Sabbath as a palace in time

Aaron Neff reflects on sabbath in conversations with parents and a rabbi.

Photo by Matteo Kutufa on Unsplash

I’ve been thinking a lot about Sabbath-keeping recently. My church runs a mid-week after-school program for kids in grades kindergarten through high school.  I lead a Bible study for the parents of the kids, and one of our discussions last spring was about sabbath. During our discussion, parents shared about how busy, overworked, overcommitted, and overwhelmed they are. During that discussion, it dawned on me just how needed sabbath is in our American culture.

Around the same time, my friend, a Reform Jewish rabbi, and I were collaboratively planning a joint Scripture study for our two congregations on sabbath. Specifically, we were hosting a dialogue where he and I discussed how Reform Jews and Protestants understand sabbath-keeping in our own traditions. I discussed some of my assumptions as a Protestant when I encounter Scripture, then looked at some sabbath texts, and ultimately expressed my thoughts about sabbath as grace from God. When my friend shared, he explained something that the 20th-century Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about in his book The Sabbath. My friend explained:

Shabbat is like an island in time or like a palace in time. So, all of the things that we do to make Shabbat a day of rest and a day for God means that it is a day that is somehow different than the other six days. And if you set aside all of the hundreds and hundreds of technicalities that are introduced through the centuries in terms of Shabbat observance, it comes down to Heschel’s idea that what we’re doing is treating this seventh day differently than the other six days of the week. And that is especially important in our modern time when we can make all sorts of choices and decisions for what we do, for what we don’t do on the sabbath that makes it, somehow, that island or that palace, that carved out, separated time from the rest of the week.”

Shabbat is like an island in time or like a palace in time.”

When I heard my friend say those words, the image of the sabbath as an island or palace resonated deeply with me. Other images that came to my mind were “refuge” and “sanctuary.” This harbor is exactly what the parents in my church need right now. Honestly, it’s exactly what I need right now.

So many of us adjusted to pandemic life by doing different and additional things. Now most of us have reintroduced the pre-pandemic activities without stopping any of the additional, pandemic-induced activities. The result is: we’re working more and harder than ever! There is an endless assault on people’s time and attention. People are fatigued and burning out. We need refuge from the onslaught.

Sabbath offers us sanctuary. It offers us a place and a time to push pause on our lives and take account of what is actually important. Doing this sort of “pause” regularly might even lead us to realize that some of the things in our lives are unnecessary and don’t need to be there.

This harbor (of sabbath) is exactly what the parents in my church need right now. Honestly, it’s exactly what I need right now.

This is why observing sabbath as a community of faith is so important. If 100 people are moving together at 80 MPH, and one of them decides to stop to rest – what will happen to that one? They will get left behind! Observing sabbath as a community requires a commitment from everyone to slow down, take account of our lives, give thanks to God, and notice what’s important.

When we leave the island of sabbath, we can work to bring our lives into in alignment with our new-found clarity. It’s easier said than done, but it’s so much easier if we all agree to do it.