaching men, all men then, to become Conservative Rabbis. So my father never said that he was Conservative. He never used that label. He never called himself anything. He didn’t like labels. But I had the sense that he wanted each community to learn something from him. And so he would give them talks and tell them what he felt they needed to learn. Which they didn’t always like, but he would never go and say, oh, you’re wonderful. Everything is great. Always tell them where they were falling short, what was wrong.

David Bashevkin:

That is so incredibly moving. I’m wondering if you could, it sounds like you have something in mind when you say that. I’m curious, is there something specific in the way that he would interact, particularly with the Orthodox community back then and how… Who were the leaders who he would be in dialogue with in the communities and what was he instructing them of and what areas did he feel they were falling short? Everyone was falling short in some way, I’m sure. But particularly in that community, what was the issue on his mind?

Susannah Heschel:

Well I think the central issue was always yiras shamayim. And the problem was either people were becoming too obsessed with Shulchan Aruch and losing sight of yiras shamayim, or they didn’t even know what’s Shulchan Aruch, and either way they weren’t getting to the point that they needed to be. So he would tell them what they needed to hear. He called it religious behaviorism. When you do everything… Look, somebody said to me once when I was a student, Jews don’t pray. Jews say words that we’re required to say, different brachos, we would make Kiddush and so, but we are reciting words. We’re not praying. Praying, he said to me, is a Christian concept. Now this was said to me by an Orthodox Jew, and that’s the sort of thing my father was trying to overcome. Of course, praying is Jewish. Davening is Jewish and there are great Jewish teachings about davening and what it means to daven, how important it is. And so my father wanted to bring that to people.

But just as he criticized the religious behaviorism of people who get all obsessed about the details without any kind of spirit, without the yiras shamayim, and we’ve been to such synagogues. On the other hand, the people who have no Shulchan Aruch, who have no understanding of how Halacha brings you to yiras shamayim, they also were in the wilderness in mitzrayim. So it’s both ends.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. And kind of pulling those two worlds together. And he very admirably was an ambassador, I think, to both of those worlds and bringing something in. Just allow me one other question. Was he aware of the controversy or the optics of the fact that he was associated with a non Orthodox institution and how that played out in the Orthodox world? Was he just not concerned about it? It didn’t bother him? Or was it something that kind of weighed him? I hate to kind of come back to that point. It’s just always been a point of curiosity of my own. I’m an educator in mostly Orthodox spaces, we give out The Sabbath to all of the participants on our summer programs, particularly those who are coming from homes where they don’t have another introduction to Shabbos, but there’s always murmurings. And I’m curious if those murmurings were ever heard by your father and if it ever hurt him, or if it’s something that he just didn’t pay attention to?

Susannah Heschel:

First of all, my father was always very close to his Hasidic family, the Novominsker especially. And we saw each other. I mean, I remember still… where my uncle lived on the Lower East Side on Henry Street before he moved to Borough Park. And the feeling there with the family was that my father was bringing Yiddishkeit to people who had no other way and who needed it, who needed to learn this. So it was, what do you say, shem chinuch? But also my father was not in a Conservative environment. It was an Orthodox faculty. The students were also expected to be Orthodox.

And Conservative Judaism changed after my father joined the seminary. And it wasn’t the seminary that changed. It was rather some Conservative Rabbis who said, and I think it was wrong, personally, but that it was permissible, they said, for a Jew to drive to shul on Shabbos. Because this is the time in the fifties when they’re building suburbs and they build big synagogues. It was wrong, I think, but that opened the door. My father disagreed with that. He disagreed. He disagreed when the decision was made that the minyan could consist of women as well as men to count for 10. He disagreed with that. And so did just about, I think, everybody else on the faculty for that matter. But what could he do at that point? Everybody needs a job.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah.

Susannah Heschel:

And I think a lot of faculty would’ve left and wanted to leave. After the decision to admit women for ordination, David Weiss Halivni left.

David Bashevkin:

Sure. He writes about that in his memoir quite powerfully.

Susannah Heschel:

Yeah. I think that others, I think Professor Frankus would’ve left, certainly. Professor Lieberman was no longer alive, but he would’ve left.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah.

Susannah Heschel:

So you see what I mean?

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. Yeah. It was very much a different world and your father transcends so many worlds, which is really part of the enduring. I think he transcends the Jewish world in many ways and has made the impact of bringing religious consciousness far beyond, not just any particular denomination, but really to the entire world.

Let me return before we wrap up, and I’m just so appreciative of your time and memories. I just find them very deeply moving to even peep through a little hole to see what that world once was. Your Shabbos table, to return back to the Shabbos table where we began, did your father used to say divrei Torah, words of Torah, at the Shabbos table, or it was more conversational? How, what was the cadence of conversation at the table?

Susannah Heschel:

There was a lot of humor, first of all, and we did have guests sometimes, and occasionally we would be invited to homes of other people. But I would say whether we had guests or we didn’t have guests, first of all, my father loved Jewish jokes. And there were a lot of them at the table. And when we had guests over, I could tell you that Professor Halkin, Abe Halkin, knew every single joke I think ever written in the world. He just was amazing. Especially Yekke jokes. He knew a lot of those.

David Bashevkin:

About German Jews. That’s great.

Susannah Heschel:

Yeah, but my father loved jokes. He loved laughter and my father and I also enjoyed teasing my mother in various ways or coming up with all kinds of silliness. So there was a lot of joking around and laughing at the table. And in terms of divrei Torah, it was more, I would, say Hasidic Torah, but it was… The truth is, it wasn’t formal. That is, my father would be talking about a particular Hasidic Rebbe and tell a story about what the person had said or had done, and it was part of the ongoing regular conversation at the table. He didn’t stop and say, “Well, now let me tell you.” And it was true also of my bedtime stories, for instance. They were sometimes taken from Midrash. Sometimes it was Hasidic, but that’s what he talked about.

David Bashevkin:

He would tell you Hasidic stories when he was tucking you in at night?

Susannah Heschel:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

As a child. Wow.

Susannah Heschel:

Yeah. Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

Well, let me ask you, it was one of his earliest works. It was not his first work. Did he ever explain more? Because the book, The Sabbath, at least the edition I have that I obviously took down and have right next to me now, it doesn’t really, it has a prologue, but it doesn’t really have a typical introduction where he explains his motivation of why he wrote about this. There are other topics he wrote about, particularly topics of Chassidus or religious life in general, where you can understand what drew him to this subject. Do you have any insight on why he wrote this book?

Susannah Heschel:

Well, he wrote the book before I was born, and my father rarely spoke in or wrote in autobiographical terms. And so he doesn’t really have a prologue like that in any of his books, but you sort of get a hint of it. That is, first of all, the book is full of wonderful Jewish texts. And if you look at the footnotes, they’re pretty amazing.

David Bashevkin:

Yes.

Susannah Heschel:

And so they’re from Kabbalah, from Chassidus, from everything. And some of them are obscure. Some of them are not. From Talmud, from Midrash. And he had those texts and they just would flow from him. He never looked things up. When he wrote Torah Min HaShamayim, a Hebrew book, he didn’t look up anything because he knew it all. Sometimes the footnote, he would get the wrong page, because sometimes he didn’t remember the number of the page, but the text he knew. And so The Sabbath is really a kind of outpouring of Jewish texts on Shabbat that he put into modern English language for a modern reader to have access to these teachings. So really they’re not so much his teachings, they’re Jewish teachings refracted through him, presented to someone who may not know Hebrew and the traditional texts.

David Bashevkin:

It’s had a lot of imitators. None of them have really come all that close to writing a work that presents the majesty of Shabbos. I’m just curious. I know there’s been a lot of work and discussion now about the manuscript of your father. And I’m curious, does the original manuscript of The Sabbath still exist?

Susannah Heschel:

I think a little bit, a little bit. Why do you ask that in particular?

David Bashevkin:

I was curious to know if there were any changes on the page or notes. I don’t know how he wrote, I assume back then it was either on typewriter or handwritten.

Susannah Heschel:

Oh, I’ll tell you how he wrote. So my father wrote on plain white paper that the seminary provided in bulk. Sheets of plain white paper that were embossed that said Jewish Theological Seminary. But he would write things by hand. He didn’t know how to use a typewriter. He didn’t know how to drive a car. He didn’t. I mean, that was just –

David Bashevkin:

It makes me appreciate even more that you got your headphones on and your voice note.

Susannah Heschel:

I know, I know, but I don’t think he knew… He didn’t know how to put on a record on the record player. Just those were not –

David Bashevkin:

Not tech savvy.

Susannah Heschel:

No.

David Bashevkin:

Okay.

Susannah Heschel:

But anyway, he wrote by hand, usually with an ink pen in those days, later with ballpoint, but an ink pen with rather large handwriting, large, fairly large letters, not tiny. And then he would write sometimes a few lines or a few words, just one sentence, and then he would go back. And he would look it over and he would decide that he wanted to mix something with this paragraph here or there. And he would take scissors and cut the piece of paper and take that little bit of that paper that had those words on it, and then he would staple it on either end to a blank piece of paper.

David Bashevkin:

You’re kidding me.

Susannah Heschel:

And then put another piece and staple. So that’s how he did it. And then it would go to… It would be a student assigned as the typist. The students all had jobs for a few hours a week doing things. So they would, the student would type it for him and he would go over it. And then he would sometimes write by hand in the type, a correction, a change, and then maybe retyped and so on.

David Bashevkin:

I got such a kick out of that because you know, before computers, that’s the way Rabbis used to put together their source sheet, there would be different sources that you’d use tape or staples. I never heard of a Rabbi write a book that way, but that’s unbelievable that… And he would literally, scissors and snip together the pieces together. I’m just curious just because you mentioned it and it’s okay if you don’t remember, was there a particular joke that your father liked to say?

Susannah Heschel:

There were many. So I’m thinking about one about the person who goes to hear a dvar Torah about Jacob and the ladder. And after listening to the dvar Torah and it’s so meaningful and so forth. And then the next, excuse me, but how many rungs were there on the ladder? That’s the joke. I mean he told it in a slightly more elaborate way, but the point being that people who focus on that. Okay.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, he’s like it’s okay. It’s all about the timing. It’s correct.

Susannah Heschel:

There was a joke about the Chinese waiter in a kosher restaurant who spoke fluent Yiddish. This a little bit of a problematic joke to tell.

David Bashevkin:

Let’s see.

Susannah Heschel:

I will tell you, but I’ll tell you what it was circulating in those days.

David Bashevkin:

Okay.

Susannah Heschel:

And somebody so impressed that this waiter had come from China was now speaking fluent Yiddish, and asked the owner, how is this possible that he speaks fluent Yiddish this Chinese man? He says, “Shhhh, he thinks it’s English.” Things like that. I could go on.

David Bashevkin:

But he told a lot of jokes. I love that. I’m absolutely enthralled. I’m just so enamored by this world. Was there a particular Torah that you would hear very often at the Shabbos table that he would come back to? Obviously woven into conversation, as you said, but was there something that sticks out in your memory, even if he didn’t repeat it, but something that kind of still resonates with you?

Susannah Heschel:

Many, there’s so many. I mean, one is never despair. It’s forbidden because Hashem is always everywhere with us. Another was the classic that if he saw somebody who made an averah, did something he shouldn’t do –

David Bashevkin:

Did something wrong, sinned.

Susannah Heschel:

Yes. But he would say how wonderful, this person is honest. The story about the Ba’al Shem Tov going to the home of a widow on Yom Kippur, a blind widow, and making a fire for her in the fireplace. The stories like that, about the Apter Rav, a niggun that the Apter Rav heard when he took a nap one afternoon that he went up to heaven and heard the angels singing. And that was the niggun that is very special in my family. And actually at my wedding, my relatives, my cousins sang that niggun when I walked around.

David Bashevkin:

Wow.

Susannah Heschel:

My cousin.

David Bashevkin:

Wow.

Susannah Heschel:

Yes, that was beautiful.

David Bashevkin:

That’s so, so beautiful.

Susannah Heschel:

Let me tell you something. And I think people might like to hear and it brings together the Gerrer Shtiebel and Shabbat afternoon that we talked about earlier. So when Elie Wiesel became engaged and got married to Marion, I think they actually were married in Paris where she was living. My father before made an aufruf for Elie Wiesel at the Gerrer Shtieble, Rabbi Tziviak. And Elie Wiesel wrote about that in a Hebrew newspaper. I don’t remember the name of it. And then after they were married, they came over for Shabbat afternoon tea and my parents made a little reception, a simcha for them. I think I would just want to… I don’t know if this is worth mentioning, but somebody wrote in a book about my father, and by the way, a lot of people, men, write books about my father and very rarely talk to me or ask me anything, even though I’m happy to be helpful.

I don’t know why that is, but sometimes they make some mistakes that I find troubling. So I just mentioned one that when my father was nifter, that the funeral, that my Hasidic relatives took over. It’s not true. They didn’t take over. It’s what we wanted. And I’ll just say that just as at my father’s funeral, what men and women sat separately, my Hasidic relatives. I also had a Hasidic wedding when I got married. I also went at my mother’s levaya, men and women sat separately. And I consulted my cousin, the Boyaner Rebbe, and my cousin’s davened tehillim at the beginning. And so on. I mean, I think people don’t quite understand that it’s possible. I can be a university professor and none the less go to my family weddings in Borough Park, when there’s no COVID, and be close to my family and we love each other. Do you see what I mean?

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. It’s why, for me, this conversation was so important because I knew to access the world of The Sabbath that your father brought to the world, I was not going to find it in an academic paper or even in a footnote. I knew it needed to be speaking with someone who experienced it, was a family member who understood that people, particularly your father, can contain multitudes, and that he shouldn’t be pigeonholed into whichever world, universe, demographic, or denomination that people find most convenient.

I have a great sense of gratitude to his writings. And I want you to know, depending on who we ask and we’ll get to these questions in a moment, but I always ask my interviewees, the books that influence them, and maybe with the exception of Rabbi Sacks, just because people are younger so they know his writing, your father’s name comes up constantly as the entry point for people’s religious engagement. And it’s not a surprise at all to me, because he served the same role in many ways in my own life.

Susannah Heschel:

Good.

David Bashevkin:

So I’m so privileged and it’s so special to be able to speak with you about your memories about your father, and his Shabbos, and your Shabbos.

Susannah Heschel:

Thank you.

David Bashevkin:

I always close my interviews with three more rapid fire questions. My first question, I usually ask about the book that brought you or influenced your religious life. I want to slightly modify it and ask, which of your father’s works resonates most with you and your religious practice?

Susannah Heschel:

All of them, I would say. I would say, certainly, when I was very young, the first book of my father’s I read when I was seven, was The Earth is the Lord’s, and I loved it, and I love The Sabbath, but I love all of his writings. I think sometimes Man is Not Alone, gets a little neglected. And when I open some of those pages, it’s just amazing. And I think my father, for me, my father’s writings brings me to Hasidic seforim. And so I’ll read something of Kedushas Levi, or right now I’m looking at something of Mei Hashiloach, and it’s just incredible. It’s extraordinary. So I would say everything. But I have to say Torah Min HaShamayim is an amazing book.

David Bashevkin:

And they’re doing work on it now, because I know it was complicated to find. I have an edition in my house. I have not been able to get through it, but it definitely is a serious work of scholarship, and a student of the Mei Hashiloach, Rav Tzadok HaKohen MiLublin, has been my kind of perennial, a person who’s influenced my life in a lot of ways. But your father would mention the Mei Hashiloach. It appears often.

Susannah Heschel:

Of course. Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. Fascinating. If somebody gave you a great deal of money and allowed you to leave all of your responsibilities in teaching and just focus on writing another book, I know this is an unusual question to ask somebody who’s already a professor and has already written several books, but what would you write about?

Susannah Heschel:

If I had more time, really, is what you’re saying?

David Bashevkin:

Yeah.

Susannah Heschel:

I would love to write a memoir of my father.

David Bashevkin:

I hope in some way, this nostalgic journey has given you some motivation, because the world would love it and the world needs it. My final question, I’m always fascinated by people’s sleep schedules. What time… And maybe you could answer both for you and your father. What time do you, did you and he go to sleep at night? At what time did you wake up in the morning?

Susannah Heschel:

Well, we have something, there’s a Heschel gene in the family that makes us have a hard time falling asleep. My father had a hard time falling asleep. And so do I, and so do certain other relatives. But in general my father would be up around seven, eight o’clock, he often had a nine o’clock class, and I had to get up that time as well to go to school. So, and nowadays, yeah, I find it easier these days to fall asleep early, but that’s because I live in kind of suburban area rather than in the urban New York, so that the air is a little bit fresher. And I think that makes a difference. And I like to get up at five or six. And there’s this Sephardi shul next door, literally next door to us, to our house. And they’ve been davening because of COVID outside. And now, the Sephardim blow shofar every morning for 40 days. So every morning I get up and I hear the shofar from the Sephardi shul, next door.

David Bashevkin:

That wakes you up.

Susannah Heschel:

It’s just really great.

David Bashevkin:

I love that. Professor Heschel, thank you so, so much

Susannah Heschel:

My pleasure.

David Bashevkin:

…for joining. It’s such a privilege to finally meet and thank you so much for our conversation.

Susannah Heschel:

Thank you, David.

David Bashevkin:

Shabbos needs two books. You can’t just hold the book of law and you can’t just hold the book of spirit. In order for Shabbos to be preserved, not all only in your lifetime, but for the future lifetime of the Jewish people and of the world, because ultimately the world needs Shabbos, as the song that we listen to constantly on Erev Shabbos is Bari Weber’s beautiful rendition of a song called Kiddush. It’s in Yiddish. But the words that he’s singing is “Let’s make kiddush for the entire world. Let’s sanctify the entire world.”

Bari Weber:

(singing)

David Bashevkin:

And I think when we think about Shabbos, and for many people, the beauty of Shabbos is so instinctive, but I think for a lot of people, either in their own lives or in the lives of people close to them, there is a struggle. They know people in their lives, maybe it’s children, maybe it’s teenagers, maybe it’s yourself that you just whisper. There are struggles with the consistency of Shabbos, with the beauty of Shabbos, with the rhythm of Shabbos. And I think for our listeners, it is worth asking which book of Shabbos is your struggle. Because ultimately for Shabbos to be preserved for ourselves, for future generations, we need both.

Thank you so much for listening. It wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without a little bit of Jewish guilt. So if you enjoy this episode or any episode, please subscribe, rate, review, tell your friends about it. It really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. If you’d like to learn more about this topic or some of the other great ones we’ve covered in the past, be sure to check out 18Forty.org. That’s the number one eight followed by the word “forty,” F-O-R-T-Y.org, 18Forty.org, where you can also find videos, articles, and recommended readings. Thank you so much for listening and stay curious, my friends.