A new documentary takes a deep dive into the ancient and modern practice of Sabbath

Martin Doblmeier's latest documentary takes viewers to various religious communities to illustrate their Sabbath practices.

Anna Serviansky, left, is camp director and head of education for Ramah Darom, a Jewish summer camp, shown here in the documentary “Sabbath.

(RNS) — In his book “The Sabbath,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that Jews did not build great cathedrals into space. Their great accomplishment was a cathedral in time — the Shabbat, or 24-hour period of rest.

“Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time,” Heschel wrote.

That cathedral in time is part of filmmaker Martin Doblmeier’s latest two-part documentary called “Sabbath.” The two-hour film begins airing on PBS stations June 1 but is already available to stream on his journeyfilms.com website.

Filmmaker Martin Doblmeier. Photo courtesy Journey Films

Filmmaker Martin Doblmeier. Photo courtesy Journey Films

As in his previous documentaries, Doblmeier has recruited an A-list of theologians, scholars and clergy to offer their insights, historical, theological and sociological.

The Sabbath first appears in the biblical story of creation where God “rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.” Observance of the Sabbath is also one of the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it Holy.”

But the documentary is not overly concerned with theology. The film consists of travels to various religious communities to illustrate their Sabbath practices — from the headquarters of Chabad, the Hasidic sect in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to a Seventh-day Adventist church in Loma Linda, California, to the predominantly African American Eastern Star Church led by Indianapolis Pastor Jeffrey A. Johnson.

Doblmeier may be best known for his public television specials on Reinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day and Abraham Joshua Heschel, part of the “Prophetic Voices” series. In addressing religious subjects, Doblmeier is both ecumenical and interfaith, bringing a respectful and deferential lens to his subjects. He includes a segment on Islam’s Friday noontime jumah prayer, so central to the faith and in some ways similar to a Sabbath.

RELATED: Abraham Joshua Heschel was a spiritual radical. A new documentary shows he’s more timely than ever

RNS spoke to Doblmeier about the making of “Sabbath” and how he tried to explore religious as well as secular benefits to the biblical day of rest. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Why did you want to do a two-part series on the Sabbath?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Photo © Susannah Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Photo © Susannah Heschel

Rereading “The Sabbath” in preparation for doing the film on Heschel sparked some thinking about the idea. It was an interesting universal topic. Doing films for public television, we’re looking for religious topics that can reach a broad audience. The notion of organized, institutionalized, mandated rest was something I felt everyone in the culture needed. As we unpacked the story and did the research, we discovered groups and organizations calling for a one-day-a-week “tech Sabbath” from cellphones and laptops. So it not only applies to people who gravitate to a religious expression of their beliefs, but also to those who are a-religious but are looking for a way to step out of the culture and do it routinely. For all those factors, Sabbath was a good topic. We filmed it at the tail end of the pandemic. We were able to witness people filtering back into the pews. That was a good sign that maybe the Sabbath will bring them back into congregational life again.

Several segments of the documentary feature religious communal farming — both at Princeton Theological Seminary’s Farminary and at Abundance Farm, a Jewish food project in Northampton, Massachusetts. What’s the connection with Sabbath?

The notion of Sabbath is rooted in the story of creation. On the seventh day God rested. Discovering people in Princeton, New Jersey, who, as part of a theological tradition, wanted to teach farming to a new generation of pastors, was a wonderful connection. Whatever they draw from the land they replenish back into the land. This is part of God’s creation and the Sabbath story. In Massachusetts at Abundance Farm, it’s not just the notion that we have to rest, but we have to rest from our involvement and engagement in the world. The world needs to rest from us. That’s the underlying theme. It’s part of the story of the Sabbath.

“Sabbath" poster. Image courtesy Journey Films

“Sabbath” poster. Image courtesy Journey Films

Many of the people you interviewed seemed to evolve in their thinking about Sabbath. Tell me about one.

We were out in Los Angeles and spent a week at Our Lady Queen of Angels. La Placita is the name of the church. The priest does eight Masses and 60 baptisms over the course of the weekend. He came to me and said, ‘Thank you for making me think of Sabbath. I hadn’t thought about it deeply, and this has forced me to go back and revisit my own tradition.’ Sure enough, he preached on Sabbath while we were there. In a small way, if we can get people to connect the dots and to think about creation and themselves and rest hopefully we can contribute in some small way to what’s happening in the culture.

In one part of the documentary you talk to college students at Berkeley who came from Sabbath-observing homes, but now they’re on their own. Why did you include them?

If you’re raised in a particular tradition, once you get to that age range —18, 20, 22 — you have to make your own choices. Does the Sabbath as a practice work for you? We didn’t want to shy away from the fact that people are struggling over that. We wanted to look at the reality that in a 24/7 world and especially a competitive world, these young people do it sometimes, but not all the time. I thought that was admirable. It’s not easy to put down your cell phone or your books or to walk away from a job. That word ‘trust’ came up over and over again. Can you trust that if you put down the work for a day that your coworker will not jump ahead in line? That’s not the way most of us think today. We think we have to be in the fight.

A still of students studying in Brooklyn, New York, in the documentary “Sabbath." Image courtesy Journey Films

A still of students studying in Brooklyn, New York, in the documentary “Sabbath.” Image courtesy Journey Films

Some people have described Sabbath as countercultural — a defiant or even rebellious act. Do you agree?

Susannah Heschel, the daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel, talked about being raised in the Heschel household. He was known as a great champion of civil rights, friend of Martin Luther King Jr. He was on the front lines in Selma, campaigned to end the war in Vietnam, championed Soviet Jews. But on Shabbat, Susannah Heschel says, her family didn’t talk about those things. It was not appropriate. And I thought, there’s a lesson here. It’s the willingness to let your soul have a day off. To be able to commit to not thinking or talking about those things that can be divisive, disruptive or argumentative. To let your soul have a day of rest is just as valuable as engaging in public communal worship. It’s absolutely vital, especially in the culture today.

RELATED: The science of Sabbath: How people are rediscovering rest—and claiming its benefits


Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!