What is Shabbos? In some ways, the bones of the day of rest are identical for many: rest, resisting the urge for work and technology, and an increased focus on the important parts of life. In other ways, each Shabbos has its own timbre, buzzing along to the vibration of its own string, different and unique for each time, place, and practitioner. Shabbos can be about the food, the people, the prayers, or the mytho-poetic hum of the chthonic (do yourself a favor and try to say this word aloud, please) time-stream of Jewish life, and it is probably all these things for so many!
We each inherit a Shabbos of sorts, a set of associations or implications of what rest means, and looks like, and yet we all bring ourselves to the project of creating our own sense of Shabbos. It is no coincidence that we refer to the seven days of creation, and not of the six; might this suggest that there is a creativity in not-doing, just as there is a creativity in doing?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most powerful articulators of the subtle beauty of Shabbos in our era, says this, in his foundational God in Search of Man:
Let us turn to the text of the Ten Commandments, the most representative monuments of Jewish teaching, and see whether such a term can be found. The Ten Commandments have been translated into all tongues, and its vocabulary has become part of the literature of all nations. Reading that famous text in any translation, Greek, Latin or English, we are struck by a surprising fact. All words of the Hebrew text have been easily rendered by English equivalents. There is a word for pesel: a graven image, there are words for shamayim, for example, an eretz: heaven and earth. The whole text has been faithfully translated into English and yet it reads as if it were originally written in English.
But, lo and behold! There is one Hebrew word for which no English equivalent has been found and which remained untranslated: Sabbath. “Remember the Sabbath Day.” In the Greek of the Septuagint we read Sabbaton; in the Latin of the vulgate: Sabbatum; in Aramiac Shabbatha; in the King James version the Sabbath.
Perhaps Sabbath is the idea that expresses what is most characteristic of Judaism.
Heschel is thinking aloud about whether Shabbos can be translated into the language of others, out of the Jewish idiom, but I wonder about a different quality of the non-translatability of Shabbos: How do we translate Shabbos into our lives, and into our own days and weeks? There is an ancient custom, mentioned by halakhic authorities throughout the ages, to speak exclusively in the ancient and sacred Holy Tongue, the lashon hakodesh, on Shabbos, which speaks to this. After all, what better way to mark the temple in time that is Shabbos, than through its own language? But then what of the language of the week? Is it a different language entirely, or is there a way that we might be able to translate the language of our Shabbos, of our most meaningful moments, into the days and nights of our lives?
How do we cultivate, and create, a meaningful Shabbos for our lives, and how might we cultivate more such powerful moments? And how do we translate these moments, express these truths through the language of every day, of everyman and everywoman? These are the questions on our mind as we explore our newest topic: Shabbos. We’ll be having on guests who have spent time thinking and feeling their way through the deepest questions of what celebrating the day of rest looks like, and we hope you join us on this journey.
1. Letters and Law: How do the laws of Shabbos complicate and cultivate our relationship with rest?
2. Creativity and Contemporaneity: How might we be creative in the ways we rest in our contemporary worlds, and words?
3. Relaxation and Reason: Should the leisure of Shabbos diverge or converge with the leisure of our societies?
What the temple was in space, Rabbi Heschel teaches us, the Shabbos is in time, a temporal sanctuary, and what the Shabbos is in time, The Sabbath is in text. A timeless classic beloved by many, this book does not just speak about the power and poetry of Shabbos, but it somehow seems to speak in the very language of Shabbos itself. Heschel’s unique capability, creativity, and artistry as a writer and thinker come through in this short, poignant text, and it makes for the perfect read to appreciate what Shabbos has to offer all of us, in our own ways.