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?

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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