Next to ethical monotheism, the greatest gift the Jews have given to the world - and to themselves - is Shabbat. Just as monotheism freed humankind from the tyranny of magic and superstition, so too Shabbat freed humankind from the tyranny of time and slavery to perpetual drudgery.
In the ancient world, whoever dreamed that every person, man, woman, child, slave and even every animal was entitled to a day of rest, to leisure and a time to refresh and reinvigorate body and soul? The nobles, the wealthy could take whatever time they wished, but not the common person, and certainly not the slave who was no more than mere property. And here comes Moses, the revolutionary, and teaches that it is God's will that on the seventh day "you shall do no work - you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements" (Exodus 20:10). For one-seventh of one's life, no one can be coerced into work.
In his great book The Sabbath, as well as elsewhere in his writings, Abraham Joshua Heschel demonstrated that Shabbat is a sanctuary built not in space but in time, that it is a time when human beings are free from enslavement to money, to commerce, to time and to all the ills of civilization. For one day there are no rich and no poor, no free and no slaves, all are equal. For that one day there is no need to compete, to create. Instead, there is time to enjoy the world that God has given us, to appreciate everything around us, to free the mind from daily worries and contemplate things that really matter. No wonder the day is designated as a time of delight. The Jew who takes upon him/herself the observance of Shabbat has achieved autoemancipation in the truest sense.
What a pity it is that in Israel of all places, Shabbat is being forgotten and year after year it plays less of a part in the national culture. We have now reached the point where Saturday is the greatest and most lucrative sales day of the entire week. Friday night is the time when our youth are to be found not around the Shabbat table enjoying family warmth and togetherness but rather in clubs, many of which are little less than dens of drugs, sex and alcohol. Not a week goes by that we don't read of stabbings and even killings in the wee hours of Saturday morning and of road accidents caused by intoxication.
When the state was contemplated, leading figures such as Bialik, Ahad Ha-am and Y.L. Gordon - hardly leaders of religious groups - saw in Shabbat the very fabric of Jewish life, the day that preserved the Jewish people and would make us all better people. Today we have no figures of comparable stature who are bothered by the phenomenon of shopping malls and flea markets springing up in kibbutzim, which have obviously abandoned not only their socialist ideals but also their spiritual vision.
Proposals have been made for a compromise whereby commercial places would be closed while places of entertainment and culture would be open on Shabbat, yet even those proposals seem unlikely to receive the blessing of the general population.
Unfortunately, Shabbat has been tarnished with the same brush as religion in general, which is perceived by all too many as a coercive instrument of certain religious factions, imposed upon the nation by the unholy alliance of religion and politics. People are inclined to see only the restrictions of Shabbat and not its joys. It may be true that over the years too many minute restrictions have sprung up, sometimes to the point of ridiculousness, but the basic truths of Shabbat and its values can be adopted without this overzealousness. If people would look at the positive side of Shabbat observance and try to free themselves from the tyranny of work, perhaps they would find that Shabbat is not as foolish an idea as they think.
Unfortunately, Israeli society tends to think in terms of black and white - everything or nothing. We should be encouraging people to find those parts of Shabbat observance that are meaningful to them, and go on from there. Rather than denouncing those who observe some Shabbat regulations and not all as hypocrites, we should praise them for what they do and encourage them to find ways in their lives in which Shabbat can be a positive force.
As it is, there are pressures in Israel to abandon Shabbat, to open businesses, to work on that day. If Shabbat cannot exist in Israel, it has little hope elsewhere. It is inconceivable and tragic that this great institution should be preserved only in small sectors of the Jewish people. It is our heritage, our treasure that we dare not abandon.