Shabbat is a “cathedral in time” suggested AJ Heschel by which he meant that Judaism emphasizes the sanctity of time over space. In making a distinction between the Sabbath and the cathedral, the iconic edifice of institutional religion Heschel was following a time-honored Jewish tradition.
The Torah follows the laws regarding the building of the Tent of Meeting (Mishkan) with an admonition to keep the Sabbath (Exodus 31: 12-17) from which the rabbis learnt that any of the 39 tasks used to build the Mishkan, were forbidden as work (melacha) on the Shabbat. The lesson is clear: The Mishkan and later the Temple were built as an accommodation to our need for edifice and to accessorize… or as Mel Brooks would say: merchandising. The Sabbath – a sanctuary in time – with its aspiration to sanctify time, activity and state of mind supersedes any temporal temple.
The Mishkan was not the first biblical construction commanded by God. Moses & Bezalel were not the first master builders. Biblical scholars have noted the parallels of the divine architectural specifications to build the Mishkan to similar specs provided to Noah to build an ark.
See: R. Jonathan Sacks: The Architecture of Holiness and a Mormon scholar who recently wrote an extended article on the subject: The Ark and the Tent: Temple Symbolism in the Story of Noah [especially notes 134-]
If Noah’s ark is the first biblical temple then as such it represents our tradition’s first clear compromise and recalibration to the shortcomings of humanity and our need for building campaigns, clergy, chapel and sacrifices to the Gods (see previous blog post honor thy sources and Genesis 8:20 ; the first biblical sacrifice burnt by Noah). Noah was the first religious leader who had to quantify the message … (see: Bill Cosby’s “What’s a Cubic”)
But if Noah’s Ark was the first cathedral, where is the offsetting “Cathedral in time”? Where is Shabbat and it alternative and aspirational message of the sanctity of time over thing?
Here at the emergence of organized religion where one man; Noah, was chosen from amongst others to lead, where sacrifices were brought and institutional religion and government, with corrupt (or at least, drunk) leaders were born… Where was the reminder that these were all accommodations, that the real ideal, the real prize … was the Shabbat?
Fortunately, there are those like me, who have Shabbat on the mind and who read the story of Noah’s Ark (Genesis 8) and found Shabbat:
ח וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת-הַיּוֹנָה, מֵאִתּוֹ–לִרְאוֹת הֲקַלּוּ הַמַּיִם, מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה.
|8 And he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground.|
ט וְלֹא-מָצְאָה הַיּוֹנָה מָנוֹחַ לְכַף-רַגְלָהּ, וַתָּשָׁב אֵלָיו אֶל-הַתֵּבָה–כִּי-מַיִם, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ; וַיִּשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיִּקָּחֶהָ, וַיָּבֵא אֹתָהּ אֵלָיו אֶל-הַתֵּבָה.
|9 But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him to the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth; and he put forth his hand, and took her, and brought her in unto him into the ark.|
י וַיָּחֶל עוֹד, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים אֲחֵרִים; וַיֹּסֶף שַׁלַּח אֶת-הַיּוֹנָה, מִן-הַתֵּבָה.
|10 And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark.|
יא וַתָּבֹא אֵלָיו הַיּוֹנָה לְעֵת עֶרֶב, וְהִנֵּה עֲלֵה-זַיִת טָרָף בְּפִיהָ; וַיֵּדַע נֹחַ, כִּי-קַלּוּ הַמַּיִם מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ.
|11 And the dove came in to him at eventide; and lo in her mouth an olive-leaf freshly plucked; so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.|
יב וַיִּיָּחֶל עוֹד, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים אֲחֵרִים; וַיְשַׁלַּח, אֶת-הַיּוֹנָה, וְלֹא-יָסְפָה שׁוּב-אֵלָיו, עוֹד.
|12 And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; and she returned not again unto him any more.|
As if the reference to the dove not finding Menucha “rest”, the fact that the name Noach is a cognate of the word rest-menucha and the repeated seven day intervals were not enough, the Rabbis calculated that by the calendar the dove actually landed on Shabbat.
Based on this tradition, we sing a song called Yom Shabbaton attributed to Yehuda Halevi on shabbat afternoon (see verse 11 above “eventide”) which celebrates the magnificence of the Shabbat with a refrain that connects Shabbat to Noah’s Ark:
The day of rest should not be forgotten: On it the dove found rest, there shall rest exhausted ones.
For Halevi, the Shabbat was not only a sanctuary in time; it was also a refuge in time that transcended the daily humiliations and exhaustion of his particular time and space. Shabbat was a weekly refuge from the Inquisition and the indignities of the exile from his beloved land of Zion. (press to hear my favorite melody for this zemer).
For Halevi and for generations of our people, the Shabbat was a life raft…. The Shabbat provided relief not only from a misreading or compromise of the world of the spirit, but more critically, it provided a refuge from physical persecution, poverty, hunger and pain suffered by a people. It was a Jewish boat.
The father of my VERY good friend Eileen Posnik was a Yiddish writer named Usher Penn who lived in Cuba and in 1943 wrote the following poem called Di yiddishe shif. It is about a ship that was not built in time to save the six million, but is a ship… a fleet of ships, that represents the power of an ideal… the ideal of the weekly Shabbat and the ideal of the return to the Jewish homeland. Heschel’s Sanctuary in time, Halevi’s ark of refuge and Penn’s Jewish boats represent that which transcends time and space, institutions and edifices, persecution and insult. In them lies the secret of our survival. After all the necessary accommodations, humiliations and physical and moral exhaustion of the work week and the construction of institutions, structures and states (and associated compromises and accommodations) we need to refresh ourselves with Shabbat menucha …Shabbat rest
The Jewish Boat – Usher Penn 1943
I have learned to design ships
Pleasure ships and warships
Now, after thousands of years, the time has come
To build a ship for the wandering Jews
A wondrous ship, a new design
With all the latest modern techniques
A ship that can swim deep under water
And soar over the stars
A new ship for a very old people
Whom the sea has swallowed more than once,
Hounded from shore to shore
And drowned like disease-ridden rats.
I will build you a ship, my brothers,
Refugees from the Shturme and the St Louis
You, upon whose heads has fallen the rage
Of all the vampires and wild beasts
I will build you a ship,
An entire fleet,
And I will hide it deep it the depths of the sea;
It will come to save you,
When it hears the cry of the ancient wandering Jews.
Di yiddishe shif
Ich hob gelerent tzu shifn, tsu tsaich’nen
Shifn far kreig un far frid’n.
Di tzeit iz shoyn raif
Efshr toizenter yor’n
Tzu boyen a shif
Far farvoglte idin.
A shif gor bazunder
A plan gor a nayer
Loit der letzter technik un modern,
A shif, vos zol shvimen tif unter’n vaser
Un zol kenen oich fliyen
Heit iber di shter’n
A shif gor a naiye
Far a folk gor an alten
Vos hot shoyn nit einmol
In yam zich getrinken,
Getrib’n gevor’n fun alerlay breg’n
Vi kretzike shtoshures
A shif vel ich boyen
Far eich, meine brider
Ir vogler fun “shturme” un fun “st louis”.
Vos oif ayere kep
Iz gefal’n der tzor’n
Fun alle vampir’n
Un chayus royus.
A shif vel ich shaf’n
A flot gor a gantz’n,
Tif oif dem opgrunt
Vel ich im bahalt’n
Er vet kum’n aich dinen
Ven er vet derher’n
Dem ruf fun dem idish’n vogler