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The Sabbath and Capitalism

The Sabbath and Capitalism

“Time is money.” You’ve heard it before. This oft-repeated phrase is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers. Published in 1748, in an essay entitled “Advice to a Young Tradesman,” the maxim was a simple critique on sloth—that is, laziness.

Ezra Leibovitz, a student of comparative literature at Harvard University and a Sabbath-observing Jew, in an article for New Voices—a blog of Jewish student writers that has gained national attention—seems to suggest that the quote belonged to the late British socialist E. P. Thompson, however.

Leibovitz’s piece, “Not All Time Is for Sale: Keeping Shabbat Under Capitalism,” discusses the Sabbath from a predominantly economic standpoint, pitting it against the workings of American capitalism.

It includes the literary musings of Ana Levy-Lyons, a minister of Unitarian Universalism, a vague religion that combines anything from atheism to Christianity—as oxymoronic as that seems. “Levy-Lyons describes Shabbat in fundamental opposition to capitalism,” Leibovitz summarizes. He relates her inner monologue from her book No Other G-ds: The Politics of the Ten Commandments, in which she espouses upon “a persistent feeling of anxiety around Shabbat …, an ‘anxiety [that] never really goes away,’” and in which she states, “[Keeping Shabbat] seems like a dangerous thing to do in our culture. … Can you really stop? [Is] it okay to stop?”

Leibovitz appears to have similar feelings: “When the sun rises on Saturday mornings, I am at once anxious and relieved—today, I do not have a to-do list or any emails to return,” he divulges.


When Time Is Idolized

The reason for their weekly anxiety is the industrial machine that makes time a commodity.

The mechanism of the Sabbath, Shabbat in Hebrew, is what procures time. Leibovitz paints time as freedom. For him “time is boundless” on Shabbat; for him “Shabbat sanctifies time.”

That is most interesting. In contrast, the Bible tells us that the Sabbath does this instead: “Moreover I also gave them My Sabbaths, to be a sign between them and Me, that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them” (Ezekiel 20:12). Time is not what is sanctified; we are. The Sabbath is not what does the sanctifying; God does. God intended for the Sabbath to be that special time in which He does this special work in us.

In fact, it is God who sanctified the Sabbath day itself, not so that we could make time our god but so that we could remember the Creator God, “because in [the Sabbath] He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (Genesis 2:3).

Of his Sabbath hours, Leibovitz writes, “I lie outside in the sun for hours; I call my parents; I read a book for nothing but the pleasure of it. I build, brick by brick, stone by stone, a palace in time.” The phrase “palace in time” is taken from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s work entitled The Sabbath. According to Heschel, the Sabbath is supposed to “[give] us a taste of eternity.” But what is eternity without the God who is eternal? (Deuteronomy 33:27).

Continues Leibovitz, “The day is no longer a collection of hours to be negotiated or traded away, but a temple worth dwelling inside.” His Sabbath palace “offers refuge from the rhythms of the workweek, from exploitation, from systems of capitalist hierarchy. It is a palace with no clock. It is a palace where, together, we are able to create entirely new ways of being.” But is Leibovitz’s palace one that is constructed by his own making, or is it one that God builds for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit? “For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are” (1 Corinthians 3:17).

The article seems to make capitalism out to be the threat; and with capitalism as the enemy, apparently it is time that becomes most precious. God is relegated to a brief inference. From this perspective, God is not glorified; time is.


A Day for God

Oftentimes, the Sabbath can be misunderstood as a list of don’ts and can’ts. Observing the Sabbath means that we “do no work” (Exodus 20:10), that we are not “finding [our] own pleasure” (Isaiah 58:13)—this much is true. But the question is: Why? Why do we not work? Why don’t we find our own pleasure?

We don’t do these things because we are actually doing other things. The Sabbath is not an abstaining. It is not a limitation; and it is certainly not “a means of defiance,” as Leibovitz opines. The Sabbath is meant to “delight yourself in the LORD” (v. 14), “to give thanks to the LORD, and to sing praises to [His] name” (Psalm 92:1). It is a day that acknowledges obedience—that is, obedience to God and God alone—not rebellion.

It is more than a sermon and a potluck lunch, more than putting on good clothes and seeing friends. It is a gift from God in order to spend time with God, for “the Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27).

For a great overview of the Sabbath day, our free, online book Why God Said Remember by Joe Crews will teach you the basics using plain Scripture.

And if you’re looking for ways to enhance your Sabbath observance, read our free article, “Rest in God—Keeping the Sabbath Holy.” Although not an exhaustive list of ideas, it will give you some principles for making this rest day the best day of your week.

These resources are a great place to begin if you wish to keep the Sabbath truly holy in the way the Bible commands us to!

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