What does Shabbat mean in the modern era for Jews? - review

Nehemia Polen has written nothing less than a love song to the Sabbath, but with twists.

 HUNDREDS OF loaves of challah in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, last year for use on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. The book delves into new understandings of the Sabbath in contemporary times. (photo credit: RACHEL WISNIEWSKI/REUTERS)
HUNDREDS OF loaves of challah in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, last year for use on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. The book delves into new understandings of the Sabbath in contemporary times.
(photo credit: RACHEL WISNIEWSKI/REUTERS)

We have not had a book like this since Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote his book on the Sabbath many years ago. We have lots of books that tell us about the laws and customs of the Sabbath, but I can’t think of another book written in our time that expresses the spirit of the Sabbath as well as this one does.

Nehemia Polen has written nothing less than a love song to the Sabbath, but with twists.

If you or I were writing a book about the meaning of the Sabbath, we would probably start with the Bible and work our way through Jewish literature from there.

Polen first highlights social critics such as Jane Jacobs and historian Robert Caro, who understood the harm to the human spirit that resulted from the crushing of old neighborhoods in order to make way for freeways. And then he describes both the good and the bad that modern technology has done to us.

Only then, only after first describing why our generation may need the Sabbath even more than our predecessors did, does he turn to the Jewish tradition and bring together a host of insights from the Bible, Midrash and hassidic literature.

 Shabbat (Illustrative). (credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90) Shabbat (Illustrative). (credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)

The order is right-on, for if we do not first confront the vacuum in our lives, it is hard to appreciate how the Sabbath can fill it.

Learning to stop

The first part of this book is called “Stop.” It begins with the acknowledgment that it is not easy for modern people – who wear machines on their wrists or keep them at their bedsides so that their offices can reach them day or night – to ever really stop. Then he explains how, in contrast to the way the secular world works, in the world of the Sabbath, ordinary work finishes and the task of “making Shabbos” begins on the sixth day. You cannot simply slam on the brakes as the sun sets and go from one world to the other. 

“Erev Shabbos anticipates Shabbos, sets the stage for Shabbos, and then, as the sun begins to set, it bows reverently, exits the stage, and makes room for the Shabbos to arrive.”

Nehemia Polen

As he puts it: “Erev Shabbos anticipates Shabbos, sets the stage for Shabbos, and then, as the sun begins to set, it bows reverently, exits the stage, and makes room for the Shabbos to arrive.” Or as the Midrash puts it: “He who does not prepare on the eve of the Sabbath cannot experience the Sabbath.”

To live as if the work of the week is completely finished and not to brood over what waits for you when the Sabbath is over, and to live within the boundaries of your own neighborhood and not go chasing after who-knows-what that may be waiting for you somewhere else, is the key to the Sabbath.

By keeping the Sabbath, and perhaps even more by taking the sixth day seriously as a day for preparing for the Sabbath, you break free of the shackles that bind you. You declare that the demands of the marketplace, and the race to get ahead of our competitors do not have total control over your life. You demonstrate that the appetite for acquisition and the desire for consumption can be reined in. And this is what makes you a free human being.

I thought that the rise of suburbia and the creation of cathedral synagogues had settled the issue of driving on the Sabbath once and for all. Yet this book makes the case for settling into your home and your immediate neighborhood one day a week.

He says that to stay in place only as far as you can walk is to see the world around you very differently from the way you see it as you drive by in a car; and it is to create a community of like-minded people with whom you can share not only services but the moments of joy and sorrow in each other’s lives.

He puts this concept of not traveling beyond your neighborhood on the Sabbath first in his book because he believes that it is only by staying within the boundaries of your neighborhood that you can create a sense of sacred space.

POLEN THEN goes through all the steps of the Friday evening experience, one by one. He describes the joining with others to form a community by going to the synagogue, the inviting of guests to come home with you, the singing of the “Shalom Aleichem,” the blessing of the children, the sacred meal and the expression of gratitude that follows it, and the reunion of the family after a week of each going their separate ways – and he explains the meaning of each of these events in the light of the biblical, rabbinic and hassidic insights that illuminate them.

Polen makes a bold claim in this book: that on the Sabbath we get a taste of what it means to return to Eden. We get some sense of what it was like to live before we were alienated from nature, before the relationship between partners was broken, and before mistrust opened a gap between us and God. The expulsion from Eden meant rupture; the Sabbath brings healing and reunion. On the Sabbath we know that Paradise is not lost.

We who have been nurtured on the cliché that the purpose of rest on the seventh day is to make us fit to work better on the other six days are startled when we read the claim that Paradise is not permanently lost, and that we can experience at least a taste of it one day a week.

We emerge from this “Sabbath tour” with a sense of reverence for this “palace in time,” as Heschel called the Sabbath, and with at least the tempting thought that this palace could just possibly become our own. 

The writer is the author of The Day I Met Father Isaac at the Supermarket, Finding God in Unexpected Places, So That Your Values Live On, and other works of Jewish thought.

STOP LOOK LISTENBy Nehemia PolenMaggid Books, Koren Publishers232 pages; $23.84