I am reading Erich Fromm's To Have or to Be?.

I was raised a Christian and I can compare many of his interpretations of concepts from that religion to what was taught to me.

Being very ignorant about Judaism, I normally have to base my understanding of Jewish concepts on the Old Testament as it was taught to me, and maybe on some references in literature and pop colture.

My question here is whether Fromm's views on the concept of the Shabbat as expressed in the following quote from To Have or to Be? would be commonly shared by believers and experts in Jewish law and tradition

The Shabbat is the most important of the biblical concepts, and of later Judaism. It is the only strictly religious command in the Ten Commandments: its fulfilment is insisted upon by the otherwise antiritualistic prophets; it was a most strictly observed commandment throughout 2,000 years of Diaspora life, wherein its observation often was hard and difficult. It can hardly be doubted that the Shabbat was the fountain of life for the Jews, who, scattered, powerless, and often despised and persecuted, renewed their pride and dignity when like kings they celebrated the Shabbat. Is the Shabbat nothing but a day of rest in the mundane sense of freeing people, at least on one day, from the burden of work? To be sure it is that, and this function gives it the dignity of one of the great innovations in human evolution.

Yet if this were all that it was, the Shabbat would hardly have played the central role I have just described. In order to understand this role we must penetrate to the core of the Shabbat institution. It is not rest per se, in the sense of not making an effort, physically or mentally. It is rest in the sense of the re-establishment of complete harmony between human beings and between them and nature. Nothing must be destroyed and nothing be built: the Shabbat is a day of truce in the human battle with the world. Even tearing up a blade of grass is looked upon as a breach of this harmony, as is lighting a match… On the Shabbat one lives as if one has nothing, pursuing no aim except being, that is, expressing one’s essential powers: praying, studying, eating, drinking, singing, making love. The Shabbat is a day of joy because on that day one is fully oneself.

This is the reason the Talmud calls a Shabbat the anticipation of the Messianic Time, and the Messianic Time the unending Shabbat : the day on which property and money as well as mourning and sadness are tabu; a day on which time is defeated and pure being rules. The historical predecessor, the Babylonian Shapatu, was a day of sadness and fear. The modern Sunday is a day of fun, consumption, and running away from oneself. One might ask if it is not time to re-establish the Shabbat as a universal day of harmony and peace, as the human day that anticipates the human future.


1 Answer 1


There's certainly nothing in that quotation that traditional attitudes towards Shabbat would find objectionable. It's perfectly fine that each generation will have a slightly different angle on the philosophical approach to the day; former Senator Joseph Lieberman recently wrote a book on what it meant to him.

We keep it because God commanded; and the quote above about how it's physically observed basically got right that "keep the Shabbat" traditionally included things like not uprooting a single blade of grass. At that point, if Fromm's way of thinking about it works for you, that's great.

I will point out in support of Fromm that Hebrew has no word for "have", only "to be." I have a car in Hebrew is yesh li mechonit -- "there exists to me a car." She had a car would translate literally as "it was to her a car."

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