Achad HaAm (Asher Ginzburg), Shabbat and Zionism (1898)
(1856–1927) Hebrew essayist, known as the founder of cultural Zionism.
One need not be a Zionist or scrupulous about the commandments in order to recognize the value of Shabbat . . . One who feels in his heart a true tie with the life of the nation throughout the generations will not be able to imagine the Jews without the “Shabbat Queen,” even if he does not acknowledge a world to come or a Jewish State. One may say without exaggeration, that more than the Jews have maintained the Shabbat, the Shabbat has maintained the Jews. And were it not for the Shabbat restoring the “souls” of the people and renewing their spiritual lives each week, the hardships of the workweek would pull them down lower and lower until they would descend to the very lowest levels of “materialism,” and ethical and intellectual inferiority.
Foundations for Planning
- How can my actions make time sacred?
- How do Jewish cycles shape our lives?
- What makes time holy?
- Why are holidays, rituals, customs, important to me, my family, and my community?
- How do family traditions play an important role in our lives?
- How do Jewish rituals and practices enrich the way I experience my life and the world?
- Why/how might Jewish practices be meaningful for me even if I don’t define myself as “religious”?
- How does being Jewish affect what I do in my daily/weekly life?
- How do I connect to my community?
- What makes a strong Jewish community?
- How do Jewish practices reflect Jewish values?
- How do Jewish rituals and practices enrich the way I experience my life and the world
- What is the value of observing shabbat if you do not believe in shabbat as a divine command?
- How has shabbat impacted Jewish history and Jewish civilization?
- What impact can shabbat have on our family life?
- What impact can shabbat have on our Jewish community?
- Do you feel shabbat is mostly about individual restrictions or encouraging family and community building?
- What might a ‘secular shabbat’ look like for you?
Achad HaAm (Asher Ginzburg), Shabbat and Zionism (1898) The role of shabbat in a secular Jewish state: Part of the many discussions that took place in the 100 years of Zionist writing prior to the establishment of the State of Israel was what role...
Achad HaAm (Asher Ginzburg), Shabbat and Zionism (1898)
The role of shabbat in a secular Jewish state: Part of the many discussions that took place in the 100 years of Zionist writing prior to the establishment of the State of Israel was what role Judaism would play in this new state, if any. Of course views range from the State being completely void of any semblance of Judaism in it to the State being run according to the strict dictates of the halakhah. Achad HaAm, was born in Russia to pious well-to-do Hasidic parents. His father, Isaiah, sent him to heder until he was 12. As an adult, he was not particularly observant of the mitzvot; nonetheless, he argued that regardless of any other feature of the Jewish State, it was imperative for the new state to make sure that the Shabbat remains a fixed element of that new state.
Shabbat protects Jewish identity, spirituality, and ethics: In explanation for why he felt so strongly about the need to preserve the Shabbat, Achad HaAm says, “more than the Jews have maintained the Shabbat, the Shabbat has maintained the Jews.” And how has the Shabbat maintained the Jews? The Shabbat, as a day one does not pursue monetary wealth and material gain, has kept the Jews from descending “to the very lowest levels of ‘materialism,’ and ethical and intellectual inferiority.” A Jew should strive to maintain a certain level of ethics and intellectual standards. This will allow a Jew to fully reflect on their existence, an exercise that lends itself to those who have “a true tie with the life of the nation throughout the generations.” Anyone who sees themselves as a part of the Jewish people ought to value the Shabbat and its contribution to preserving the identity of the people for so long by allowing them the time and the encouragement to pursue in life more than just the needs of the flesh, but also the needs of the spirit.
For Achad HaAm, this gain is so obvious that one need not be a Zionist to appreciate it. One does not need to have any special dedication to the Jews as a people to understand the significant role Shabbat plays in the life of this nation. Nor does one need to be scrupulous about the commandments in order to recognize the value of Shabbat. Even if in the rest of one’s life one is far from being a traditional (or even a less traditional) follower of a halakhic lifestyle, continuing to observe the Shabbat as it has been practiced for so many generations is of clear benefit. Continuing this one particular and familiar tradition will contribute to the Jews preserving who they are and who they need to be in the world.
Rabbi Janet Burden, Shabbat – The Heart of Jewish Life (2006)
Making shabbat sacred time through its limitations: Burden echoes Achad HaAm’s concept that Shabbat has kept the Jews by being a reminder of the Covenant between God and the Jews. What is special about Burden echoing this sentiment is that Liberal (or Reform) Judaism has long argued that Judaism is less in need of ritual and symbolic acts and must instead emphasize the ethical in its religious life. Acknowledging Shabbat’s place in the preservation of the Jews in history is not a small matter for one who teaches that “[ethical] monotheism is indisputably the foundation of Judaism.”
In Burden’s words one can also hear echoes of the philosophy of Heschel (see the Shabbat as a Taster of the World to Come block), who speaks of Shabbat as being sacred time. Burden speaks of how the rules established by the tradition help to set Shabbat off from the other days of the week to be that sacred time. Indeed, she helps one make a switch in their mind when she suggests that the Shabbat restrictions established by the halakhah may be taken as being liberating rather than confining – because one cannot involve oneself in weekday activities, the freedom of Shabbat can be experienced.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Reinforcing community and Family
The sociological impact of shabbat: In this text Rabbi Jonathan Sacks articulates the sociological impact that shabbat observance has on the great Jewish institutions of the family and the community. Shabbat brings Jewish people together to remind them about the higher plane of existence as part of a ‘we’ rather than existing solely as an ‘I’. Synagogue attendance with its communal prayers and Torah study brings individual Jews together as a community each week. and shabbat is possibly the only day of the week for many families where they come together as a family for ‘sacrosanct’ family time. The extent to this impact for the positive can only be guessed, but he does share an anecdote when he brought Britain’s leading expert on child care, Dr. Penelope Leach, to a Jewish primary school to witness the weekly reenactment of the family shabbat rituals. Dr Leach was fascinated with what she saw, and turned to Rabbi Sacks and exclaimed that the institution of shabbat was saving the institution of the Jewish family.
The Shabbat Project is a Jewish grassroots social movement designed to bring the Jewish people together in an annual celebration of Shabbat observance. Started in 2013 in South Africa by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, today, Jews in over 1,688 cities get together annually to experience the magic of Shabbat. Use one (or more) of the following suggested videos from the Shabbat Project as a trigger for your students to consider some of the benefits to shabbat observance they may not have thought of that are mentioned in these videos:
Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.
Ahad Ha’am’s approach to shabbat is best summed up in his famous quote “more than the Jews have maintained (kept/observed) the Shabbat, the Shabbat has maintained (kept/observed) the Jews”. His approach to shabbat (and Judaism in general) is cultural rather than religious. He presents us with a reason to be Jewish and engage in Jewish ritual and traditions, even if not from a position of faith or religious commitment. These questions may help in discussing his approach:
- What does it mean that Shabbat has “maintained the Jews”?
- What reason is there to observe shabbat if you do not believe in God or divine command?
- What personal benefit to shabbat observance could there be apart from the religious or spiritual dimension?
- Ahad Ha’am speaks about one who feels a “true tie with the life of the nation throughout the generations”. Why is this important and how can shabbat help with it?
- According to Ahad Ha’am, shabbat observance helps to prevent one from descending “to the very lowest levels of “materialism,” and ethical and intellectual inferiority.” How do you think it can do this?
Rabbi Janet Burden believes that while ethical monotheism is the essence of Judaism, on its own it would not have been enough to sustain the Jewish people throughout the years of exile. In this she echoes the approach of Ahad Ha’am. For her shabbat is a chance to create sacred time as a sign of a covenantal relationship with God where we cease our weekday ‘business and busyness’ and carve out opportunities for gratitude for all we have, and to enjoy time with our loved ones and our community, connecting to them and to God through song, study and prayer. You may wish to use these questions to explore these themes with your students:
- What is the essence of Judaism according to this text?
- How does shabbat fit into this?
- What benefits are there to shabbat observance according to Rabbi Burden?
- How does her approach compare to that of Ahad Ha’am?
We have seen Rabbi Sacks’ philosophy of shabbat in previous blocks where he takes a socio-economic-environmental approach to the benefit of shabbat as an institution. But in this text he highlights a different benefit to shabbat observance – the strengthening of the Jewish institutions of the family and community. These questions may help explore these themes with your students:
- What does it mean that the family and community are “Judaism’s great institutions”?
- How does shabbat “sustain” them?
- What does it mean to be part of the “We” rather than the “I”? Why is this important? How does shabbat help achieve this?
- On what basis can we claim that shabbat is saving Jewish marriages?
- It would be an interesting assignment/in-class activity to create an online survey (using Google Forms or Survey Monkey or another similar online questionnaire platform) to research shabbat observance in your community. The aim of this activity is to find out how and why people in the community observe shabbat. This will allow your students to compare their findings to the ideas they have found in this block (and the other blocks in this house) that they have seen.
- The questionnaire should be anonymous (and this should be clearly stated in any written introduction to it).
- The findings of the research should be presented in a short presentation to the class.
- Questions that could be asked as part of their research could be:
- On a scale of 1-10, how observant of shabbat would you say you are?
- How often to you observe shabbat in your home:
- Every week
- Regularly, but not every week
- Approximately once a month
- Which of the following reasons best describes the reasons behind your shabbat observance (you can choose more than one):
- Because it is a mitzvah from God
- Because of social pressure (e.g. from community/the rabbi/my parents)
- To reconnect to my Jewish community
- To spend good quality time with my family
- To take a break from technology
- Because I need a rest from the pressures of the work-week
- other (please specify)
- Short answer question: In a few brief sentences, explain what you think the most important benefits to you are of your shabbat observance.
- Another possible activity or assignment could be to have your students write a fictitious interview with one of the authors we have looked at in this block (ask them to choose the one that spoke to them the most) about what their weekly shabbat experience looks like (bearing in mind the philosophy of shabbat they are articulating). If they work in pairs, this could also be an opportunity for creativity for students, who could video an interview with one of them playing the role of the author.