The advent of the Sabbath has been strikingly noted in the works of Hayim Nahman Bialik, the Israeli poet Zelda, Tillie Olsen and Philip Roth too. For many Jews, a world of memories is enfolded in the familiar aroma of roast chicken or the slow dancing flames of Sabbath candles. In her new book, “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day” (Harmony), award-winning writer Francine Klagsbrun explores in depth the images and symbols of the seventh day to describe its complex religious, philosophical and mystical underpinnings.
Klagsbrun is a lovely writer and a very good teacher. The book is thoughtful and informative, packed full of laws, customs, interpretations, history and lore, based on her research in biblical and Talmudic sources and commentaries, midrash, ethical teachings, biblical scholarship and kabbalah. Fluent in Hebrew, she did much of her research using original sources. It’s not a how-to book on the Sabbath but a guide to its meaning. She also interjects personal anecdotes, describing her lifelong ties to Sabbath observance.
“The Fourth Commandment” is an important contribution to the literature of the Sabbath, joining Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s landmark meditative work “The Sabbath” and other books that focus on laws or practical issues. Klagsbrun’s work stands out in its inclusion of a women’s perspective on the day in which she looks at traditional roles and mystical themes about the Shechinah, the feminine aspect of God.
The book is timely in a number of ways: It’s published at a time when, ironically, technological advances have made people feel more harried and time-pressured than before and perhaps are more than ever in need of a sacred pause in their lives. It has also been released at an auspicious moment on the Jewish calendar. Now that the long series of fall holidays are completed, this is a good time to refocus attention on the holy day that arrives every week.
Klagsbrun, a columnist for this newspaper, is the author of more than a dozen books, including, most recently, “Jewish Days: A Book of Jewish Culture Around the Year,” “Mixed Feelings: Love, Hate, Rivalry and Reconciliation Among Brothers and Sisters,” “Married People: Staying Together in the Age of Divorce” and “Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Life,” and she was the editor of the best-selling “Free to Be…You and Me.”
In the prologue, Klagsbrun writes beautifully about light as both a metaphor and an intrinsic element of the Sabbath. “For Jews, light surrounds the Sabbath like parentheses, enclosing this time and setting it apart from the rest of the week. Simple white candles usher in the day and a colorful twisted candle escorts it out, the one announcing the stoppage of all creative activity, the other its beginning again.” She discusses the Sabbath light in terms of awe and mystery, and how it ties to creation and also to the Creator. Historically, she shows how the activity of kindling a Sabbath eve lamp shifted from being a matter of practicality to law, requiring a blessing, and how the source of light evolved from oil lamps to candles.
For Klagsbrun, the holiness of time and of space on the Sabbath are complementary. She cites Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s teachings — he was her teacher — about the sacredness of time, and believes that he too did not negate the importance of place, although she takes it further.
In her chapter “Women at the Center: The Mystical Shabbat,” she explains how the feminine is central to the kabbalistic view of the Sabbath as uniting “the Shekhinah with the masculine aspects of God to create harmony in the world.” In an interview with The Jewish Week, Klagsbrun emphasizes that it’s also the women who have ushered in the Sabbath in their homes and have created its special atmosphere.
Klagsbrun writes about the many meanings of the number seven in a chapter titled “Sacred Sevens/Sacred Signs.” In other sections, she describes the rituals and ceremonies done at home and in synagogue, and how the laws and their exceptions lead toward compassion toward other people. She also speaks of the kabbalists’ belief that individuals expand in consciousness on Shabbat, gaining an extra soul that descends from heaven. And, she writes of transcendence and how the Sabbath is a taste of the world to come.
As Klagsbrun writes, “On Shabbat, I feel the ordinary space of my home mysteriously altered into something that surpasses ordinariness. I know I had a part in making it that way, with Sabbath preparation and rituals, and I can’t speak with certainty about God’s presence in it, but it is altered, and I feel the day’s peace and spirit envelop me, as if they existed independent of me. Other holidays being gladness and sensations of their own. Shabbat brings holiness into my life every seventh day, and because it does I am aware of the holiness in the universe the other six.”
A prominent Conservative Jew, Klagsbrun is a self-described Litvak, using the term that connotes the geographic region of Lithuania and implies a rationalist view of the world. She was surprised by her own fascination with the mystical aspects of the Sabbath, and notes that the word kabbalah is much exploited and overused in popular culture. “A lot of it is very hard to understand,” she says. You have to know a lot of normative tradition before you can really understand mystical traditions.” She poses the question, “Will I go further with it? I think it’s interesting and important, but not my basic approach.”
With love, Klagsbrun writes of her parents, grandparents and their devotion to Shabbat; her great-grandmother was known for her Shabbat hospitality on a farm in Europe. In part, Klagsbrun was inspired to investigate the power and influence of the Sabbath after the death of her parents. She was thinking a lot about how she had lived her life as their daughter, and how the Sabbath remained so much a part of the rhythm of her life, even as she moved with ease in both the secular and Jewish worlds. Looking at her experience of the Sabbath became a “prism for looking at the entire tradition.”
Klagsbrun grew up in Borough Park, “then a very different neighborhood,” and attended an Orthodox school and synagogue. “Even though my parents were observant, my father always had a skeptical side, a very intellectual aspect. In his outlook he was a Conservative Jew.” When the family moved to Belle Harbor in her teenage years, they became very involved in a Conservative synagogue where Rabbi Robert Gordis served, and the family became close to him. While attending public high school, she attended afternoon school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which was the beginning of a long and ongoing relationship with the institution. She continued studying at JTS while she was a student at Brooklyn College, enrolling in a joint degree program. Would she have become a rabbi then, if opportunities were open to women? “I don’t know. I loved the study,” she says. Later on she was a member of the Commission for the Study of Women in the rabbinate, and was a very active proponent of having women ordained. Did she then think of returning to school? “I didn’t feel the need to do it,” she says.
Klagsbrun, who holds an honorary doctorate from the Seminary, is founding chair of the Board of Overseers of the Library of JTS, atrustee of The Jewish Museum and serves on other boards. Frequently, she is invited to synagogues around the country as a scholar in residence.
About this book, she says, “My hope is that people will see in it why [the Sabbath] is meaningful for life today. It’s not about some ancient time only — it’s for the 21st century.”
Francine Klagsbrun will give a reading of her book at The Jewish Museum on Thursday, Oct. 17 at 6:45 p.m., Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street, Manhattan, and at the Corner Bookstore on Tuesday, Oct. 22 at 7 p.m., 1313 Madison Ave. (at 93rd Street), Manhattan.