Judith Shulevitz's The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time is a wonderful exploration of different aspects of the Sabbath, a weekly day of rest. The book was a finalist for the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and has received other critical acclaim. Part spiritual autobiography, part historical essay and part lyrical journey, the book examines the idea of the Sabbath and its history.
Shulevitz reviews Sabbath observance ranging from early and later Jewish practises, right up to Shabbat in Israel to those of other religious groups as well as secular, labour-inspired views of the need for a weekly day of rest. Along the way, she analyzes the transformation of the Sabbath in Christianity from the early days of the Catholic Church through various Protestant and Sabbatarian movements. Her discussion of the role of the Sabbath in Puritan communities in American History is detailed and fascinating.
With references to and discussions of various philosophers, theologians, novelists, academics and other thinkers throughout the book, Shulevitz overlays history, theology and philosophy with her own personal "spiritual autobiography" as she puts it to arrive at a meaningful relationship with Sabbath observance, in a Jewish context. The stories, feelings and anecdotes that Shulevitz shares imbue the book with a genuine sense of warmth and personal vulnerability.
Drawing on a wide range of sources as diverse as Abraham Joshua Heschel, Samson Raphael Hirsch, D.H. Lawrence, Marx, Kafka, Ferenczi and others, Shulevitz paints a mosaic of sometimes clashing Sabbath ideas. At times poetic, with literary excerpts and allusions, Shulevitz is at other times analytical, juxtaposing various philosophical and biblical ideas.
This not a polemic or strictly an apologetic, though Shulevitz does ultimately call for increased Sabbath observance in society, even if only justified by the secular need to improve the lives of workers, to help people gain some small amount of control over their time and as a means to improve the quality of life generally, if not religiously.
The book is multi-layered, complex, thought provoking and beautifully written. Though the book has, on the whole, a progressive Jewish slant, it examines many different ideas in open minded but critical fashion.
I have to point out that the author's self-defined Sabbath observances are ultimately quite similar to those that I follow so much of what Shulevitz has to say resonates in a very personal way, though this played no role in my original decision to read the book.
Finding a way to create one special day each week, to turn off and tune out technology and to focus on family, friends and community is not only a very important Jewish practice but also one that seems to make increasingly good sense in today's fast paced world. Shulevitz provides a bookful of reasons why this is the case.