Heschel on the Joys of Slowness

In 1951, Abraham Joshua Heschel published a monograph titled simply, The Sabbath. It consisted of ten short chapters, comprising of less than a hundred total pages, illustrated with original wood engravings by Ilya Schor.

Early in the book, Heschel establishes the unique importance the Bible places on rest:

“It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word qadosh [a transliteration of the Hebrew term for ‘holy’] is used for the first time: in the Book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: ‘And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.‘ There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed the quality of holiness.”

As Heschel elaborates, this idea was new. In pagan religions, places were holy; a sacred mountain, say, or a deified river. But the Abrahamic faiths found something Godly in a ritual of rest amid the flow of time.

Even here, however, it’s easy to lose the core meaning of this scriptural wisdom. Aristotle identified rest as important for recharging in preparation for more work. As Heschel make clear, this is not at all the purpose of the Sabbath:

“The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work.”

To Heschel, as for the many billions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who have practiced variations of this ancient insight, weekly rest is not about taking a break from the world around us, but instead about experiencing the joys of the world to come. It aims to make the current moment more holy, not to render future moments more efficient.

These are heady ideas, but when viewed from a secularized remove they provide some useful insight into our ongoing discussion about slower notions of productivity. Work is important and good. (Did God not labor for six days of creation before resting on the seventh?) But it’s not everything. When slowing down the pace of our efforts we must, if only occasionally, sidestep instrumentality. Doing less should sometimes be about enjoying the beauty of right now.


Speaking of slower notions of productivity, I wanted to thank everyone who responded to last week’s request to pre-order my new book, Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment without Burnout. On the day of that announcement alone, we sold 800 hardcovers, and dropped the book’s Amazon rank all the way down to #54!

If you haven’t yet pre-ordered the book, please consider doing so. As mentioned last week, I’m offering a collection of bonuses as my way of saying thanks (learn more about pre-ordering and the bonuses here.)

I also wanted to announce an exciting new development: You can now pre-order signed copies of the book from People’s Book, the independent bookstore right down the street from my house. Even if you’ve already purchased Slow Productivity, please consider also ordering a signed copy as a gesture of support to local booksellers. Even better, if you live near Takoma Park, MD, come check out the store in person!

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