The Jewish Sabbath is a day set aside each week for being instead of doing, connecting instead of getting, said 20th Century theologian and mystic Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his classic volume The Sabbath.
Shabbos is “sacred time,” a key concept in all forms of mindfulness, meditation, and spitiruality, Mircea Eliade, who was not Jewish, said in his landmark work on comparative religion, The Sacred and the Profane. Romainian-born Eliade’s obsolete definition of profane is simply the opposite of holy, without the modern English implication of dirty or obscene.
The sacred can’t exist without the profane, to make it feel elevated, spiritual, separate, and special. The Jewish Sabbath, with it’s sharp separation between sacred (kodesh), and ordinary, has that concept as well, but the Hebrew opposite of kodesh (chol) is a value-neutral condition, not obscene.
I don’t consider myself a Sabbath observer (shomer Shabbos), even though I go to temple on Friday night or Saturday morning for two hours about half the time. Modernity, which I embrace fully and enthusiastically, makes it too inconvenient to devote 24 hours just to being and connecting. My connecting time at temple gives me a brief, watered down taste of what the whole day should feel like.
Except for temple, my Shabbos does not feel that different from the rest of the week, and I consider that a loss – but not enough to get me to stop driving, watching TV, using my computer, and answering the phone on Shabbos, like real Sabbath-keepers do. All but a few Jews compromise with the Sabbath laws to some extent. There are so many of them, and some are so inconvenient, that you almost have to.
When orthodox Jews took their synagogues with them to the suburbs, most modern orthodox rabbis said it was OK to drive to shul, because distances were too great, and the Sabbath worship requirement was more important than the prohibition against driving on Shabbos.
When Shabbos Really Felt Holy
Shabbos felt really different and holy for one of my teen-age years, and as a camper, staff member, and director of Jewish camps with total immersion education programs. (The three synagogue federations and several Zionist youth movements sponsor chains of camps like that.)
In those enclosed, controlled environments, we could make Shabbos feel really diferent. By the second week, Sabbath became the climax of the entire week, and your body and soul, and the air, felt different on Shabbos.
For a year, I extended my family’s Shabbos dinner and temple service to Saturdays. I walked two miles to the orthodox shul where my full-time Bible professor at Baltimore Hebrew University was part-time rabbi. Traditional orthodox worship, with its old Eurpoean flavor and music, gave me a stronger feeling of connection to all Jews, living and dead, than the modernized, watered down Reform temple. (Today, I would not spend four hours on Saturday morning at an orthodox synagogue even if there were one in my town.)
After services, my teacher took me to his house for the big mid-day Shabbos meal, and I told stories to his young children after that. That took me to about 3 p.m., and sacred and ordinary time felt really different once it became a weekly practice.
Shabbos Mindfulness, and a Non-Jewish Mindfulness Teacher
When my non-Jewish friend, mindfulness expert Margaret Fletcher asked me to help her prepare a presentation about the Jewish Sabbath, I went to Rabbi Heschel’s book, which speaks of Sabbath as a Jewish form of mindfulness. Margaret teaches mindfulness, meditation, and spirituality as Health Outreach Coordinator and meditation teacher for the Center for Health Promotion at Concord (NH) Hospital. She is also the guiding teacher for the spiritual community White Mountain Sangha.
With her background, despite no knowledge of Judaism, she caught on right away when I explained Shabbos mindfulness — a day of constant awareness of the higher purpose and intention of the cosmos and everything you are. Keeping kosher is mindful eating, for example.
She even understood Sabbath restrictions many Jews don’t: why driving the car, turning on electric lights, using appliances, watching TV, answering the phone, and lighting the oven are forbidden on Sabbath. These things save work, and Shabbos is supposed to be a rest from work.
Modern conveniences involve kindling fire, which used to be hard work, and is expressly forbidden in ancient Jewish law. Though modern conveniences save work, they are about doing, not being, getting, not connecting. They belong in ordinary time, not Shabbat’s sacred time.
And as we say at Havdalah (separation) when we separate the Sabbath from the regular week on Saturday evening, “Praise God who separates kodesh from chol (the sacred from the everyday).“ We thank God for the gift of separating them because we need both, and one can’t exist without the other.
Not using labor-saving devices on Shabbos keeps us mindful of the separation.
Modern Life Forces Compromises with Sabbath Holiness
Ideally, the separation between Sabbath and the ordinary week should be so complete your whole body and soul feel different. That can only happen in the modern world in an all-Jewish ghetto where everyone can still walk to shul, where stores close early on Friday, and car traffic is diminished if not eliminated.
It also happens in Jewish camps with total-immersion, experiential Jewish education programs. Kids really feel that Shabbos is different, holier, than the other days.
Rabbi Heschel said, “If the whole world observed Sabbath two weeks in a row, it would bring about the coming of the Messiah.“ He did not mean a one-hour service on Friday night, and a Bar/Bat Mitzvah service Saturday morning. Few things are more about getting and achieving than most modern American Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. He meant two weeks where observance makes Shabbos feel holy for 24 hours.
Modernity forces so many compromises with sacred Sabbath time that I see no way two watered down Sabbaths can bring about the Messiah. It is just not separate or holy enough.