I spent Sunday afternoon reading Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath. Published in 1951, the book explores the Jewish faith’s unique relationship to time and the meaning of the Hebrew god’s blessing of the seventh day in the book of Exodus, 20:8-11:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
“Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space,” the rabbi starts. “We expend time to gain space.” But things go wrong, Heschel writes, when space becomes our only concern. We become so occupied with objects, with things, or nouns, that reality is a “thinghood, consisting of substances that occupy space; even God is conceived by most of us as a thing.”
The Hebrew Bible, on the other hand, is “more concerned with time than with space.”
Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, qualitiless, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.
“The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals,” Heschel writes. “Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.” The meaning of the Sabbath is “to celebrate time rather than space,” and to get out from “under the tyranny of things of space.” The Sabbath is a time in which you not only abstain from work, you don’t even think about work. Each Sabbath is a kind of a mini-eternity — something to look forward to.
I came to The Sabbath via artist coach Beth Pickens’ new book, Make Your Art No Matter What. Pickens uses the concept of Shabbat with all the artists she works with, regardless of their religious background: “I ask them to choose a twenty-four-hour period every week from which they abstain from any work that could lead to making money, including their art.” Many of her clients balk at this suggestion. “They want more time for their art and here I am asking them to do none of it for a whole precious day each week.”
But these artists often find that — surprise! — taking a day off from their work restores their spirit and energy. There’s a balance here, of course, as Pickens defines an artist as a person who makes art, but also someone whose life suffers when they’re away from their creative practice. A real day off is usually more than enough to have us chomping at the bit to get back to the studio. (Just a few days ago I heard cartoonist Adrian Tomine say he takes one day off and he’s ready to start a new project.)
Personally, I have started focusing on having good, old-fashioned week-ends. In the Before Times, I felt the pressure to stuff weekends full of activity, the same pressure Witold Rybczynski describes so well in his great book, Waiting for the Weekend:
We have invented the weekend, but the dark cloud of old taboos still hangs over the holiday, and the combination of the secular with the holy leaves us uneasy. This tension only compounds the guilt that many of us continue to feel about not working, and leads to the nagging feeling that our free time should be used for some purpose higher than having fun. We want leisure, but we are afraid of it, too.
Worst of all, my boss, (me), was a complete asshole, and often asked me to work at weird hours, even on Sundays. At a certain point, I started to despise weekends — I called them “Weak Ends” and joked that I was “weakened by the weekend.”
The pandemic has made me actually enjoy my weekends: I have nowhere to go, no traffic to fight, no lines to wait in for brunch, no crowds at museums. My kids are always home, so the school week provides no relief in the form of daycare. The week-end, however, means that nobody outside the house really expects anything from me. I don’t have to answer my email. Everything can wait until Monday.
Best of all, and perhaps the most crucial point: I’ve started abstaining from Twitter and social media on Saturday and Sunday. (As Pickens writes: “This wasn’t in the Talmud, but most certainly would have been: Put down your fucking phone.”)
My weekends are now about real rest and idleness.
It helps that my week sort of climaxes with the Friday morning newsletter. Once that’s out, I spend Friday clearing the decks, cleaning my office, answering letters and email, and winding down. The weekend begins with Friday night pizza and a movie with the boys.
Saturday morning, I still got up pretty early, and I still wrote in my diary, but afterwards, I just puttered around, read books, played piano, went for a walk, messed around in the yard, etc. My eight-year-old and I finally watched Star Wars and chased it with some Donkey Kong. Sunday, I read the paper and called my mom and laid in a hammock and read while the boys got their screen time.
It’s a strange feeling… I am no longer weakened by the weekend!