The Sabbath as an “architecture of sacred time”

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972) posits that the Sabbath is an “architecture of sacred time.”[1] He poignantly argues that while it is true that all peoples of antiquity venerated certain places as holy, the Torah places a far greater emphasis on the sanctification of time versus the sanctification of space. It is no coincidence that the word for sanctity is first associated with the Sabbath. When God blesses the Sabbath day (Gen. 2:3), it literally becomes, “a sanctuary of holy time.”

Sabbath rituals exemplify Judaism’s quest to sanctify time. To the pagan, the notion of holiness is inextricably related to sacred space; as a result, there is a tendency for the primal psyche to project its concept of the divine into an object that is found in the phenomenal world. But the Sabbath is radically different. With the Sabbath, as Heschel notes, human beings leave the realm of holy space and enter into the realm of holy time.[2]

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate.[3]

The Sabbath also exerts a profound economic impact upon a society. As a symbol of sanctified time, the Sabbath releases men and women from the tyranny of a consumer-driven market economy. Keeping the Sabbath must be more than just a mere activity—it must foster a renewal of the soul. The Sabbath symbolizes the ideal state of creation where every creature great and small, stands in cosmic unity together in honor of the Creator. As a symbol of rest and renewal, the Sabbath signifies an inner serenity that permeates the spirit.

The Sabbath also provides the context for appreciating the Eternal within the boundaries of sacred time. As a “cathedral of sacred time,” the Sabbath stands apart from other precepts of the Torah that have more of a spatial dimension to its holiness.

This may be illustrated with the following Hassidic anecdote: Two rebbes—the Vorker Rebbe and the Kotzker Rebbe—were discussing the relative importance of certain biblical mitzvoth (precepts). The Vorker Rebbe commented upon the holiness of the “four species”[4] that are held together and waved in honor of God. Once the precept has been performed, they are laid aside, for the precept has been properly carried out.

The Vorker Rebbe continued, “Such is the way with most mitzvot-as long as we hold them dear, we experience the holy; however, once we let go of the precept, the holiness departs. However during the holiday of Sukkot [Tabernacles], the holiness of the sukkah pervades every part of the person who is inside and the sukkah’s holiness is even more pervasive.” The Kotzker Rebbe replied, “There is one mitzvah whose holiness was even greater than that of the sukkah—the Sabbath, for once a Jew walks out of the sukkah, he is no longer surrounded by the aura of the sukkah’s holiness, but that is not the case with the Sabbath, for no matter where a Jew goes during the Sabbath the quality of the Sabbath always remains with him.” The holiness of time is something that remains, even in the absence of the holy Temple. Some Hasidic thinkers also see in the Sabbath a rich eschatological dimension, a quality that will not be fully realized until the Messianic Era, when every day will have the holy quality of the Sabbath.[5]


[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Farrar Straus and Young, 1951), xvi. It is ironic that Heschel utilized a spatial metaphor to describe the sacredness of time.

[2] The Zoroastrians also conceived of history as moving toward a telos; after the final rehabilitation of the earth implies its purification and its joining, with a purified hell, to the extension of heaven.

[3] The Sabbath, op. cit., xvi.

[4] The “Four Species” (Hebrew: ארבעת המינים  = Arba’at Ha-Minim) refer to the: lulav (לולב) – a ripe, green, closed frond from a date palm tree,  hadass (הדס) – boughs with leaves from the myrtle tree, aravah (ערבה) – branches with leaves from the willow tree, and the  Etrog (אתרוג) – the fruit of a citron tree. During the holiday of Sukkoth, these four species are waved together by the worshiper in a special ceremony of thanksgiving to God. For a biblical description of the rite, see Leviticus 23:40.

[5] Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, The Passover Haggadah (New York: Ktav, 1983), 22-23.

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