- The Sabbath Soul: Mystical Reflections on the Transformative Power of the Holy Time by Eitan Fishbane
Spiritual writing is a difficult genre. How do you say simple things in elegant and moving ways, avoiding enigma, tropes, complexities, and bromides? It is the marriage of poetry and prose, with the minefields of each. Do you wish to explain or evoke? To bring it to the reader, or invite the reader to reach it for him or herself? A lapidary style may evoke but not explain well, and prolixity may dull the brilliance of a diamond.
Professor Eitan Fishbane has attempted to provide a hybrid in The Sabbath Soul. He gives us eleven selections from classical Hasidic texts on the mystical nature of the Sabbath in its various aspects in English translation, plus some lovely prayers and meditations from the Bratzlav tradition (also in English translation) to introduce each chapter. Each selection is accompanied by the author’s notes on the facing page, and footnoted references (though too few of them) in the back of the volume.
The chapters take us through the Sabbath experience. The selections include texts dealing with candle lighting, preparation for Shabbat, the garments (white) of Shabbat, immersion, Kiddush, Sabbath meals, the symbol of ḥallah, Sabbath rest, Sabbath consciousness, and music, inter alia. The book begins and ends with the author’s meditations on the beauty and power of the seventh day.
The facing notes, while sometimes merely referential, serve as another vehicle for the author’s excurses. Though they may take us rather far from the text, they sometimes can focus on a particular moment or difficulty and help the reader through it. For example, when one Hasidic master deals with the fact that Sabbath desecration is a capital offense, Fishbane does not retreat from the difficulty this poses for a modern reader but helps place the text in a spiritual and more accessible context.
The translations of the Hasidic and other mystical texts are the author’s own, but although they are quite literal and therefore difficult to read, Fishbane uses his notes to aid the reader in interpretation. The selected texts are obscure in their original Hebrew (or Yiddish), and the literal translation preserves their opacity. A looser translation would have allowed the author to focus more on interpretation and less on explanation. Occasionally, some of the Hebrew text is interpolated into the translation; Hebrew speakers might wish for more of this, especially when the original texts rely on punning or homonymous language.
When the Hasidic texts rely on talmudic, midrashic, or zoharic antecedents, Fishbane provides the context in his notes. Since the texts rely extensively on quotations from this material, a careful [End Page 123] reader must go back and forth between text and commentary.
Fishbane’s notes are more than commentary, though. He regularly departs from explication of text to claim a lectern, and sometimes a pulpit, to present his own meditations and reflections—not always related to the Hasidic text on which it is ostensibly based. We end up learning as much of Fishbane’s spiritual journeys as those of the masters he has brought to us.
Fishbane demonstrates both breadth of scholarship and great depth as a spiritual thinker. But in assuming both roles at the same time, he has asked too much of the reader. If the author wished to present a volume of his original thought, then the selections from the Hasidic masters could have been much shorter and easier to read. Had he chosen to teach more of the method and meaning of the rebbes, he could have reserved his personal reflections for the front and end pieces. As it is, the author intersperses scholarly explanation with homiletics and apologia. He often addresses his collective readership with a proleptic “we”; such a cohortative tone would be better suited to an oral presentation.
These misgivings notwithstanding, this volume is a welcome contribution to students seeking a window into the arcane Hasidic style. As a rabbi serving a congregation, I am particularly appreciative...