Conversations, VOLUME 12

Lenten Book Conversation – Part 5: Abraham Joshua Heschel – The Sabbath

Part Five of our Lent Book Conversation!

We are reading:

The Sabbath
Abraham Joshua Heschel

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

Reading:  Chapters VII – IX (pages 64-85)

Facilitator: Tamara Hill Murphy
Tamara 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.

Chapters 7-9: 

  1. Does the metaphor of Sabbath as a foretaste of eternity (ch. VII) add dimension to the previous metaphors we’ve seen as Sabbath as bride and Sabbath (ch. VII) and Sabbath as one being greeted by the groom-figure (man carrying myrtle in ch. III)? How do these metaphors inform each other? In what ways do these metaphors resonate with you? In what ways do they cause dissonance for you?

  3. Read (out loud, if possible) the Song of Songs Rabbi Heschel transcribes in Chapter VII. He describes this as the “greatest of all songs” and a “chant of love for God, a song of passion, nostalgia, and tender apology.” After reading the words and maybe sitting with them in silence, consider what the ancient song evokes for you. In what way does the poem reflect your understanding of God’s gift of Sabbath?

  5. How did you feel when you read the “punchline” of the legend in the opening paragraphs of chapter XIII? Describe your initial reaction to the the Sabbath as a good representation of the world to come.

  7. Consider Exodus 31:17 and Mark 2:23-28 in reference to the holiness Rabbi Heschel describes as the essence of the Sabbath. In what way does the Christian understanding of Incarnation – God, the sacred, becoming Man, the profane – add to an understanding of holiness? How could a robust theology of the Sabbath better form our appreciation for Incarnation? How does it all fit within the metaphor of “foretaste”

  9. Chapter IX digs more deeply into Jewish philosophy of holiness as it relates to space and time. Consider also comments Heshel makes about the space and symbols of worship employed on the Sabbath. How might you consider these statements through a Christian understanding of God as initiator and man as responder in worship? Respond to what Heschel seems to be saying about man’s role in sanctifying the time of Sabbath.


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:

Tamara Hill Murphy lives with her husband Brian, an Anglican priest in Bridgeport, CT. Her writing has also appeared in Plough, ThinkChristian, and Art House America. She is currently working toward her certification as a Spiritual Director and learning how to parent her four adult children. Find her at or at Tamara Hill Murphy-A Sacramental Life on Facebook.

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. 5) Regarding the human role in sanctifying time, I found some 15-year-old margin notes in my well-loved FSG paperback that show I was puzzled by the relevant passage toward the end of Chapter IX (p 82 in my copy):

    “The sanctity of the Sabbath is not like that of the festivals. The sanctity of festivals depends upon an act of man. It is man who fixes the calendar and thus determines on which day of the week a festival will come. If the people should fail to establish the beginning of the new month, Passover would not be celebrated. It is different in regard to the Sabbath. Even when men forsake the Sabbath, its holiness remains. And yet all aspects of holiness are mysteriously interrelated.”

    But as I’ve been reading along this time, I realized there’s a parallel way back on p 10:

    “Passover and the Feast of Booths, for example, coincide with the full moon, and the date of all festivals is a day in the month, and the month is a reflection of what goes on periodically in the realm of nature, since the Jewish month begins with the new moon, with the reappearance of the lunar crescent in the evening sky. In contrast, the Sabbath is entirely independent of the month and unrelated to the moon. Its date is not determined by any event in nature, such as the new moon, but by the act of creation. Thus the Sabbath is completely detached from the world of space.”

    So, I think Heschel posits that a vital element of human determination is required, beyond mere awareness of phases, but in actually setting when the first day of the moonth>month will be (new moon, full moon, middle of the waxing gibbous phase, whatever). If “it is man who fixes the calendar,” that is because the month is tied spatially to the moon’s phases, and the human will to “conquer” (which along with “dominate” are more problematic today than in 1951, clearly) in space is either exercised rightly or abdicated: “If the people should fail to establish the beginning of the new month…” then no Passover. Here is the source of the human role in sanctifying times.

    But the Sabbath is different. It has no “natural,” space-dimensional equivalent to the moon, being established by divine fiat in the order of creation: maybe we should say, it is revealed by God, and revealed by God as blessed not deduced and implemented. The human ability to bless and sanctify space and spatially-grounded moments in time does not touch on the order of creation, the week, or the Sabbath. Nothing can be done by humans to either establish the Sabbath’s holiness, nor to detract from it. It is sheer gift, grace (as the Christian tradition has it) which humans can only receive and enjoy and celebrate and give thanks over.

    • I appreciate your insight and thoughtful reading. Grateful for this thought, especially: “Nothing can be done by humans to either establish the Sabbath’s holiness, nor to detract from it. It is sheer gift, grace (as the Christian tradition has it) which humans can only receive and enjoy and celebrate and give thanks over.”

      Thank you!