Conversations, VOLUME 12

Lenten Book Conversation – Part 3: Abraham Joshua Heschel – The Sabbath

Part Three 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!


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

Reading:  Chapters III and IV (pages 34-49)
Facilitator: James Dekker
James 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.


Chapter 3: “The Splendor of Space”

  1. What did Rabbi Shimeon ben Yohai and his son Rabbi Eleazar begin to learn after “a voice from heaven exclaimed: ‘Have ye emerged to destroy My world?’” (p. 36) Why did it take so long?
  1. What is the source of Shimeon and Eleazar’s belief that “the punishment of the wicked in hell lasts only 12 months”? (p. 37) What theological reasons might be the source of that belief?
  1. Was the two rabbis’ retreat to the cave more a selfish escape from culture and responsibilities in space than an other-oriented search for eternity? Or was their 13 years in the cave a worthy and persevering spiritual discipline?
  1. Immediately after the exhaustive recitation of the times and seasons “for every activity under heaven,” the writer of Ecclesiastes declares in 3:11 “[God] has also set eternity in the human heart.” Reflect on how that author’s and Rabbi Heschel’s points of view are at odds or if there is convergence.

Chapter 4, “Only Heaven and Nothing Else?”

  1. Heschel writes, “In his [Rabbi Shimeon’s] boundless thirst, he saw no middle way, no ground for compromise” (p. 45). Yet Rabbi Judah endorsed the middle way (p. 46) between two roads of fire and ice. Consider how those two different perspectives not only on the Sabbath but in Christians’ debates about doctrines, the Bible, politics are playing out in our time and culture. What are advantages or disadvantages of both?
  1. The old man with the bundles of myrtle welcomed the Sabbath as a bride (p.40, earlier p. 37), radically changing the rabbis’ perspectives on the day. Reflect on that striking image, seeking to develop your own, your family’s, your community’s joys in anticipating and celebrating the Sabbath.
  2. Ancient Israel’s and today’s Jewish Sabbath marks the end of the week, as God rested after the work of creating. With Jesus’ resurrection, the Sabbath became the first day of the week, a day of rest to set a pattern for the six days of work. Consider pros and cons of both perspectives. Are they mutually exclusive points of view, leading to different practices of rest or activity? Or 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:

James Dekker is a semi-retired pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, living in St. Catharines, Ontario. While in seminary, a fine professor recommended Heschel’s [easyazon_link identifier=”0060936991″ locale=”US” tag=”douloschristo-20″]The Prophets[/easyazon_link], a book that began to open up the mystery and complex relationship of faithful God and often unfaithful people. But God never quits.


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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One Comment

  1. Thank you for your last question. I was struck in Chs. 1-2 how Heschel sees the Sabbath/menuha as our telos; that has fascinating implications for reframing how we think about ethics. But if Sabbath becomes the starting point rather than the goal–how does that affect the shape of our lives?

    Perhaps it doesn’t make a difference. The Sabbath in the Jewish tradition appears, per Heschel, to be that day where are surrounded by God’s shalom because time is transfigured into a holy thing, because God’s dwells in it with us in a particular way. It is the way that God’s transcendent, eschatological reality is structured into creation. It is part of the original creation.

    Jesus resurrection is continguous with that–though here, we have the beginning of the New Creation. How is that different? (I think it is, but I have to think more about this).

    In reading this book and thinking about the way that time is configured under commerce, the Roman Empire, the current empire, it has occurred to me that in our 21st century neoliberal world, time–as we practice it–has become a structure of sin. How might Jesus’ reconfiguration of the Sabbath via resurrection convert us from that structure of sin?