Avi Garelick

For the Day That Is All Sabbath


Though it may not be clear to casual observers, dedicated observers, or even participants, the Sabbath is about defeating evil. In kinetic terms, the evil are defined by their ceaseless motion. The Sabbath is the work of bringing them to rest.

1. A song to be sung on the day of the Sabbath.

Psalm 92 does not talk much about the Sabbath. In fact, the above epigraph is the only mention it gets. Why, then, is this song to be sung on the day of the Sabbath?

These epigraphs attached to psalms ought not to be trivialized. They are meant to inform us as to the psalms’ intended setting. There are very few psalmic epigraphs that invoke a specific cultic occasion the way this one does. It should be used as a hermeneutical key to the rest of the psalm.

Rashi explains, very succinctly, that this psalm is “for the Day that is All Sabbath.” That is, it is about an ultimate culmination. The Sabbath, as it recurs every week, is meant to be a prefiguration of the ultimate Sabbath, the timelessness at the end of time. Thus the Psalm of Sabbath is a dream vision of how everything will look when the dust settles on history.

There are two verses of praise for God’s acts of creation: “5. I am gladdened God by your works, in the work of your hands I do rejoice. 6. How great are your deeds God, deep indeed are your designs.” Then:

7. A foolish man does not know, a buffoon cannot comprehend this. 8. When wicked people did flower like grass, when all workers of destruction did blossom, it was so that they will be destroyed by the end. 9. But you are exalted forever God. 10. Here are your enemies God, here your enemies will be vanquished, all workers of destruction will be scattered. 11. You have raised my horn like a wild ox, anointed me with good oil. 12. I will keep my eye on those who are staring at me. When my antagonists rise up against me, I will be listening.

13. A righteous person will flower like a palm, like a cedar in Lebanon will he grow. 14. Rooted in the house of God, in the courts of our Lord will he flower. 15. Still into their old age will they grow, green and full they will be. 16. To tell of how straightforward God is. He is my rock and there is nothing crooked in Him.

There is a cast of characters in this psalm about the Sabbath. Their presence may not be explicit, but they are crucial to an understanding of the ideological system of the psalm and the way in which the Sabbath fits in.

CREATION: Creation is the subject of verses 5 and 6, the works, deeds, and designs of God. Creation itself is a victory, it is God’s defeat of the powers of chaos. Since creation itself is perpetually recurring, so is the insurrection of chaos. Creation does not always reassert itself in imitation of its beginning—it changes as it replicates. That is, chaos remains an impending threat against it. The cessation of creation recurs along with re-creation: this is the Sabbath.

RIGHTEOUSNESS: Righteousness is the concluding sentiment of the psalm: God is straightforward… there is nothing crooked in him. The fact of creation is evidence of righteousness; righteousness is creation’s prevailing tendency. That is, ultimately, it will prevail. The Sabbath is also said to be an expression of the right. This does at least make sense as a logical progression from the connection between Sabbath and creation, merely by the transitive property. But how the relation actually works is not immediately clear.

THE WICKED: The wicked are the subject of verses 7, 8, and 10. They oppose righteousness and therefore are also an attack on creation. They are twice characterized as workers of destruction, which is surely meant to contrast with the creative works of God which gladden the heart of the psalmist in verse 5. Wicked people, it is implied, undo the work of creation with their evils. Notice the thematic botanical consistency of the success and demise of the wicked: in their success they flourish like grass, so naturally their demise is a kind of scattering. On the eve of the Day that is All Sabbath, God will mow the lawn of wicked people.

THE RIGHTEOUS: The righteous are spoken of in verses 13-15. Their success, unlike the success of evil, is phrased in the future tense. The righteous will flower as the wicked did flower, but note the remarkable contrast: the wicked in their growth are compared to grass, the righteous to a cedar of Lebanon. While grass withers and vanishes capriciously, cedars grow sturdily in the most precarious of places. The success of the righteous cedar is rooted in the way it establishes a place for itself (the house of God, v. 14).

There is a kinetic logic to this psalm that highlights the dichotomy between rest and motion. The wicked are ever restless even in their flourishing, while the righteous achieve a kind of sabbatical stillness, a fixedness of orientation with regard to space. But what exactly is the connection between the orientation of righteousness and fidelity to the Sabbath? Is the Sabbath merely a matter of subordinating your interests to those of God? As though it were a kind of tithing of your time and productivity? Or can it be said to have actual righteous content?

Like the sense of evil, the sense of the Sabbath is a specific kind of motion, or, better, a specific kind of rest. It is a debate over the proper description of this motion that occupies the following teaching:

All of his days, Shammai the elder would do his eating as an honor to the Sabbath. He would find a good-looking animal and say: this one is for the Sabbath [i.e. to be eaten then]. If he were to find a more attractive animal, he would rest the second and eat the first. But Hillel the elder had a different tendency: all of his actions were in heaven’s name. As it is said: Bless God day after day (Psalm 68). Another teaching: Shammai would say, all of your days are together for the Sabbath; Hillel would say, bless God day after day. (TB Beitzah 16a.)

If the weekly Sabbath is a window into the world to come, the Day that is All Sabbath, and the days of the week are metonyms for the present reality of work, then our dynamics of preparation and culmination are themselves metonyms of our stance towards present effort and utopian aspiration. Both Hillel and Shammai understand this. Hillel declares that utopia has to begin now; he is our example of it. If only everyone could stand in such a position of total trust in God, our entire present system of feast and famine, lack and fulfillment, would be overturned. That is Hillel’s revolution. Shammai appears to be more conservative. Work while it’s time to work, defer your pleasures till the time comes for them. The Sabbath derives its power from everything that is not immediately consumed. It builds a cyclical structure within time for articulating licit and illicit pleasures. Unlike for Hillel, for Shammai to eat his prize beast on a regular day is offensive to God, instead of an expression of trust and perpetual delight. Notice, though, the crucial function that this prize beast serves in Shammai’s construction of Sabbath. It is the Sabbath animal in two respects. Firstly, it is the object of consumption for the Sabbath. But notice how Shammai ‘rests’ the animal that he finds to be the best. It is the avatar of the principle of rest, in which the Sabbath is invested while we go about our business. The very fact of its separated, exalted existence shapes our experience, giving it the imprint of Sabbath even when the Sabbath is absent.

This difference between Shammai and Hillel can be viewed from another angle as well, from within the Sabbath. The first chapter of Mishnah Shabbat records a series of disputes between the students of Shammai and those of Hillel with regard to the extent of the principle of rest.

Beit Shammai says, you may not soak dyes, paints, or horse feed prior to the Sabbath unless they will be properly soaked beforehand; Beit Hillel permits.

Beit Shammai says, you may not put bundles of wet flax in the oven unless they have time to dry while it is still day. Nor may you put wool into the dyer’s vat unless it might be dyed while it is still day; Beit Hillel permits.

Beit Shammai says, you may not set out traps for beasts or birds or fish prior to the Sabbath unless they are expected to trap before sundown; Beit Hillel permits.

…Beit Shammai says, you may not give skins to be worked nor give clothing to an alien launderer, unless enough time before the Sabbath is allowed; Beit Hillel permits as long as the sun is up. (Mishnah Shabbat 1:4-8)

These disputes can be read as expressing a basic difference in the interpretation of this biblical injunction: “do no labor: you, your son, your daughter, your servants, and your cattle, as well as the stranger that is in your gates” (Exodus 20:9). For what reason must you allow your cattle to rest, since they not only do not have any individual obligation in that regard, but also have no conception of the Sabbath at all? Beit Hillel thinks that despite this cognitive incapacity, cattle are deserving of rest by way of their membership in the fellowship of living beings. They need the Sabbath in the same way that you do. Beit Shammai, on the other hand, sees ‘cattle’ as shorthand for ‘everything that is within your control.’ Thus, as is demonstrated above, Beit Shammai extends the principle of rest indiscriminately to inanimate and animate objects as long as they are within one’s sphere of control. Beit Shammai does not need to believe that the dyes experience rest in order to extend the Sabbath to them. There is something about the presence of even non-subjective labor activity that compromises the Sabbath.

The content of this position is to be found in that in-between period, one interval of several days, where between being an object of labor and an object of consumption, the sabbatical beast is an object of rest. For a brief period, this animal is exempted from the normal economic conditions which govern its existence—it is set aside in the name of Sabbath. At the top of the page which introduces the Sabbath animal, the gemara expresses a similar sentiment: “All of the sustenance which one will receive is fixed from the beginning of the year to the end of the year, with the exception of what is spent for the Sabbath, the holidays, and educating one’s child in the ways of Torah.” It is thought that at the beginning of every year, one’s material income for that entire year is determined in advance. There is nothing one can do to overturn that sentence. The Sabbath itself is meant to be an escape from the fatalistic economic logic of normal life. Hillel and Shammai both agree, it’s just that Hillel himself is host to the sabbatical principle, where Shammai invests it in an external being. There is a similar sort of shift in verb form in the mishnaic dispute. Hillel rests, Shammai brings to rest. For Hillel, explicitly, something can continue to operate as your instrument of labor during the Sabbath, as long as you are not its operator. Shammai would not allow this.

Given this, I postulate a paradigmatic difference between Shammai and Hillel. The school of Hillel believes the Sabbath to be primarily something that human beings are doing; the school of Shammai believes it to be something God is doing. For the humanist, the Sabbath is invested with a set of responsibilities and duties that must be attended to. The pre-humanist theological perspective imagines the entirety of creation (that is, everything) being orchestrated into God’s weekly reenactment of that original moment of pause.

Coda on the General Strike

This divine decree of cessation generates a sacred space that is beyond labor relations. A world at rest suggests a universal ground for being that is prior to the logic of domination: the Sabbath animal does nothing for you except remind you of this.

There are two important consequences to this cessation. Firstly, it suspends relations of domination between all agents, subjective and non-subjective, and thereby renders them conspicuous. Secondly, it establishes a new mode of relatedness between agents, particular to sabbatical exception. Which is to say, even as relations of labor are suspended, some manner of relation does take its place. Agents remain attached to each other in what I would term an empathic-connective resting. This relatedness is encoded by a very close attention to not doing.

What is this sabbatical relatedness? It is not the case that things turn inward onto themselves in a state of rest. It has often been suspected that the Sabbath is a thin cloak for indolence. Or, more subtly, that it is nothing but lack—not doing, non-involvement. From a moral framework that makes judgments in terms of individual responsibility and effort, the Sabbath is inexcusable. It is an abstention from the striving that perpetuates existence.

Hence the analogy to the General Strike. By forcing a total stop, the strike brings to light the tight-wound interdependence of all regions of circulation and all sectors of labor. And both are similarly misunderstood by their enemies as purely negative. How can you stop when there is so much work to do? What these critics miss is the regenerative power of cessation. It works to completely change things before they begin again.