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Keeping the Sabbath

In our latest issue, Tom Baker reviews Judith Shulevitz's book The Sabbath World. He begins by noting that, for modern believers, the third commandment is one of the most neglected:

For those of us who go to church, Sunday is still the day we do it. Aside from that, our Sabbath has become, in practice, just a slightly lower-key Saturday.


Have we lost anything by freeing ourselves from all these Sunday (or Saturday) Sabbath ideals? And if we have, what are our chances of recovering it? Those are the questions Judith Shulevitz wants to answer in The Sabbath World, a beautifully written, consistently engaging reflection on what she calls the social morality of time. Written from a Jewish perspective, this extended essay on commitment and discipline in our use of time will reward readers from any religious tradition.

Some months ago, Slate hosted a round-robin discussion of this book, with Shulevitz, Dahlia Lithwick, and Mary Boys trading their responses. You may find the whole conversation interesting, especially if you've read the book, but I found the contributions from Sr. Boys (number two and number five) most edifying. An expert in Jewish-Christian relations, she fills in some background on how Christians understand and approach the obligation to keep the Sabbath. (Shulevitz and Lithwick are both Jewish.) This rang true for me:

In general, Sabbath keeping in various Christian traditions today is linked more to church and less to home, and more to a formal memorial of the Lord's Supper and less to the informality of a celebratory family meal. Some churches, particularly in African-American congregations, celebrate Sunday with great festivity, extending the communal aspect over the course of the day. In my own Roman Catholic tradition, the obligatory aspect of keeping Sabbath primarily involves participating in Mass on Sunday.

When we discuss this commandment in the RCIA group at my parish, I say basically that -- making Sunday worship a priority is the main way we keep the Sabbath holy as Catholics. And it's no small thing, especially in a culture that no longer insists on or even accommodates churchgoing the way it once did. Just making the commitment to set Sunday apart in that way, no matter what, is an important act, with (for me, at least) obvious consequences. Sr. Boys notes that the Sabbath-keeping practices Shulevitz and Lithwick mention and her own observances are different ways of approaching "the common quest to resist the compulsions of work, accomplishment, and consumerism. For this resistance," she says, "I require wholehearted engagement in my community's liturgy: prior meditation on the readings, full-throated singing, presence to the community." I was very glad to see this -- a reminder that, even if we do reduce our Sunday obligations to "going to Mass," there's more to it than just showing up. Of course, Sabbath-keeping doesn't have to end with Mass attendance. Does your observance focus on rest, prayer, community, service? What do you do?

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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On Sunday I often spend a good part of the afternoon mulling over the readings, homily and intercessions of the morning Mass. Not intentionally, but that's what happens. I try to call my relatives every Sunday.On Sunday I try to not work until after dinner.Once at a soup kitchen a guest told me that he had not missed Sunday Mass in more than thirty years. That was eye-opening for me. I now plan my trips so as to leave time for Sunday Mass before, during or after my travels.

My students frequently interpret the establishment of the Sabbath rest in Genesis 1 with their Sunday obligation. I suppose there is some validity to that, but regret that they do not really understand the origins of sabbath observance in Judaism. Making an equivalency is not a problem as long as they understand the connection. It is not a matter of distinction as much as it is a shared tradition, even if it falls a day later in the week. But even then, in my opinion, Christians do not have an authentic sabbath observance in this country (which was not always the case).We spend as much as possible in a year in Germany, where everything is shut down from Saturday afternoon until Monday. There is no shopping on Sunday, and so you must plan ahead for the weekend. How refreshing it is to suffer this limitation and to know that there is something different about Sunday than all the other days of the week. Unfortunately, this is not the case here in the States. Every day is the same as the others. How boring.

As Director of Liturgy in a parish, Sunday is a day of work for me. But I make my work center at the church, not in my office, and use it as time to touch base with all the parishioners I don't see during the week. So it is a different feeling of work -- more about relationship than productivity.A couple years ago I read Sabbath Keeping: Finding Freedom in the Rhythms of Rest (Lynn Baab) and was inspired to choose another day for my own "Sabbath". Unfortunately, I have not yet found the self-discipline.

The lack of community is directly related to the lack of observance of the Sabbath. In the seminary Sundays was primarily known for football in the fall and winter while swimming and walks were part of the other seasons. Cardinal O'Conner used to rail about having sporting events on Sunday but he did not provide any creative substitutes. Some people spend Sunday waiting for Monday. But in the seminary there was community which we all apprecitate to this day. It is true that African American churches celebrate the Sabbath more vididly and impressively than other Christians. The sadder part of Catholicism is that most Catholics go out of obligation to the Eucharist and if you tell them you go because you want to they are incredulous.There is a great lacuna. What are the answers?

The issue is a complicated one. I go to the Saturday Vigil Mass which leaves Sunday free but most who go to the Vigil Mass do so in order to have a full free Sunday for recreation or whatever. Sunday has been absorbed into the "weekend" ( a 19th century innovation) and many people make weekend plans so that the Sabbath/Sunday has becomes relativized. The expectations generated by the "leisure industry" (an oxymoron if there ever was one) further erodes the concept of the sabbath as every parent who protests Sunday morning soccer tournaments knows. That being said I am not sure I know how we can restore the notion of a Sabbath rest in our culture. her NYT review in March of The Sabbath World, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (who liked the book) said: "For decades, I was a strict Sabbath observer. As a working mother with a long commute, my day of rest required maniacal activity, especially in the winter months, when the sun sets early. The Jewish calendar, listing the minute for lighting the Sabbath candles, hung on the wall beside the stove, its imperious ukase whipping me into a frenzy to complete the cooking and baking by the appointed moment. At winters bleakest, this arrived as early as 4:03. 4:03! The laws of the day decreed that after that instant there could be no food changed from its raw state to cooked, no fire kindled and, by extension, no electricity turned on or off. By the time the minute hand moved into place, three challahs had to have been baked, a multicourse dinner prepared for the evening repast and festive food for the next day cooked as well. The children had to be bathed and dressed and me, too, since to beautify oneself for the Sabbath is a requirement. The prohibitions of the day itself played havoc with the rest of my week as well." My own memories of the Sundays of my childhood and youth involve women's work, as well. We ate dinner early on Sundays. My mother would put the roast on early in the morning and add the potatoes, carrots, etc., to the roasting pan before we left for 11:30 Mass. The best meal of the week.I would assume that Cardinal O'Connor's cooks and servers provided him and his guests with elaborate Sunday dinners. And the seminarians who played/watched football on Sundays? Their Sunday dinners depended on the extra work of women, too. In the convents, the kitchen sisters worked harder on Sundays than on other days, preparing dinner for the other religious and for the boarding students.A moment of thanks to all the women, down all the ages, who made Sabbath observance possible for the men who rested and enjoyed the illusion?

"That being said I am not sure I know how we can restore the notion of a Sabbath rest in our culture."I think the toothpaste is out of the tube. The closest we'll come, in my opinion - and still valuable - is simply by individual people and families observing the sabbath. There is a sort of world-making in those simple acts of witness.

In our home, Sunday starts with a leisurely breakfast (includes smashed avocados on toast with Swiss cheese). We like to listen to NPR radio (news, Car Talk and Prairie Home Companion) and we go to either English mass at 11 am or Spanish mass at 12:30 pm. Sometimes we drive about ten miles to a neighboring parish for 11:30 mass, and stop at vegetable & fruit stands on the way home. Ice cream or sweet corn after mass (vendors just outside the church door), and usually for lunch my wife either cooks a chicken or buys some already-cooked chicken. We usually discuss the readings and the priests sermon, and things related.With luck, all this is usually followed by a mid-afternoon nap. Later in the afternoon I might fiddle a bit in the yard, and usually friends stop by and the kids play. Depending on what my wife says, sometimes I cook dinner on the BBQ.I like Sundays.

Tradition in my extended family: Mass; a big, long, lazy Sunday meal (always prepared by women), gathering multiple generations of the family -- relatives within driving distance gather together, while the others get a phone call; and, in the more traditional-minded part of the family, neighbors and friends stopping by for dessert and coffee. It's all about spending time together as a community, and, in France, that translates into eating together.

Claire, both of your comments paint a picture of wonderful ways to keep the Sabbath. Speaking for myself: Sunday mass is a lovely respite, not only the worship and ministry but the person-to-person/socializing that comes before and afterward.Beyond that, I'm still up to my chin in parenthood, so I'm still making meals for the kids, making sure they get homework done as on other school nights - like a lot other days.If it's lawnmowing season and it rained on Saturday, I'm also probably working in the yard.

With all the liturgical commissions and wars why has no one thought of ways to restore the sabbath/community. Sabbath is rest but is it not primarily the gathering of the People of God to celebrate who they are as a redeemed people and their priesthood?

Now Bill is straying away from my vision of Sabbath:With all the liturgical commissions and wars why has no one thought of ways to restore the sabbath/community. Sabbath is rest but is it not primarily the gathering of the People of God to celebrate who they are as a redeemed people and their priesthood?Ken sez - The liturgical wars you cite are mainly in the minds of a few who bother themselves and waste mainly their own time, clicking their tongues and tsk tsking about not be able to run all over the building during mass and about ritual style and other superficial things they do not like.In my view the Sabbath is not primary a time for us to celebrate who we are. Rather, it is a time for us to celebrate who God is, how great He is, how He has blessed us, and to recall just how we depend on Him. All week long we all get an earful of what our community thinks. No offense to anyone, but at Mass I want to hear what God thinks, not necessarily what I or my fellow parishioners think.

Ken, Perhaps you did not see where I said we are the people of God. That is who we are unless you would prefer that we are the people of the Republican party. And there is an ancient tradition of what your fellow parishioners think. It is called sensus fidelium. But I understand your stress on the rubrics which are necessary when the Spirit does not prevail. Is listening to NPR a substitute for the kiss of peace?

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