The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, by Judith Shulevitz (Random House, $26), tells two stories that run parallel and then unexpectedly intersect. The first story is of Shulevitz herself, a religious skeptic raised in Puerto Rico, cultivating her adolescent rebellion against the Sabbath. The second is the historical narrative of the Sabbath as a social, chronological, governmental, domestic and religious institution. Both stories — one contemporary and personal, the other ancient and divine — are perpetually evolving. The Sabbath evolves for Puritans, Lutherans, Jews, feminists, college students, Marxists — and even for the working class, as it is a day when rest is mandated through strict rules.
Shulevitz’ book mirrors her own quest for identity within the context of the Sabbath and outside of the labels that are used to define women: wife, mother, professional. She had thought the Sabbath to be impractical, a phenomenon belonging to past centuries where women had a single occupation: taking care of their children. Certainly the rules that provide a freedom from the bondage of time do not apply to the multitasking of secondwave feminism. She laments, “When my children were little, I rushed irritably through every diaper change, every walk, every meal. There seemed no other way to retain economic independence, professional viability, a feeling of competence, the faith that I would continue to exist once I stepped outside the house.”
In struggling with her own Sabbath observance, Shulevitz discovers how choosing to follow rules empowers, while being forced to follow rules seems oppressive. Jewish law as traditionally inter- preted forbids activities such as cooking, driving, writing, using electronic devices, and handling money. “The Sabbath seems designed to make life as inconvenient as possible… In a world of brightness and portability and instantaneous intimacy, the Sabbath foists on the consciousness the blackness of night, the heaviness of objects, the miles that keep us apart.” And yet, according to the Kabbalists, the Sabbath is also the day that each of us is granted an additional soul, which Shulevitz imagines as a big, fleecy blanket.
Shulevitz believes the ritual of a weekly day of rest is critical and in danger of extinction. However, she writes in gentle terms, coaxing even the non-religious reader into a deep nostalgia for a simpler era, describing the Sabbath as “an aftertaste of infancy.”
Take this book’s title literally. This book — peppered with references to the Talmud, sociological and financial articles, and speeches from abolitionists — is a global depiction of the Sabbath, and the structures it creates in a many different religions and societies. It is this wide range of meanings that permits the formation of identity within the context of a lifestyle masked as ritual, a transformative power essential in a modern age.
Shira Engel, founder of and writer for fromtherib.wordpress.com, writes on Jewish and feminist issues and is headed to Wesleyan University in the fall.