Thanksgiving: An American Sabbath

Keith Ruckhaus (c) 2014

Whether one believes in the God of the Bible or takes into consideration any of the injunctions therein, America has haphazardly fallen into or been dubiously tricked into trying out one of His commands with amazing success. For this, I give thanks.

Like America, the ancient Israelites turned a common harvest festival into a national observance. We call it Thanksgiving; they called it Sabbath.  The term, Sabbath, basically means to cease, but it particularly targets a work stoppage. Taking a day off from work hardly seems radical, but the biblical writers understood the implications to be far reaching. Walter Brueggemann, a distinguished Hebrew Bible scholar, suggests as much in the title of his recent book: Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now.

The Sabbath command is centered in the Ten Commandments and gets at the heart of its concerns—the well-being of humans. Specifically, Sabbath calls for a cessation of production. As simple and crude as ancient sedentary life might be imagined, the ancients were as tempted as us to never shut down the market, lest opportunity be lost or disaster await.   The Sabbath command encourages both the producers and those controlling production to periodically halt the production of “goods” for the good of all.

Abraham Heschel, a well-known Jewish scholar of the twentieth century, understood a national work-stoppage as a critical aspect of surviving human civilization.  It is a “fight for inner liberty” a bold declaration of independence “from domination of things as well as from domination of people.”

The implications of the Sabbath command work their way into numerous injunctions found in the Torah: providing for the poor, debt forgiveness, restoration of property seized in bankruptcy, cancellation of conscripted labor, clemency for immigrants, and reprieve for the natural environment.

Lest we think this command overly idealistic or charming, it was highly combative at times in history toward zealous business interests and empire builders.

The Sabbath, of course, was to be observed once a week, but extensions of it were to be observed annually and every seventh and fiftieth year.  Americans abandoned a weekly shut down of the economic engine when it ended the “blue laws” in the 1960s.  I still remember how odd it felt to go to the mall for the first time on a Sunday. Now, we have non-stop, round-the-clock markets that never cease, even when we are sleeping.

 Like no other day in our hard-driving, capitalistic American life, however, we have managed to retain a subversive vestige of Sabbath’s radical core.

For at least one day of the year, we shut down the Market and governments for no other reason than to pause long enough to reflect. Thanksgiving has no overt religious overtones. There is no divine command for it. One can thank God if one wishes, but it is not required. Although, it would be courteous to at least thank your dinner host.

It has little overt economic or ethnic overtones as well. Both rich and poor observe a day off and a good meal as do nearly every ethnic or religious enclave. Organizations of all kinds ensure that everyone should be well-fed on that day. For at least one day (there should be more, but it is at least a start) we actuate the ideal that it is really better for all us if everyone has enough.

 Like Sabbath, Thanksgiving is a day when we turn off the record that says, “don’t stop till you get enough.” Instead, we stop and say “enough.” For now and for this day I will be satisfied.

Even more radical and scary, we might let our guard down long enough to appreciate our family, our friends, our neighbors, and perhaps even our adversaries. If we take a deep enough breath, we catch a glimpse of a world still full of wonder and goodness that does not require our industrious hand.

 I hope that Americans keep celebrating Thanksgiving, even if the God of the Bible hoodwinked one over on us. For at least one day, we make an attempt at being full of thanks, rather than full of self. We declare independence from our greed and self-absorption. Perhaps the idea might grow on us, and we extend the observance and its radical social implications throughout the year.





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