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By Rani Jaeger, with translation from Hebrew by Yaron Ben Ami

An esssy exploring Shabbat, in conjunction with the exhibition Sabbath: The 2017 Dorothy Saxe Invitational.



A NASA manned flight finally lands on Mars. When the three astronauts disembark, they are met with dozens of green Martians. The Martians are horrified when one of the astronauts attempts to light a match. “It’s only an experiment, to check for oxygen. It’s okay. We’re from NASA,” explains the astronaut. Despite the Martians’ furious protests, he strikes the match—no fire. “So if there’s no oxygen for fire anyway, why were you so uptight about lighting the match?” he asks, and the Martians reply: “On the Sabbath?”

This joke reflects on Jewish self-consciousness and the discrepancy between Judaism’s promised greatness and its not-so-brilliant condition in the actual world. It also touches on some truths pertaining to the essence of the Sabbath—one of the cornerstones of Jewish culture. Perhaps the one element most symbolic of the totality, some would say.

Indeed, the Sabbath is the cornerstone… The Sabbath comprises several national and social notions, and if the Ten Commandments are concision of the entire Torah, the Sabbath is perhaps concision of the entire Ten Commandments. 1

First on the agenda here, is the Sabbath as cosmic time. More than any other specific time in the Jewish calendar, Sabbath is traditionally considered a temporal designation inherent in the world from its very creation.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.2

Sabbath, in this sense, is a sort of repeated past, a weekly encounter with the creation of the cosmos. This is why it also applies on Mars: because it is, in essence, not a commemoration of some specific historic event, but an expression of the very creation of the world, and as such it applies to the entire cosmos. This is what lends it its universal significance.

This is a very challenging concept, because unlike months (which reflect the lunar cycle) and seasons (which reflect the solar cycle), there is—in astronomical terms—absolutely no difference between the Sabbath and, for example, Thursday.

Indeed, alongside the recognition of Sabbath as cosmic time, its presence in the world is not a simple astronomical fact, rife with significance (like the full moon), but hinges entirely on its observance by individuals and communities. What is presented as a primal, primordial element turns out to rely entirely on culture.

The notion of Sabbath thus reflects the tension between its description as cosmic time, well beyond anything historical or human, and this fact: that in order for Sabbath to exist in the world, it requires people.

This tension builds gradually in the Hebrew Bible, which—beginning with the book of Exodus—adds human responsibility to Sabbath’s cosmic nature.

Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant.3

In other words, Sabbath is inherent in the world from its very creation, but its meaning and realization depend on humans, and specifically on the Jewish people, for whom Sabbath becomes a sign of the relationship between the people and their God.

At this point, Sabbath becomes a decidedly human project, invested with the cream of human thought and endeavor. This project comprises several major challenges and layers of significance:


Sabbath as commemoration of the creation of the world: the task of commemorating the original Sabbath requires a complex translation of divine acts and divine rest into human lives. Sabbath’s role as a sign of the covenant between God and his people renders this challenge all the more difficult: it requires people to act in the world, in the real here and now, in a way which will reflect—for all the huge differences—God himself and his act of creation.


Sabbath as commemoration of the Exodus—Sabbath is intended as a weekly actualization of the Jewish people’s emancipation from slavery.


Sabbath as social action: this follows from the memory of slavery in Egypt, and reflects a determination not to remain locked in the past, demanding a realization of the lessons gleaned from this memory, putting the lessons of the past into practice in the present and in the future.

But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou.4

Sabbath becomes one of Jewish tradition’s most powerful transformative agents, because it requires people to change their ways from a behavior pattern dictated by the mentality of slavery and victimhood, to one which reflects the mentality of Liberation. Sabbath is a revolutionary tool for comprehensive social change—pertaining to all echelons of society, as well as animals. It reflects on the entire week; indeed, on the entire cycle of life.

The sum total of all this is designed to create what Abraham Joshua Heschel called “a palace in time.” The Sabbath is thus described as a vast edifice, a work of art constructed, layer upon layer, over many generations—like an old European cathedral. This work of art is unique in that it is intended to sculpt in life’s most crucial and slippery element—time. The purpose of the Sabbath is to return our gaze from the conquest of space and matter, so typical of Man in general and of Modern Man in particular, back to the inner value of people in particular and the world in general.

In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness where a man may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity. The island is the seventh day, the Sabbath, a day of detachment from things, instruments and practical affairs as well as of attachment to the spirit.5

The wonder of this work of art is that all its material components are to be found in the world every day, yet it achieves its full-scale through our actions for 24 hours, before disintegrating again into its material components until next week. If we succeeded in “making the Sabbath,” what should emerge is a framework of different time quality, which introduces into this world something unique, sublime, powerful; something that in the language of religion is cloaked in the word “sacred.”

The sanctity afforded to the Sabbath by tradition, is a view of time and of those within time (and who isn’t within time?) not as tools for the achievement of goals whose provenance is outside themselves, but as a purpose in itself. The prohibition of work on the Sabbath is a prime example of the effort to translate this notion into behavior which every person is supposed to adopt: the great task facing Man on the Sabbath is to be, to exist. Not to manipulate the world, nor create in it, triumph over it, or take from it, but rather to try and be within it “as another man…” The rest from work on the Sabbath stands in ideological contrast to the notion of utilizing time in order to conquer space, encapsulated in Benjamin Franklin’s classic aphorism, “time is money.”

The Sabbath is a time whose value is itself.

This is all very well, but palaces, by their very nature, are reserved for the select few, whereas the Sabbath is an entirety which seeks, in fact, to mold all of society, in ever-growing circles from the “I” to the cosmic, to family, community, the stranger within our gates, and the animal, which is also part of human experience.

This is why one of Sabbath’s great challenges is to translate these bigger-than-life ideas, described above, into actions that relate to each and every person, actions that will give Sabbath a chance to become all that it could be. It is a big ideal, broken into small change. And then, as in any similar endeavor, care should be taken to collect all that small change back into the big ideal. For if that doesn’t happen, Man will find himself once again a slave—this time, slave to the Sabbath.

The sages of the Mishnah and the Talmud reworked the Hebrew biblical laws of the Sabbath into a highly comprehensive system. They themselves acknowledged the disproportion between the Hebrew biblical commandments and the system they themselves developed. In a brilliant metaphor, they described their system’s reliance on the Hebrew Bible verses as “mountains hanging by a hair.” 6 This is an indication of the severity of the challenge which an ever-changing reality poses to the practical realization of the idea of the Sabbath.

Maimonides, the doctor, philosopher, and posek (interpreter of Jewish law) who lived some 600 years after the sages, was also the great architect of the halakha (Jewish law). In his clear, concise way, he formulated the principles of the Sabbath around four words from Hebrew Bible verses pertaining to the Sabbath.

Four things have been said of the Sabbath: two from the Torah and two from the sages, and were interpreted by the prophets. From the Torah: Remember and Observe; and those interpreted by the prophets are honor and delight, for it is said: “and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the lord honorable.” 7


An Observance of the Sabbath invokes all the prohibitions— the negative commandments relating to the Sabbath, which follow from the imperative to desist from all work.


A Remembrance of the Sabbath has to do with symbolic acts (such as the Kiddush, the benediction on the wine) which signify the beginning and the end of the Sabbath. The underpinning for this principle is the memory—that is, the story of the Sabbath as we tell it to ourselves and to our children: from the creation of the world, through the Exodus, to present day.


The honor accorded to the Sabbath is the result of the various preparatory activities (washing, dressing, etc.) which are required in order to welcome the Sabbath with a sense of special spiritual uplift.


Sabbath’s delight is made up of the activities which cause one to experience physical and spiritual well-being on the Sabbath: fine food, social gathering, study, and more.

One of the great challenges to our generation, and to those of us who hold the Sabbath dear, is finding the correct balance for our time between these four elements of the Sabbath. Thus, for example, some feel that the multitude of observance clauses spoil their Sabbath’s delight, as they are unable—on the Sabbath, of all days—to participate in their favorite activities.

On the other hand, some will say, without observance one person’s Sabbath delight (the powerful, rich person) could easily become a source for another person’s oppression. It is no coincidence that the first Sabbath observed by the Children of Israel, according to the Hebrew Bible, was also the occasion of the first desecration of the Sabbath (Exodus 16:27).

There is, then, no easy solution for finding the balance between the Sabbath’s internal value systems, or for maintaining this balance on either the personal, public, or communal levels.

Fortunately for the Sabbath, its normative elements are important, but its attraction lies equally in its unique smells, tastes, and music, as well as in images formed over centuries. Sabbath is “the queen,” “the wellspring of blessing,” “similar to the world to come”—a time when one is required to bring forth, within the world as is, a spectacular fragment of the world as it should be.

All this combined to hand the Sabbath through scores of generations, down to us. Despite Sabbath’s antiquity, it seems that our epoch—with all its environmental, social, and cultural problems—brings into sharp relief the need to rethink the Sabbath, and to think of it.

Will Sabbath arrive on Mars?

Possibly. But it is much more important as a challenge—and potential—in our hands, on our blue planet, here and now.

about the author
Rabbi Rani Jaeger

Rabbi Rani Jaeger is a research fellow, faculty member, and head of the recently formed Ritual Department at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He was one of the founders of the Institute’s Be’eri Program for Pluralistic Jewish-Israeli Identity Education. Jaeger is pursuing his doctorate at Bar-Ilan University on Jewish-Israeli culture as perceived by the poet Avraham Shlonsky. He was a participant in the first cohort of the program for Israeli Rabbis and received rabbinical ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute and HaMidrasha at Oranim in September 2016. Jaeger is one of the founders of Beit Tefilah Israeli, a secular synagogue in the heart of Tel Aviv. He spent a year at Paideia, the European Institute of Jewish Studies in Stockholm, as scholar in residence.


1. H. N. Bialik, “on Ohel Shem and Oneg Sabbath” (speech that was given at the ceremony of putting the corner stone to Oneg Shabbat building in Tel-Aviv, 1928).

2. Genesis 1:1–3.

3. Exodus 31:16.

4. Deuteronomy 5:13.

5. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 29.

6. Mishnah, Chagigah 1:8.

7. Mishneh Torah, Zmanim 30:1.


Sabbath: The 2017 Dorothy Saxe Invitational is organized by The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. An endowed sponsorship for this exhibition was created by George Saxe, z”l, in honor of Dorothy R. Saxe. Major support has been provided by Phyllis Cook and Wendy Kesser. Supporting Sponsorship is provided by Robert and Judy Aptekar.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum thanks The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts for its lead sponsorship of The Museum’s exhibition program.

Image Credit

Photo by Jenu Prasad on Unsplash