Saturday, May 19, 2012

sabbath is god's gift


I’m old enough to remember when BlueLaws were in effect. Blue Laws were so-called because they were the leftovers of a Puritan-like prohibition against Sunday commerce and were supposed to be the thinking of blue-stockings (the nickname for Oliver Cromwell’s excessively moralistic allies) to the effect that, similar to the thinking of some Pharisees of Jesus’ time, commerce ought to stop on the Sabbath. When I was growing up in the 60s, there were still laws in New York forbidding stores and other businesses from being open on Sunday, the implication being that the public was better served by everyone focusing on God and religious ideas and family instead. (I vaguely remember gas stations being exempt from this since people still had to drive to church or to visit.)

My family was Seventh-Day Adventist and our church met Saturdays, so Sundays for us were sort of the icing on the cake. I remember my mother being glad when the Laws were rescinded so she could grocery shop Sundays, but my own memories of dull, home-bound Sundays were actually pretty content. This might have been the result of being a kid and when you're a kid anything beyond your immediate needs being met is unnecessary. My Sundays began about 5:30 or 6 with a heaping bowl of cereal in front of the TV, whose day was also just starting. (This was another result of the changes in society: radio and television operating 24-7 were a decade away.) I was a regular watcher of Davey and Goliath and other kid-centered, vaguely religious programming which were the only programs on Sunday mornings. Our church services had been the previous day so my parents spent their morning sitting around talking. My dad would drive to visit a former neighbor, a widowed Italian immigrant, and when he came back he'd bring gifts from Pop-Pop: a box of jelly donuts and the Sunday paper. Those days the comics pages were actually up to ten pages long and printed large and there were more than fifty strips, funny animal and adventure and holdovers from the heydays of the 30s like Polly and Her Pals and Mutt and Jeff. I learned from an episode of Buzz Sawyer that you could swim safely among piranha so long as you didn't have any cuts or scrapes.

            Sabbath as we understand it has probably been observed since prehistory.  All three Abrahamic scriptures refer to it as a long-held observance.  It’s likely that in the earliest experiences of people there was a period, perhaps a portion of midday when the sun was hottest, when exertions halted for rest.  This would eventually become a full day and then the same day each week and then its existence attributed to the local creator god.  Sabbath is given specific times in the Abrahamic scriptures, during which worship of the Creator is emphasized as well as emphasis on rest in appreciation of the cosmic Rest taken by the Creator.

            Jews, of course, are the first of the Abrahamic tradition to recognize the Sabbath.  Tanakh reads, “On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done” (Genesis 2:2-3).  Tanakh recognizes Saturday, the final day of the week, its placement a holdover from the Babylonian calendar which the exilic Jews would have been forced to use, as a time of especial importance.  MonfordHarris calls it a period of covenantal intimacy.  The

Sabbath is God’s gift to Israel…[It] is particularly associated with Exile.  It is during the long Exile that the covenant had to be strengthened and confirmed.  Exile can weaken Israel’s sense of the covenant, for Exile can corrode the faithfulness of the community…Sabbath guarded the Jews; for Sabbath strengthened Jewish covenantal faithfulness.  (10)

Harris emphasizes a person’s senses to bring him or her closer to God during Sabbath, noting the particular importance of taste, touch and smell.  “Sabbath is necessarily the most sensuous time, since it celebrates the creation of this sensuous world, and it is the senses that appropriate the world” (12).  This glorification of the world’s sensuality is reflected in the book Song of Songs whose place is “as an allegory for the pining of the people of Israel or perhaps the human soul for God…” (Chaim Rabin in Harris, 13).  Harris, whose repetitive emphasis on the appropriateness of sex on the eve of Sabbath manages to seem both progressive and creepy, expands Rabin’s argument that “Sabbath is intimate time between God and the covenantal community” (17). 

            Christians appreciated this emphasis on special worship of God and a time of rest, but altered the day to Sunday, the beginning of the week, their newer testament alluding to its importance by attributing a miraculous act by Paul to that day. 

On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion…; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight…A young man name Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer.  Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead.  But Paul went down, and bending over him took him in his arms, and said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.”  Then Paul went upstairs; and after he had broken bread and eaten, he continued to converse…until dawn; then he left.  Meanwhile, they had taken the boy away alive and were not a little comforted (Acts 20:7-12). 

Paul’s diffidence may be attributable to his certainty of his work in service to the Lord, but it may also be that he knew a 3-story fall—about 15-20 feet at that time—was unlikely to be fatal to a young person, putting his continued conversation in the face of the boy’s “death” in a slightly different light.  In addition, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul directs them (as he says he has the Galatians) to “put aside and save whatever extra you earn” (16:2) for the first day of each week.  Interestingly, despite the tradition among Jews of both worshipping and resting on the Sabbath, Hoyt Hickman notes that, while “Sunday stood out above all other days because it was the weekly anniversary… [commemorating] the Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection…”, it was not a day devoted to rest “until an edict by the Emperor Constantine in AD 321” (18).  Farmers were excused from enforced relaxation. 

            Finally, Islam, which Karen Armstrong characterizes as a very practical religion, building on the faiths of the other People of the Book, again relocated the Sabbath day, this time to Friday, pointing to Sura 62 of the Quran, itself named “Friday:”  “Oh you who believe! when the call for prayer is made on Friday, then hasten to the remembrance of Allah, and leave off trading…[When] the prayer is ended, then disperse abroad in the land and seek of Allah’s grace, and remember Allah much…” (:8-9).[1] 

            HuseyinAlgul writes, “’Friday is the measure of the week, Ramadan the measure of the year, and the hajj the measure of one’s lifetime’…[If] one prays Friday prayer in full consciousness of all that it means, then one is more likely to experience for a whole week the abundance and blessings that arise from it…” (22)  Again reflecting Islam’s identity as a particularly practical faith, Algul emphasizes

It is considered a good action for a Muslim to take a full bath (ghusl) on Friday, to clean the parts of the body that need to be cleaned, to brush the teeth, to put on a light, pleasant scent, to wear clean clothes, and to smile and be pleasant…Muslims should cleanse themselves both spiritually and physically, becoming completely clean…Muslims who make wudu (ritual washing for prayers) carefully and go to the mosque to pray on Fridays, who listen carefully to the sermon, and pray on two successive Fridays, would be forgiven the sins they had committed in between.  (22)

This vision of God as a stern disciplinarian out of a 50s educational film on physical hygiene is reinforced by the insistence in several Suras against transgressing against the Sabbath, going so far in Sura 7:163 as to blame a poor fishing day on it:  “[Ask the unjust] about the town which stood by the sea; when they exceeded the limits of the Sabbath, when their fish came to them on the day of their Sabbath, appearing on the surface of the water, and on the daly on which they did not keep the Sabbath they did not come to them; thus did We try them because they transgressed.”    This is not, of course, limited to Islam.  Harris notes “It has long been noted that Sabbath is richer in prohibitions than in positive acts…[They] are massive and detailed, broad and minute…[They] are intrinsic to the Sabbath…Sabbath is not a natural reality…[It] is different from other days; it is blessed by God.  The prohibitions are aspects of the personal” (14).  And Christians, particularly Protestants, in America long advocated Sunday Blue Laws (apparently without recourse to Scripture since many also insist in a literal reading of Matthew 12:8 that “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” rather than, say, local zoning boards).    

            My family has never been big dinner people so we didn't celebrate Sunday with chicken or roast beef feasts. Lunch was usually a sandwich or soup, and then we'd visit someone, usually nursing home residents my folks knew for decades or the widowed members of one of their fraternal organizations. I was always bored and brought a book with me. Afterward we'd drive just for the sake of motion and novelty.  There was a security sitting in the back seats of those cars, the rarely-used seatbelts clanking emptily against the exposed steel of the doors. All was right with the world or at least my part of it was. I had few demands outside those long, dull visits with people I never really knew except the demands of homework before a bath and bed. Sundays were quiet days when naps were allowed and music played softly from the TV or the car radio, gospel punctuated by isolated shouts from the congregation.

There is something to be said for the religious requirement of there being nowhere to go and nothing to do outside the home except visiting friends or spending the day in a park or the forest or on the road, acquiescing to the enforced demands of worship and rest. My wife and I have regular Sabbaths during which we do nothing except read together, preferably outside.  There is an ease to life shredded by the personal need to shop.  Silence in the absence of TV or radio signals (or even of the internet if that was possible), while I suspect it would drive many—including me—crazy, would also press us to rely on ourselves and our friends for conversation and news. There is an argument to be made that there is secular benefit to reining in the demands of contemporary life by making certain everyone had the day off (outside necessities like law enforcement and hospitals). To avoid showing favoritism it needn't be Sundays or even another weekend day.  It could be midweek providing nearly everyone with same day off, the lack of outside electrical entertainment and commerce making nearly everyone reliant on one another, an enforced companionability. It probably wouldn’t work, at least initially. But there is nonetheless a certain peace had by having nowhere to go and nothing to do.


·         Algul, Huseyin.  2005.  The Blessed Days and Nights of the Islamic Year.  Somerset, NJ; The Light, Inc.

·         Berlin, Adele, and Marc Brettler, editors.  2004.  The Jewish Study Bible.  New York, NY; Oxford University Press.

·         Coogan, Michael.  2007.  The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV).  New York, NY; Oxford University Press.

·         Harris, Monford.  1992.  Exodus and Exile:  The Structure of the Jewish Holidays.  Minneapolis, MN; Augsburg Fortress Press.

·         Hickman, Hoyt, Don Saliers, Laurence Stookey, and James White.  1992.  The New Handbook of the Christian Year:  Based on the Revised Common Lectionary.  Nashville, TN:  Abingdon Press.

·         Shakir, M.H., translator.  2004.  Quran.  Elmhurst, NY; Tahrike Tarsile Quran, Inc.

·         Yuksel, Edip, Layth Saleh al-Shaiban, and Martha Schulte-Nafeh, translators and annotators.  2010.  Quran:  A Reformist Translation.  [Unknown]; Brainbow Press.

[1] Interestingly, a note in Edip Yuksel points out that, while “The traditional understanding [of Jummah] consider it a reference to…Friday…the Arabic word could be a description of any day picked by a group of people for assembly prayer, [or] for a public event with political, social, and spiritual purposes” (Yuksel, Sura n062:009). 

No comments:

Post a Comment