From the Bookshelf

Eitan Fishbane, “The Sabbath Soul”

Eitan Fishbane collects for us a series of Hasidic texts on Shabbat. He translates them, and provides extensive notes helping the contemporary reader understand and find meaning in these elusive, fascinating texts. On this erev shabbat I want to share a small excerpt, a teaching from a Hasidic teacher commonly referred to as the Sefat Emet. Many important Jewish teachers are referred to by the title of their book, and I’ll leave you to discover on Wikipedia who the master behind the name really is.

The Sefat Emet is discussing a common Jewish mystical concept – that within each form that we see in the realm of the physical (such as you, me, trees, cars, etc.) there is a spiritual element, a spark of divinity. The result of such a conception is that God is ever-present, yet mostly hidden. Here is what the Sefat Emet has to say regarding this idea and its relation to Shabbat (the translation is Fishbane’s).

And truly all of creation
is just for God’s glory, may God’s name be blessed.
But it is impossible to recognize the Creator,
may God’s name be blessed,
except through the contraction of nature.
Through God’s actions [people] can recognize God;
through the physical concealment,
recognition of God’s Divinity comes to be.

And Shabbat is the recognition of Divinity,
which is the ultimate purpose of creation,
and it is called the purpose/completion
of the heavens and earth (takhlit shamayim va-‘aretz).

The Sefat Emet is saying that one can only recognize God through disregarding the natural world, by attempting “the contraction of nature.” Shabbat is the most conducive time for such revealing of the divinity behind the physical universe. In fact, he emphasizes that Shabbat-consciousness, meaning the attempt to connect with the divine essence of the world, is the whole point of creation. You might think he is suggesting that the purpose of nature is for us to reach a spiritual level where we can discard it and simply interact with the spiritual inner part. Eitan Fishbane’s comment helps us approach this text in a way that I find more appealing and true of my orientation towards nature.

“The physical domain of nature is thus both a vessel for the divine inwardness and an obstacle to ultimate mystical awareness. But isn’t this a counterintuitive claim for those of us who find spiritual majesty in the teva itself, in the stuff of nature? Don’t we stand before the wonders of the natural with the radical amazement that Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke of so passionately? Surely we can say with the naturalist John Muir that the wilderness is a divine temple! The teaching offered by [the Sefat Emet], however, implies that we must train ourselves to see the world through the eyes of spiritual sight. When properly cultivated, the consciousness of the mystic beholds the world not just as a thing of great beauty, but as an embodiment of the sacred. For at the same time that the physical world is a veil of concealment for the divine penimiyut (inwardness), it is also the primary pathway into that inwardness; the garment that hides is simultaneously the door that reveals.” (p. 150)

I’d like to explore a Shabbat practice that takes this beautifully expressed idea of something that simultaneously conceals and reveals and applies it to the self. What habits and circumstances seem to block my growth? How can I approach these blocks and find within them doors through which I can understand myself better? Alternatively, how do see both the beauty in my life and connect it with the sacred, rather than simply appreciate? Shabbat could be a time designated for cultivating appreciation for what is good and beautiful in my life, providing the reservoir of gratitude that can support hard work towards bettering what is broken and ugly the rest of the week.