Shulevitz’s Shabbat
Wed, 04/28/2010
Staff Writer
Photo By Michael Datikash
Photo By Michael Datikash

 Cultural critic Judith Shulevitz grew up in a house divided when it came to observing Shabbat. And she’s not the only one. What for some people is a kind of refuge is for others an antiquated and sometimes oppressive ordeal. From its very beginning, the Sabbath has raised questions, posed challenges and has spawned new ways of thinking for Jews and Christians alike. In her new book, “The Sabbath World, Glimpses of a Different Order of Time,” Shulevitz explores how the Sabbath has been observed and understood over the course of millennia.  

—Sara Ivry

 Sara Ivry: Let’s begin this conversation where you do in the book, with your own relationship to the Sabbath, which has some rather ambivalent origins. 

Judith Shulevitz: It’s a strange book for me to have written, and my family was shocked when I chose to do so, because I was famous for complaining that Shabbat in my house was unpleasant. When I was growing up, my mother was moving more and more towards religion and she was trying to become more shomer Shabbat. My father couldn’t have been less interested in the whole thing. We were living in what she construed as exile, which was San Juan, Puerto Rico, where my dad was starting a business. She felt totally isolated, cut off from the Jewish community, cut off from my father, and every Saturday was a day in which there was this silent, unspoken — but completely palpable to us kids — tug of war between the two of them. One of the things Shabbat does is it makes time for family, which is not always a good thing! Or not always a happy thing. 

 So what led you, ultimately, to write this book? 

I actually started thinking about the book when I was getting married and settling down, and I still felt that there was something missing from my careerist, ambitious, book-obsessed life. It felt empty to me, and I thought there’s something else here. Religion comes to us in these concrete ways. And the most concrete way that it came to me, and the most concrete way that it came to a lot of people I know, is by trying to figure out something to do on the Sabbath. On this day that’s supposed to be a day of rest but just feels like just another day of work by other means, like chores or shopping. 

 What was the Sabbath in its earliest incarnation?

One of my favorite theories, completely unproven but entertained for a long time in the literature, was that “Saturday” comes from “Saturn” and there were some blacksmiths who were called Kennites who had a forge which they would not use on Saturday and hence the edict against fire. Others derive it, with more plausibility, from a Babylonian tradition of the king not going outside on certain days of the month. But that’s the king not doing things; it’s not this home ritual that we think of. It’s not something that’s for the entire people. So that’s a difference. The Sabbath is Jewish: as far as we know — this is very debated, but this is what I believe, having read the literature — [it] is a Jewish invention, as is the week, which derives from the Sabbath. 

How is it actually defined in the Torah?

It comes from the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God. In it, thou shalt not do any work: thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter; thy manservant nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates.”

So how did it get so much more complicated, with all the different rules and prohibitions?

There are lots of different iterations of the Sabbath in history. There’s the biblical Sabbath, which seems to have involved not going very far, not lighting fires, and not doing elementary forms of labor. But then there’s the rabbinic Sabbath that was elaborated over the course of centuries, and in that Sabbath, they derive a really large number of proscriptions, mostly on forms of agricultural labor. The rabbis themselves tell the story that they were derived from the forms of labor that were used to build the mishkan, the altar, in the desert. But a historian looking at this would say these are rules having to do with not doing the labor associated with an agricultural society. 

What do you mean by the ideas of Jewish time and Christian time? 

I mean that Jewish time is ritual time; it is the time of endless repetitions. There are endless rituals structuring almost every bit of the Jewish day, and prayers and blessings associated with them. The mystical and the holy in Judaism are completely associated with very mundane bodily things. Christian time — at least early Christian time, New Testament time — is, I think, a more elevated form of time, it’s more sublime. It’s the sense of an ending, the sense of things coming to an end, of a crisis, of an emergency, of things having to change very quickly. I argue in the book that our sense of time today is in fact more Christian than ever, in the sense that we are in love with sublime time. We love the idea of bypassing ordinary milestones through technology, through new forms of communication. 

One of the notions of the Sabbath is that it is the sacred 24-hour or 25-hour period in which we cut off. You don’t answer the phone, you don’t turn on the television, you put your BlackBerry down. How do we go about disconnecting?

With these little devices, we are able to operate on much more particular time. If you make a rendezvous, if you make an appointment with someone, it’s never really fixed anymore, because you can always communicate with them beforehand and shift it a little bit here and there. Time is becoming more and more fluid, but the Sabbath is the ultimate time fossil. It’s this rigid 25-hour boundary. It’s tougher and tougher to keep, and I find even over the time that I was writing the book, the seven years, it became more and more socially unacceptable not to answer your e-mail within a 24-hour period, and the people that didn’t know that I kept the Sabbath tended to be insulted if I didn’t reply immediately. 

One of the ideas in your book is that there’s something ethical about the Sabbath. Parse that out a little bit for us. 

One of my theses is that the Sabbath is not just a religious institution — it’s a political idea. It’s the idea that we’re entitled not to work. But more importantly, that we’re entitled to structure time in a way that will benefit us. Up until 50 years ago, there were all these rules in America and around the world about what you could and could not do on Sunday. And these were not just crass intrusions of the religious sensibility on your personal time. These were ideas about how society should be organized. There’s a great opinion that was issued by Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in 1963, when there was a case in which the Court decided to uphold Sunday closing laws or “Blue Laws,” in which he argued that these laws were a cultural asset of supreme importance. The idea was that this was a time when people could relax, when everybody wasn’t rushing about doing their business, and that’s something a society needs to stay healthy. 

Do your kids feel the same kind of ambivalence toward Sabbath observance that you felt growing up toward your parents and their observance or lack of it?

They do. My son, who is my secular Jew, although he goes to a Jewish day school, he gravitates toward the secular Israelis who are sent there only to learn Hebrew and who are not religious, and he resents not being allowed to watch TV and play his electronic devices. And my daughter, who’s my little Hasida, is upset that we’re not keeping it the way it should be kept, that we’re not keeping the Sabbath that she has learned about in school; that we turn lights on and off and that we drive. If I were a truly good parent, 

I think I would learn from her and become completely strictly shomer Shabbat, but somehow I can’t seem to do it. 

Sara Ivry is senior editor of Tabletmag.com. This interview was adapted from a podcast that  appeared in Tablet Magazine, produced by Julie Subrin.