Which of the Ten Commandments is, in practice, the most neglected? For sheer volume of violations, anyone with an iPad (or without one) could help make a convincing case for the coveting of goods. On the other hand, at least people still recognize, in theory, that following that tenth commandment is an admirable idea. For a rule that has almost completely dropped from believers’ collective sense of obligation, it would be hard to beat No. 3: Remember to keep holy the Lord’s Day.

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. Both are days for whatever we prefer as relaxed enjoyment and recovery—sports, home projects, friends—plus, all that shopping that doesn’t get done during the week. The commandment says we are to keep the day “holy.” But, with the exception of fifty minutes in church, there is nothing particularly holy about our Sundays. The NFL, youth soccer, and a weekly nap on the couch place more ritual demands on us than any summons to higher pursuits. Aside from some timeworn liquor-sales laws, and the fast-food chain Chick-Fil-A (still closed Sundays), few people or businesses do (or refrain from doing) anything out of a sense that Sunday is fundamentally different.

It is only recently that this has been so; Sunday was loaded with many other expectations in our not-so-distant past. In the early 1900s, the civic-minded promoted it as a day for healthful, improving activities that would build national solidarity. Earlier, the Puritans demanded abstention from both work and fun. And before that, of course, the people of Israel developed a record-setting complexity of Sabbath rules and rituals, all in the name of imitating God’s own rest from work, a hint of divine time firmly established in the middle of our own.

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.

The Sabbath World is first a personal memoir of Shulevitz’s own Sabbath history, her years keeping it and not keeping it, and the turning points that brought her back. “This book is about my ambivalence toward the Sabbath,” she writes, and yet in the end it is not her ambivalence that impresses us but her consistent and lifelong attraction to Sabbath life. She integrates autobiography seamlessly with historical notes (on the Sabbath’s origins in the Hebrew Scriptures and on its evolution among everyone from early Christians to Transylvanian Sabbatarians) and contemporary reflections on our changing attitudes toward time and holiness. Trained in academic literary criticism and now a writer for Slate and other journals, Shulevitz claims she approaches the topic as an outsider to the world of religion. Yet to the extent that’s true, it is all to the good. Much like Kathleen Norris in books like The Cloister Walk, Shulevitz moves easily between autobiography, history, literature, theology, and cultural commentary, but at the center is her own clear and powerful attraction to the idea of somehow living one day a week differently from the others.

Shulevitz writes honestly and self-deprecatingly about her religious compromises and failings, as well as her imperfect, intermittent, but dedicated observance of Sabbath rituals and traditions, which she calls “circulating blood between the present and the deepest past.” Yet unlike many writers on religious ritual, particularly Catholics, she isn’t shy about pointing to the discrepancy between our exalted language about worship and community and its banal, even annoying reality. Our “holy” Sabbath activities do not magically bring us a transporting experience; more often, they confront us with our own distractions and the manifest imperfections of our fellow believers. And yet the discipline itself has its own rewards, even when badly or partially observed. People who are raised in religious ritual, she writes, “know that revelation commingles promiscuously with routine.” Sabbath rituals place us in God’s presence whether we recognize it or not, the words, symbols, and traditions surrounding us with signs of another world that is only occasionally apparent to us.

Shulevitz speaks of God in all this with great reticence and restraint. If your spiritual reading requires answered prayers or intimate awareness of God’s friendship, you will be disappointed. Yet in shabby Torah classes and deserted, undistinguished temples, she has encountered what she calls “the ungovernable reality commemorated by ritual.” She also writes of her deep attraction to study and instruction as a neglected (for Catholics, anyway) Sabbath practice of its own, and in particular her love of the Talmud: “Nothing could be mistaken for conclusive. Everything that had been argued could be defrosted and argued again.... Everyone had to study, and any day was a good day to start.”

How did we lose our sense of the Sabbath as a day for study, or for anything else Sabbath-like? Shulevitz outlines just how hard it is to pass on Sabbath traditions, in particular to children who find Sabbath requirements and restrictions both tiresome and socially stigmatizing. She offers a history of the ways we have gradually created a world where our spiritual disciplines, if we have any, hew only to our own private calendars. Even Jesus himself takes part of the blame, for creating a sense among Christian believers that the urgency of salvation and the end-time demands that we cast aside Sabbath-keeping as a lower priority, as Jesus himself did so famously in the Gospels. In that early church, all time became holy time, with the inevitable result, centuries later, that no time is particularly holy.

Thankfully, Shulevitz does not devote much attention to practical solutions for reviving a sense of Sabbath. Her attempt to suggest some public-policy initiatives that might free more people up on Sundays, and her lingering nostalgia for traditional “blue laws,” are unconvincing. Nevertheless, in an age when youth sports tournaments and 5K charity runs have no hesitation about staking out Sunday morning as a time when everyone will surely be available, The Sabbath World will stimulate your thinking about how to fill our unchanging need for discipline, ritual, household traditions, and committed study.

In the end, however, the best reason to read this book is simply that Shulevitz is a wonderful writer. Its diverse sections flow effortlessly, rarely too long; sentences are graceful and quotable; the historical excurses and literary references are unpedantic. Throughout, Shulevitz strikes just the right tone of frustration with her own imperfections and compromises, without over-painting herself as helpless or cute. As a bonus, she can be funny. Here she recounts a scene involving her mother, whose own growing religious commitment led her to become a rabbi late in life:

Once, I got out of bed in the morning, went into her room, and found her wrapped in tefillin, the leather strips that Jewish men bind to their arms and heads during the morning prayers. I had never seen this done except at camp, and I had certainly never seen a woman do it. I backed out of the room quickly, unseen, as if I had just caught her cross-dressing.

I hesitate to call The Sabbath World outstanding spiritual reading, primarily because the author herself dislikes the word spiritual even more than I do (“a way of averting the eyes from the accusatory glare of the holy”). Nevertheless, she accomplishes a very difficult task for any religious writer, as she successfully reminds us that God is more demanding, uncapturable, and attractive than we tend to think, and that our failures in finding God are spectacular, sometimes comic, and completely unavoidable. Shulevitz may feel she is ambivalent about the Sabbath, but I hope she is not ambivalent about writing more unusual, appealing spiritual books like this one.


Related: Tom Baker reviews Kathleen Norris's Acedia & Me

Thomas Baker is the publisher of Commonweal

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Published in the 2010-10-08 issue: View Contents
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