If they’re listed in order of importance, the Fourth Commandment (“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”) actually beats out admonitions against thievery and murder as more central to a religious life. But what does it mean to “remember” the day? How come for strict Orthodox Jews the proscribed Sabbath activities include tearing sheets of toilet paper, while for others limited access to Facebook and Twitter are punishment enough? And what’s the point of all this, anyway?
These are the questions former New York Times and Slate writer Judith Shulevitz confronts in The Sabbath World. Beginning with her own family’s history of keeping the Sabbath in a ramshackle manner at best (kosher butchered meat, yes; separate plates, no; shrimp or pork if eating out or at someone else’s house, yes), she explores the history behind the rituals in an effort to better understand her own reluctance to continue the tradition.
Shulevitz describes the book as a “spiritual autobiography” and acknowledges that the time spent researching the topic “was not exactly a socially productive obsession. Saying that I’d been reading up on the Sabbath was a good way to cut a vigorous conversation short.” She blends theory, scholarship, history and memoir, letting us follow the path of her discoveries. Originally, she writes, “Resting on the seventh day may initially have been no more than an accidentally savvy social arrangement—the wise management of land and human resources in an early, fragile agricultural society—and only later acquired theological connotations.” In the present day, there’s a move toward a secular Sabbath for people suffering from information and technology overload; shutting off the cell phone and going tweet-free for a day can help us to better hear our own voices again.
The book is at its best when Shulevitz is sharing her own stories; some of the history can be as tough to decipher as Talmudic law itself, but her personal take on things is always accessible. (“The one thing I do consistently on Friday nights is drink.”) Her point turns out to be that accessing this ancient tradition ultimately reveals both our divinity and our humanity. Or, in her lovely turn of phrase, “We have to remember to stop because we have to stop to remember.”
Heather Seggel reads and writes from Ukiah, California.