Conversations, VOLUME 12

Lenten Book Conversation – Part 2: Abraham Joshua Heschel – The Sabbath

Part Two of our Lent Book Conversation!

We are reading:

The Sabbath
Abraham Joshua Heschel

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*** It’s not too late to join in!


<<<<< PART ONE
(If you are running behind, you are still welcome
to contribute the previous conversation)

Reading:  Chapters I and II (pages 12-33)
Facilitator: Katy Drage Lines
Katy 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. I have long been fascinated by time. I’m drawn to good science/fiction movies like Interstellar that explore the connection between space and time. Jesus’ interaction with Moses and Elijah in the Transfiguration is another compelling story—how the Creator of time stood both within and outside of time. Finally, I think of the old hymn, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”—ere the worlds began to be/ He is Alpha and Omega/ He the Source, the ending he/ of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall be. Heschel, too, traverses time and the liminal holiness of a specific time, the Sabbath. What words, metaphors, imagery does Heschel play with that draw you into Sabbath time? Why? What is the liminal nature of Sabbath? Think about the various calendars we use; how do/can we order time to recognize its holiness? How can followers of Jesus practice recognizing holiness in time, as part of God’s good creation?
  1. If you have the edition of Heschel’s book that includes Ilya Schor’s wood engravings, give a bit of your time to exploring that artwork, and perhaps the story of the artist himself. What details do you observe in particular pieces? How do you see them connecting with Heschel’s themes?
  1. Much of what Heschel depicts is as an individual’s posture towards the Sabbath. How do we, as members of a particular community of the Body of Christ, express or respond to this? How do we respond as a community together to the holiness of time?
  1. I imagine we’ve all seen “keeping the Sabbath” used both within Jewish and Christian circles as a strict form of legalism. Yet here, Heschel creates imagery that shapes a day that’s longed for, not legalistic, the “climax of living” (p. 14). How do we build/enter/maintain a ritual like Sabbath-keeping that is not legalistic but liberating? And how can we convey that to future generations?
  1. Heschel writes, “to observe [the seventh day] is to celebrate the creation of the world and to create the seventh day all over again, the majesty of holiness in time” (pp. 19-20). How do we participate in the Creator’s (capital C) creation of time as fellow creators (small c), through Sabbath participation?
  1. As Heschel described the menuha experienced on the Sabbath (pp. 22-23), I found myself comparing it to the shalom of God that is the Kingdom of God (yet Heschel never connects it to shalom—I wonder why). Heschel calls it “the essence of good life;” and “happiness and stillness,… peace and harmony;” and “a synonym for the life in the world to come, for eternal life.” How do you find yourself connecting to menuha, that which is more than “withdrawal from labor, freedom from toil”? Do you find it connecting to your practices this Lenten season?
  1. Heschel asks, “Is there any institution that holds out greater hope for man’s [sic] progress than the Sabbath? The solution of mankind’s most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence from it” (p. 28). How would you answer his question? He originally wrote this in 1951; what has changed (or hasn’t changed) since then that might lead us to answer this differently than Heschel might have? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?


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:

Katy Drage Lines is a pastor at Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis. Prior to settling in Indy’s Near Eastside two years ago, she served churches and universities in such diverse places as Southern California, Kentucky, Kenya, and Tennessee, though she’s originally from Colorado. She’s the board chair for Christian HolyLand Foundation, which partners with Arab believers in Galilee, and she regularly visits and encourages Christians around the world through CMF International, where her husband is Executive Director. She is delighted to celebrate the recent completion of her DMin through Portland Seminary, with her dissertation on Re-Imagining Communion as a Place of Belonging and Hospitality. She’s thrilled to take a Sabbath rest from writing for school, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to guide this week’s discussion.


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. While I’m literally taking a break from working on Sunday, let me kick things off. I’m especially interested in your last question for #4, and I think it ties back to our discussion last week. Conveying a healthy Sabbath mindset to future generations would at the very least mean including them in our Sabbath, something much easier to do if we see the day as a time to actively rest rather than to cash in on extra napping.

    Somehow, we’d need to convey our attitude and enthusiasm more than any ritual or regulation. If we sigh as we tediously light candles and say prayers, that’s what our kids will pick up on. If we take the same actions in joy, we’ll pass on our delight.

    That feels like a bit of a vague answer, though, and I’d love to hear more concrete thoughts on the idea (or totally different thoughts, of course).

    • Katy Drage Lines

      Justin, I think you’re right about how we convey our rituals– is it with an enthusiastic attitude, infused with meaning, or boredom at the tediousness of the repetition? (Obviously there are more than these two dichotomies).

      Diana Butler Bass’s suggestion of “threads of memory” come to mind here:
      “Our grandparents and parents may have been very good at the doing of religion, the *how* of faith, but, in their world, there was no need to engage the interior questions of meaning, the *what* and *why* of faith. Maybe their parents forgot to share the *what* and *why* with them. In an inherited familial culture, the *what* was assumed and the *why* was unnecessary. In a fractured individualist culture, there exist no compelling reasons to reenact familial vocations in work and prayer and many compelling reasons to depart from old ways. Since this cultural shift, three entire generations have been born into a world where the threads of memory have been cut and where life has to be woven anew by each of us. It is up to each one of us to stitch a new fabric of authenticity, meaning, and purpose.” (Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, 141).

      What do you think?

      • I think that’s another DBB book I should put on my reading list…

        This ties in not only to questions of Sabbath, but the annual/liturgical/etc calendar. Jewish tradition has more memory built in than some others do, I think (I’m considering the feasts here), and the what and why has been a more pressing need in the latter half of the 20th century.

        As I was reading that quote, I was thinking how the transmission of memory she describes is something that each generation has to consider anew, but her ending sentence gets to that point. I’d rather think about those new fabrics in terms of community rather than “each one of us,” although certainly that individual aspect applies, especially within a given family.

      • Katy Drage Lines

        Justin, I’m replying to your comment that begins with the need to devour another DBB book (the short answer– yes, you should)

        Yes, I think it becomes more in line with the move away from a “fractured individualist culture” when we consider those threads of memory woven by a community of believers into a “new fabric,” rather than relying on each one of us. That moves into the third question I asked, related to Heschel’s text this week–

        Much of what Heschel depicts is as an individual’s posture towards the Sabbath. How do we, as members of a particular community of the Body of Christ, express or respond to this? How do we respond as a community together to the holiness of time?

        One obvious answer to my own question is the church communities who follow the church calendar, cognizant of ways we move in rhythm based on Jesus’ life, scripture, and the work of the Holy Spirit rather than a calendar based on consumption, nationalism, or school year. What else comes to mind?

      • “Much of what Heschel depicts is as an individual’s posture towards the Sabbath. How do we, as members of a particular community of the Body of Christ, express or respond to this? How do we respond as a community together to the holiness of time?”

        Katy, good question…
        Part of an answer is learning new ways to relate with one another, simply to BE with one another apart from the hierarchies of class or of prestige attached our daily work. Heschel (and the Jewish tradition, as best I can tell) maintains that learning a new way of living in time is also learning a new way of BEING with one another. The practice of conversation, I believe, is one way in which we learn a new way of being together.


  2. I am late to this conversation! I would like to pick up mostly on questions 3 and 6. I was particularly struck by three things in Heschel’s first two chapters. First, he opens both chapters juxtaposing the Sabbath with commerce, which I think it’s so key. In this light, Sabbath is both freedom and a giving up of control. We are freed from the constraints of the Iron Cage—but we also give up control of creation and civilization and work and making everything come out right. Giving up control helps free us.

    The second was about menuha. He notes that “to the biblical mind, menuha is the same as happiness….” That really struck me, especially as one formed in the traditions of Aristotle and Aquinas. What would it mean to reorient our ethics around the telos of Sabbath, menuha?

    This led to the third point: his notion of menuha or happiness is communal. In Aristotle and Aquinas, the happiness toward which all persons tend has always struck me as being very individual, about individual fulfillment. But here, this happiness, peace, harmony, stillness is something experienced by everyone and creation, all at once (or at least that’s the goal). And this ‘space’ of Sabbath or menuha is also like a mini-Jubiliee, where all social and economic differences are, momentarily, erased.

    This is so different from how we (okay, I) usually think about ethics [and I’ve spent alot of years thinking about liturgy and ethics!]