Stop Look Lis­ten: Cel­e­brat­ing Shab­bos Through a Spir­i­tu­al Lens

Nehemia Polen

By – November 7, 2022

In his intro­duc­tion, Nehemia Pollen argues that Abra­ham Joshua Heshel’s book, The Sab­bath—pub­lished over six­ty years ago — must be aug­ment­ed and its focus expand­ed.” The author sets out to do just that, by way of exten­sive the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal dis­cus­sions of prac­tices, objects and spaces” per­tain­ing to Shab­bat. He lib­er­al­ly incor­po­rates mys­ti­cal aspects of the Zohar and Chas­sidic insights that he believes will com­ple­ment Jews’ spir­i­tu­al approach to the spe­cial day.

Despite the age-old his­to­ry of his sub­ject mat­ter, Pollen writes as a man of con­tem­po­rary times, and he speaks often of being present in the moment,” clear­ing the mind of oth­er thoughts,” and mov­ing with inten­tion­al­i­ty. Qual­i­ties and val­ues like these, he thinks, are more per­ti­nent to Shab­bat obser­vance than what takes place dur­ing the week­days; since the lat­ter are typ­i­cal­ly inun­dat­ed with con­cerns of busi­ness and busy­ness” and fre­net­ic rush­ing,” they are not eas­i­ly giv­en over to spir­i­tu­al living.

Music is very much part of Pollen’s pre­sen­ta­tion. Not only does he devote an entire sec­tion to the art and con­tents of nigun, but he cites Sefat Emet, the first Ger­er Rebbe, who wrote, Melody is inher­ent­ly con­nect­ed with time. Every day has its own song; each day’s inno­v­a­tive vital­i­ty (Hitchad­shut) imparts the new melody … On Shab­bat we already live in redeemed time, and we can enter the musi­cal mode of the eschaton … ”

Through­out the book, Pollen notably draws on source mate­r­i­al from Jews — both obser­vant and sec­u­lar — and non-Jews alike. Ref­er­ences include Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great Amer­i­can Cities; Michael Palonyi’s Per­son­al Knowl­edge: Towards a Post-Crit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy; Frank Kermode’s The Sense of End­ing: Stud­ies in the The­o­ries of Fic­tion; and Paul Woodruff’s Rev­er­ence: Renew­ing a For­got­ten Virtue.

Stop Look Lis­ten will enhance the expe­ri­ence of observ­ing Shab­bat, regard­less of one’s cur­rent practice.

Yaakov (Jack) Biel­er was the found­ing Rab­bi of the Kemp Mill Syn­a­gogue in Sil­ver Spring, MD until his retire­ment in 2015. He has been asso­ci­at­ed with Jew­ish day school edu­ca­tion for over thir­ty years. R. Biel­er served as a men­tor for the Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty Look­stein Cen­ter Prin­ci­pals’ Sem­i­nar and he has pub­lished and lec­tured exten­sive­ly on the phi­los­o­phy of Mod­ern Ortho­dox education.

Discussion Questions

Books on Shab­bat are legion, Many offer a spir­i­tu­al take on how to encounter the day, while oth­ers enu­mer­ate the halakhic specifics that guide the obser­vant Jew through a Shab­bat prac­tice. But Dr. Nehemia Polen has cre­at­ed a new addi­tion to the Shab­bat pan­theon, one that speaks to the spir­i­tu­al and halakhic in the same breath, while bring­ing in count­less oth­er sources to enliv­en how the read­er can con­sid­er Shab­bat. A small but notable moment that defines Dr. Polen’s cre­ativ­i­ty and omniv­o­rous intel­lec­tu­al atti­tude is when he speaks about how Jane Jacobs’ con­cep­tion of the ide­al city life can help us bet­ter under­stand the local” aspect of Shab­bat– how it can root us in a com­mit­ment to a hyper-spe­cif­ic place. Dr. Polen mar­shals sec­u­lar and sacred sources and forges them into a sym­phon­ic man­i­festo: how sea­soned Shab­bat observers and new­com­ers alike can come to a renewed appre­ci­a­tion of this sacred day. By the end of the book, read­ers can rel­ish in a deep­er under­stand­ing of Shab­bat, one that can enrich the life of any Jew.