As a boy in late-1940s Memphis, my dad got a nickel every Friday evening to come by the home of a Russian Jewish immigrant named Harry Levenson and turn on his lights, since the Torah forbids lighting a fire in your home on the Sabbath. My father would wonder, however, if he were somehow sinning. The fourth commandment says that on the Sabbath “you shall not do any work–you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.” Was my dad Levenson’s slave? If so, how come he could turn on Levenson’s lights? Were they both going to hell?
“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” The commandment smacks of obsolete puritanism–the shuttered liquor store, the check sitting in a darkened post office. We usually encounter the Sabbath as an inconvenience, or at best a nice idea increasingly at odds with reality. But observing this weekly day of rest can actually be a radical act. Indeed, what makes it so obsolete and impractical is precisely what makes it so dangerous.
When taken seriously, the Sabbath has the power to restructure not only the calendar but also the entire political economy. In place of an economy built upon the profit motive–the ever-present need for more, in fact the need for there to never be enough–the Sabbath puts forward an economy built upon the belief that there is enough. But few who observe the Sabbath are willing to consider its full implications, and therefore few who do not observe it have reason to find any value in it.
The Sabbath’s radicalism should be no surprise given the fact that it originated among a community of former slaves. The 10 Commandments constituted a manifesto against the regime that they had recently escaped, and rebellion against that regime was at the heart of their god’s identity, as attested to in the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” When the ancient Israelites swore to worship only one god, they understood this to mean, in part, they owed no fealty to the pharaoh or any other emperor.
William R. Black, « Let’s bring back the Sabbath as a radical act against the always-on economy », Fast Company, 14 sept. 2018.