Conversations, VOLUME 12

Lenten Book Conversation – Part 1: Abraham Joshua Heschel – The Sabbath

Part One of our Lent Book Conversation!

We are reading:

The Sabbath
Abraham Joshua Heschel

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Reading:  Introduction (by Susanah Heschel)  and Prologue (pages i – 11)
Facilitator: Susan Adams
Susan compiled the following discussion questions, and will be facilitating our conversation in the comments below.

These questions are intended to get conversation rolling. Please feel free to ask your own questions, or make your own observations, about this week’s reading in the comment section below.

1. As you read  Susannah Heschel’s description of her family’s Sabbath practices and ways of being (in the Introduction), what images, feelings, or thoughts come to mind for you? Why do these matter to you?

2. How do the Heschel family’s Sabbath practices and ways of being compare and contrast with your own understandings of Sabbath? What new dispositions, practices or perspectives do you encounter here? What will you do with them?

3. On page xiv, Susannah Heschel says, “In the Bible, no thing or place is holy by itself; not even the Promised Land is called holy. While the holiness of the land and of festivals depends on the actions of the Jewish people, who have to sanctify them, the holiness of the Sabbath, [her father] writes, preceded the holiness of Israel. Even if people fail to observe the Sabbath, it remains holy.”  Do you agree? Why or why not?

4. Susannah Heschel says, “Creating Shabbat begins with a sense of longing. Strikingly, my father turns our expectations around. It is not we who long for a day of rest, but the Sabbath spirit that is lonely and longs for us” (p. xv).  What do you make of this? What application of this idea might you make for your own life?


5. Heschel says “The sanctity of time came first, the sanctity of man came second, and the sanctity of space last. Time was hallowed by God; space, the Tabernacle, was consecrated by Moses” (p. 10). What do you think he means by this?

6. What does Heschel mean when he says, “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space” (p. 10)?

7. Why do so many Christians read Heschel’s book on Sabbath? What benefit or new learning do you expect to experience as you read? What connections between the present season of Lent and Sabbath do you potentially see?

Logistics of our Conversation:

Our conversation will unfold in the comment section below. Feel free to answer any of the above questions or to ask your own questions or add your observations about the reading. If you are adding a new question / observation, please do so as a new comment, not as a reply to another comment. If you are responding to someone else’s comment, please use “REPLY” instead of responding in a new top-level comment.  

If you have not left a comment on the ERB website before, your first comment will have to be moderated, and may take up to 24 hours to appear. But once you have an approved comment, you will generally be able to post without moderation.

Feel free to disagree with other participants, but do so with gentleness and respect. Comments that do not follow this rule of thumb may be deleted.

Check in often to see how the conversation is going. (Unfortunately, we do not have the technological capacity to email you when new comments are added)

About our facilitator:

Susan Adams is a member of Englewood Christian Church and Associate Professor of Education at Butler University in Indianapolis. A former high school teacher, Susan earned her Ph.D. in Literacy, Culture, and Language in Education from Indiana University. Susan’s publications are included in Theory into Practice, English Journal, SAGE Sociology of Education, EBSCO Research Starters, and The New Educator. Her book, Race and Pedagogy: Creating Collaborative Spaces for Teacher Transformations (2016) was co-authored with Jamie Buffington-Adams.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

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  1. I’ll kick things off here…. 🙂

    Question 1:
    I was struck in this reading of the Introduction, how idyllic Susannah’s memories of her family’s Shabbat practice were. And I suppose that’s her point (or part of it anyway). I found them particularly compelling, and they left me longing a bit for Sabbaths of eating and reading and napping and talking with family and friends

    • Chris, I also found her description idyllic, maybe even a bit wistful and nostalgic, for a time in her life that was formative, but is now gone with her parents’ passing.

      As I was actively raising my own kids, we did have a fairly regular practice of eating a meal together at home after Sunday morning services and then either napping, reading, or doing something restful until it was time to go back to church in the evening. As they entered adolescence, my kids gradually grew into an appreciation for a robust nap.

      Our new Sunday service schedule has interrupted my napping schedule since I rarely get home now before 2:30 or 3;00, but I still enjoy some quiet time on the couch if I can wangle it.

  2. And Question 2:

    Just one observation… (As one who thinks a bit about how and why and what we read) I was struck by Susannah’s recollection of how her father’s reading habits changed during the Sabbath. I might actually adapt this practice for myself, to have a day to just scripture or theology. Susannah seems to imply that reading broadly is good — throughout the week — but on the Sabbath her father’s reading was narrowed significantly, turned toward scripture and the Hebrew theological tradition.

    • Thank you for the reminder! This struck me as well. I do something to this effect now but being in full-time vocational ministry I’m even more selective about what theology I read. I typically read classics, like Augustine’s commentaries on the Psalms.

  3. 1. As a Sabbath-keeper I was struck by how thoughtful and elaborate the whole community is in keeping the Sabbath. For me, it is very individualistic, not by choice, but by necessity because I do not belong to a Jewish community like the Heschel’s.

    3. I appreciate the force of this statement. It makes a point. But I’m not sue I agree that it’s the people that sanctify the land. As Wendell Berry says, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” I agree. I think if “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1) and if the answer to David’s question, “Where shall I go from your Spirit?” (Psalm 139:7) is nowhere then the earth has a holiness to it. I agree and love that, “Even if people fail to observe the Sabbath, it remains holy.” 

    4. I don’t know what the Sabbath spirit is but I agree that there is a beckoning toward rest, a calling toward tranquility.

    • RE: Question 1
      Your observation, Benjamin, does raise the question, are there (or could there be) faith communities in the Christian tradition that take Sabbath almost as careful and thoughtfully as a community as the Heschel’s Jewish community did? If anyone reading this knows of such a church / congregation, I would love to hear more about it.

      I actually have been wondering about this question for a long time, and it seems that such a community could be really compelling. (But on the other hand, the Christian tradition in the West, and particularly the US is SOOOOOO individualistic, that to pull off such a corporate practice might require such a high level of authoritarian leadership that it would therefore NOT be attractive) ~ Chris

      • Interestingly, my tradition (Presbyterian/Reformed) has a long history of Sabbath-keeping but unfortunately today I find that it’s either become a topic of doctrinal disagreement or we’ve capitulated to the culture of American individualism. That’s one of the reasons Brueggemann’s book Sabbath as Resistance is so compelling because of how he reframes the conversation. My approach has been to discuss Sabbath as a gift, then a discipline, then a command because I’d like for people to approach it as a formative blessing. I preached on this a few years ago (disregard the misspelling of “fourth”):

    • Benjamin, I think you broke the land speed record for getting the esteemed Wendell Berry into our conversation. Congratulations! And I appreciate the necessary and thoughtful tension between Heschel’s statement and Berry’s statement. Might there be a third way that exists between them? Or is our problem perhaps a semantic one? Thoughts?

      • Haha, I feel honored!

        I agree there is a tension here but also probably a third way that emerges. Heschel is talking of the holiness of the land whereas Berry is talking about the sacredness. I conflated the two, for some legitimate reasons, but they may mean something different.

        I think the third way has to do with the presence of God. We confess God’s omnipresence (Psalm 139) but we also confess God’s special presence in Zion, his holy hill (Psalm 3:4). This may be part of the third way. In one sense, all space and time has a sacredness to it because God is Lord over space and time. But in another sense, humans have desecrated the earth by falling from glory leaving “the whole creation groaning together in the pains of childbirth” (Romans 8:22) awaiting our and therefore its full and final redemption. All that to say, Heschel is right that “the holiness of the land and of festivals depends on the actions of the Jewish people, who have to sanctify them.”

  4. As an Anglican priest I was touched by reading of the daughter’s description of the family’s celebration of the Sabbath. As Sunday is the the christian equivalent of the sabbath it is not necessarily a time of rest for my wife and me although we both have a rest in the afternoon. I rather liked the idea of husband and wife doing separate things and having family discussions on the day over a meal. I really think that some time should be set aside for silence and reflection Rest for me is simply a time to use in being rather than doing. modern orthodox rabbis always walk on their Sabbath to synagogue.Logistically this would constitute a long distance. My 2 children are adults-do not share same faith Rev Barry Fernley

    • Katy Drage Lines

      I agree that a daughter’s memory/description of Sabbath traditions might look much different from her mother’s perspective. When I think about all the work Heschel’s wife did to prepare for the Sabbath, it brings to mind all the work I put into a special meal or event that my kids no nothing about; certainly not a time of rest. For instance– when we go camping, the kids have so much fun running through woods and trails and roasting marshmallows, but I had to plan the menu ahead of time, do extra prep in special circumstances (hauling water), cleaning up and putting away all the camping supplies when we return home. It’s a lot of fun, but certainly extra work on my part. I DO appreciate that Susanna’s mother made the same meal week after week. When thinking about how to observe a Sabbath, a rest from (even minor) decision making seems like a welcome rest. Repetition would assist with that.

      • Katy, as a mom, I totally hear you and agree that Mrs. Heschel probably isn’t getting the mad props she fully deserves for her significant and substantial preparations for their Sabbath practices and ways of being/doing. Rarely do we account for the rigorous house cleaning rituals, for example, that most of us Christians would either skip entirely or simply give short shrift to them. Even Christians I know who would claim to take Sabbath seriously give little serious thought to the implications of prohibitions of some forms of work and the strict limitations of other practical tasks, perhaps under the assumption that we as Christians are no longer under such bondage. But what if we ought to be? What are we missing when we glibly exercise these “freedoms” perhaps without ever experiencing the benefits inherent in those limitations? Is there space for wondering about this? Or even experimenting with them?

  5. Just before reading of this book I had been grappling with the question-What would my Sabbath look like? I don’t have any answers at this stage and I am encouraged by the responses you have all made- It is a work in progress and will require sone planning and discussion which is a new concept for me. My Sunday is programmed by the needs of the parish where I serve at the present time Barry Fernley

    • Hi, Barry
      I have certainly heard other Christians make a similar statement to yours, that “Sunday is the Christian equivalent to Sabbath” and while I see some logic in it, there is also something that makes me pause and wonder if we ought to rush to this conclusion. I agree completely that we also need regular times for rest and recreation/re-creation. As a lay leader in my home congregation, I also find that Sunday church activities (services, Sunday School, pitch-in dinners, hosting visitors, congregational conversations, etc), while vitally important and essential to our shared life, are often anything but restful. And while some pastors opt to take their day of rest, our small pastoral staff heads back to work like the rest of us on Mondays.

      So my question is this: what are some ways that church communities can develop Sabbath practices that attend to our physical, emotional, social, and spiritual health? If you know of these practices, please share with the rest of us!

  6. This is sort of in response to questions 1 and 2: What struck me is how *special* those practices must make the Sabbath feel. Our family rarely does something specifically Sabbath-y, although we do try to take time off from work. Even when I maintained a stricter sense of Sabbath, it didn’t feel like a special day, it just meant I didn’t have to pull out my work and had extra time to watch a ball game, go fishing, etc. I like the idea of rethinking Sabbath so that it takes on a feeling other than “a nice day off”.

    • Justin, do you have a sense for how this special day feeling might be created?

      • Not a good one, but it’s worth pondering. I think it would involve a deliberate doing, rather than a casual not-doing. I’m not alone in conceiving of Sabbath as “the day we put down our work/activity/school” rather than “the day we actively pause to_____,” that blank being the hard part.

        Side note: I’m not sure if “actively pause” makes sense, but I hope it catches the idea.

  7. 1. Susannah Heschel’s description of her family’s Sabbath practices evokes a deep feeling for me. In part, I feel like I have a few memories from my rural, Evangelical, non-denominational that intersect with her urban Jewish memories. I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but maybe that’s what’s meant by a “Sabbath spirit”. The circumstances different, but the spirit the same?

  8. 3. To the extent the Sabbath is the presence of God, yes, I agree it’s holy with or without our acknowledgment. There’s something deeply comforting about this insight. It reminds me of the opening words of our weekly liturgy: “The Lord is here.” “And his spirit is with us.” I’m always grateful for this reminder that we don’t conjure up God with our actions and remembrances. He initiates and we respond to His invitation. It’s our presence that’s capricious, not his. I’m grateful for the framework of Sabbath to consider this truth.

  9. What a book! I am so glad you’re doing this for Lent. Simply reading the Prologue I feel the grip of the Iron Cage recede…

    I first read this book many years ago, so many, in fact, that my copy does not have Susanna’s introduction. But the lessons taken then didn’t stick. I have long succumbed to the regnant view of time as unvaried, homogeneous, iterative, all hours being qualitiless, empty shells. Capitalism requires and intensifies this understanding of time. Time is an inert, quantifiable thing, always “scarce,” that can be infinitely subdivided for greater profit. Etc. But this is a death-dealing regime.

    To think of time as a holy thing upends how I think about time (and, therefore, everything). Time becomes a place that God dwells, where we encounter God—not only in the Sabbath, but potentially in each present moment (God who is I AM). Relationships, words, actions (what a great insight on the word ‘davar’) only happen in time. They require persons. They require more than one person. Those moments of encounter create something new, something that is only present in “the moment” but also perdures in a way differently from things in space.

    To hear what Heschel is saying here about time and Sabbath really requires a conversion (which is what Lent is about). And if the sanctification of time really is foundational to the Judeo-Christian tradition (and I think he’s right), then the sanctification of communities, persons, and places is secondary to the sanctification of time, derivative from it. Without the former, the latter can’t happen. Hm…..

  10. Therese,

    Just a brief comment for now to thank you for naming the role of conversion! In the Sabbath we find the slow-growing mustard seeds of our conversion. One of the deep sins of a nationalistic Christianity — such as that which is resurging of late in the US — is precisely the imperialistic notion that the Reign Of God comes by conquest, by driving out or coercing the faith of those deemed “infidels.” But rather the crux is found in our daily conversion, as we groan aloud that God’s reign — not our personal or national empires— would come on earth as it is in heaven. Sabbath, as Heschel intuited, opens the door and invites us into conversion. And one facet as he names in the prologue is our continuing conversion from DOING to BEING.

    And one last thought as this note is turning out to be not too brief. Going back to Benjamin, Susan, and Justin’s discussion of what Sabbath practices might look like in the Christian tradition, I have long speculated that our practice of weekly gathering for conversation at Englewood Christian Church might be the closest thing we have to Sabbath. On our most faithful days ( and we could debate how often they occur) we get in our conversation a taste of the sort of conversion from DOING to BEING, simply learning to listen and be present to one another, and realize the great gift of life that is God is bringing in our midst in spite of the messiness of our disagreements and desire to conquest those who do not agree with us. As one who is curious about linguistic roots, it is striking to me that in a Sabbath sort CONVERSATION we are find the sort of CONVERSION that you named, Therese.

    • I couldn’t agree more. I think we (i.e., me) often think of Sabbath as “not doing,” but maybe we should think of it as “doing”–just doing something different. NOT doing the things that daily put us in bondage to idols; DOING the things of worship, which includes CONVERSING with others, being present in time to God and other people. Is “speaking together” necessary for “turning us around”?

      Your point about our current heresy of Christian nationalism is important too. It’s a spacial claim, no, per Heschel? I also think that it’s parasitic on capitalism and what capitalism has done to our concept of time.

  11. Many thanks to the readers and response writers who joined us for Week 1 of our discussion of the introduction and preface of Abraham Heschel’s Sabbath. What a great way to begin Lent together! Many thanks also to ERB editor and friend, Chris Smith, for inviting me to facilitate this first week. I look forward to new provocations to be posted tomorrow for the next set of readings.

  12. These are all stimulating comments, helpful for this recovering pastor whose childhood sabbaths were deadening legalism for the most part, whose “enlightened” later Sabbaths after morning worship and early afternoon naps were more play-time than rest time, not much more room for God than any other day. Yet, as years passed any number of books I read and discussed about the Sabbath started turning my fairly thoughtless “enlightenment” to a recognition that God could be found anywhere and everywhere, but that the Sabbath offered different opportunities and invitations to experience God in silence alone and just as often with my wife and a small group of friends for a meal and sometimes focused, sometimes freewheeling conversations about experiences of God throughout the past week and how those experiences differed from or were enriched by the more deliberate Sabbath practice. Mark Buchanan’s *Rest of God*, Kathleen Norris’s *Quotidian Mysteries*, Wendell Berry’s (yes again!) *What Are People For?* and Marva Dawn’s *Keeping the Sabbath Wholly* have all blessed me and urge growth, understanding, less doing and more being. Still, Heschel’s book is so thoroughly different and gripping from all those others that I think it will continue to be my go-to book on Sabbath. Thanks, All.