If It’s Saturday, This Must Be America

By David Klinghoffer

Published March 04, 2005, issue of March 04, 2005.
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Of the Ten Commandments, the Fourth — Sabbath observance — had until recently received less respect than any of the other nine, among Jews and Christians alike. One joker has called it “the Rodney Dangerfield of the Decalogue.” America, however, is due for a Sabbath revival, and there is evidence in the culture that one is coming.

Even apart from the Ten Commandments, Shabbat might be the most emphasized divine imperative in the entire Torah — though nowhere in the written Torah is its observance defined. That would be left to the oral Torah, expounded at luxuriating length in the Talmud.

In my last column, I recalled that the Talmud also discourages non-Jews from trying to fulfill the commandment as Jews do, but that doesn’t mean that the insights into work and rest highlighted by the Sabbath aren’t critical for everyone. Christians, no less than Jews, have been picking up on this.

The pope released a 1998 apostolic letter, “Dies Domini,” urging a Sabbath revival, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) followed up with a report to its General Assembly titled “An Invitation to Sabbath: Rediscovering a Gift.”

On my desk I’ve got a little pile of recent Christian volumes recommending the same rediscovery. Wayne Muller’s “Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest” is a lovely book informed throughout by Jewish ideas of Shabbat. Lauren Winner, an Evangelical Christian who went through a Jewish phase in college, writes endearingly in “Mudhouse Sabbath” of the Torah practices she fondly remembers: “Shabbat is, without question, the piece of Judaism I miss most.”

Don’t underestimate what a significant statement that is from a Christian. While Jesus celebrated Shabbat, if not according to the rabbinic paradigm, St. Paul discarded it. In his letter to the Colossians, he wrote, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” A few centuries later, St. Augustine was scolding Jews for having too much fun on Shabbat. They “observe their Sabbath by a kind of bodily rest, languid and luxurious. They abstain from labor and give themselves up to trifles…; it is better to plow than to dance.”

Paul and Augustine might have a bone to pick with Pat Robertson. In his new book, “The Ten Offenses: Reclaim the Blessings of the Ten Commandments,” the Christian Right leader joins the chorus for a renewed commitment to Sabbath rest, praising the most prominent business figure in the country to have made the tough decision to shut down his establishments Sunday: Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A, the curiously named chicken-restaurant chain.

Robertson endorses the old American blue laws, forbidding some commerce on Sunday. That idea got a boost this past summer in Virginia where the state legislature reinstituted a nifty law, going back to the 1600s, requiring employers to grant requests from employees for a regular day off on Saturday or Sunday.

Meanwhile, in his currently bestselling cheerleading book for the Christian Left, “God’s Politics,” the Rev. Jim Wallis offers a prediction for the new millennium: “The concept and discipline of the Sabbath will see a great comeback in the lives of overworked and overstressed people.”

On the Jewish side, of course, there is the migration of formerly secular Jews back to traditional practices, prominently the observance of Shabbat. Witness the cover review in last week’s New York Times Book Review of “Perfect Madness,” Judith Warner’s best-selling plaint over the distress of high-achieving women who give up work for children: The biography at the end of the article informs us that the reviewer, Judith Shulevitz, “is working on a book about the Sabbath.”

Culturally we seem to be at the center of a perfect storm, where work stress and burnout from the 24-7 demands of e-mail and cell phones combine with the desire of working moms and dads to get some time with their kids. Business consultant Rabbi David Lapin (the brother of Toward Tradition’s Rabbi Daniel Lapin) comments that far from being a dusty holdover from antiquity that is irrelevant to forward-looking modern folks — as we were taught in my Reform temple when I was growing up — Sabbath observance is more relevant to us than it was to the lives of any generation of our ancestors.

The real wonder, Lapin points out, is that those earlier generations preserved Shabbat for us, saw its point, before your cell phone could recall you to work worries at any time and in any place, before your job expected you to be available to answer an “urgent” e-mail no matter the day of the week. Anyone who has turned off that cell phone or abstained from e-mailing on Shabbat will see what an obvious boon it has become — a no-brainer, a lifesaver, a gift from God.

David Klinghoffer is author of the forthcoming “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).

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