A Sacred Time of Peace
Rabbi Abraham Heschel points out that the first holy object in the history of the world was not a mountain or an altar but a day. The Sabbath, he contends, was something entirely new. Other religions celebrated sacredness by designating places or objects as sacred. But,
Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and the Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn.1
Heschel also explains that though God rested, the ancient rabbis spoke as though God had created something new on the seventh day. That something, he says, in menuha, the Hebrew word normally rendered as "rest." In the context of the Sabbath passages, rest meant far more than simply taking a day off or engaging in leisurely pursuits: "To the biblical mind, menuha is the same as happiness and stillness, as peace and harmony ... What was created on the seventh day? Tranquility, serenity, peace, and repose.
He goes on to say that menuha eventually became equated with the life to come: "Six evenings a week we pray: 'Guard our going out and our coming in'; on the Sabbath evening we pray instead: 'Embrace us with a tent of Thy peace.'" The Sabbath is to be like warm shelter, a safe place, a day in which Jewish people can experience God embracing them with his peace.
So Sabbath is much more than leisure. A day at the beach might relax us. A massage and a visit to the spa might delight us. But these do not constitute Sabbath rest. Susannah Heschel, the daughter of Abraham Heschel, comments on how Friday evenings at their home was always the climax of her week, as they were for every Jewish family: "Shabbat comes with its own holiness; we enter, not simply a day but an atmosphere." Sabbath is meant to be a foretaste of paradise, a testimony, she says, to God's presence. Her father taught her that just as it was forbidden to kindle a fire on the Sabbath, one must not kindle a fire of righteous indignation. That's why her family refrained from talking about politics, the Holocaust, or the war in Vietnam on the Sabbath, focusing instead on topics that would help create a sense of menuha. Her father also taught her that Sabbath was a day for the body as well as the soul and that it was a sin to be sad on that day.
But the peace of Sabbath does not magically materialize. It takes work and preparation. In Jewish homes the preparation often begins early in the week because everything needs to be readied by sundown on Friday when Sabbath begins--a festive meal, a clean house, chores completed, enough food to ensure that no cooking needs to be done for the next twenty-four hours. Somehow this is fitting since Sabbath is intimately connected to the rest of the week, whose days are thought of as a pilgrimage toward the Sabbath.