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A View of the “SABBATH” Documentary

A View of

The twentieth-century American Jewish rabbi Abraham Heschel famously called the Sabbath “a cathedral in time.” In his new documentary, SABBATH, filmmaker Martin Doblmeier sets out to map that cathedral.

Doblmeier has been making documentaries about religion and its positive impacts on society for almost forty years through his production company, Journey Films. Doblmeier is not Seventh-day Adventist himself but has a close and positive relationship to the Adventist church. He created a trilogy of documentaries about the church: The Adventists (2010), The Adventists 2 (2013), and The Blueprint: The Story of Adventist Education (2014).  

As someone who grew up believing that Adventists had a monopoly on correct Sabbath observation – or, most charitably, shared it with the Jews – I found Doblmeier’s scope in The Sabbath to be refreshingly pluralistic. Despite his enduring interest in Adventism, and the inclusion of Adventist pastors and theologians throughout the documentary, Seventh-day Adventists as a denomination are not named until nearly halfway through the second hour of SABBATH.

Instead, time is divided fairly evenly between Jews and Gentiles, highlighting both those original celebrants of Shabbat and exploring how Christians have variously ignored or embraced understandings of Sabbath rest. Doblemeier is specifically interested in the Sabbath as an American institution: while he features historians and theologians discussing ancient Jewish spiritual practices and the Roman empire’s embrace of Sunday worship, the bulk of the time is spent with American Sabbath practitioners.

The documentary takes us from coast to coast, paying special attention to the ways that marginalized people have valued Sabbath rest. We hear from community organizers and faithful parishioners at a Spanish-language Catholic mass in Los Angeles, pastors of megachurches and humble working-class communities throughout the Midwest and the South, and both Orthodox and Reform Jews in New York City. We spend time on two farms devoted to celebrating creation and promoting ecological rest: Princeton University’s Christian “Farminary,” and the progressive Jewish Abundance Farm in Massachusetts. We also briefly visit a New York mosque for a Friday service; Muslims do not practice Sabbath, the narrator notes, but the Friday Jummah prayer has many similarities.

This eyewitness footage is the most compelling part of the film. At a Bar Mitzvah, young boys carefully read from the Torah in endearingly flat tones before joining the congregants in a joyful dance around their synagogue. At Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Los Angeles, a priest baptizes an adorable array of children in fancy white outfits. Several scenes feature the preparing and sharing of food: wine and challah at the family table, familiar haystacks with friends after church, and the careful harvesting, cooking, and sharing of crops with community members.

While watching, I remarked to my husband that The Sabbath – with its thoughtful talking heads, occasional use of stock footage and archival photography, and wise narrator – feels endearingly old-school, in the style of the documentaries I grew up watching from time to time on The History Channel. The overall tone is positive, even overtly pedagogical. Doblmeier clearly has a great appreciation for Sabbath as a philosophical idea: especially as a response to late-stage capitalism, climate change, and our obsession with technology. “Our ancestors – they understood that a civilization that didn’t stop would destroy itself – and we see the evidence of that all around us,” says Rabbi David Seidenberg, in one segment.

This understanding of the Sabbath is especially prevalent at the Farminary and Abundance Farm. Both farms – one Christian, one Jewish – combine spiritual practice with small-scale, regenerative agriculture. “One of the things that we have been painfully slow to recognize,” says Farminary director Nathan Stucky, “is that our exhaustion, and the exhaustion of the broader creation, are two sides of the same coin.” At Abundance Farm, the farmers practice agricultural rest every seventh year. “The world has to rest from us,” says Seidenberg. “It’s not just us resting from ourselves.”

My favorite segment of the film features Saint Joseph’s Abbey, a community of Trappist monks in Spencer, Massachusetts. Gregorian chants echo in the background as Brother Simeon Leiva-Merikakis explains how life at the monastery is focused around three practices: prayer, work, and spiritual reading, or lecto divina. The monks do nearly everything at the monastery theirselves, from cooking meals and doing laundry to producing incense, clergy robes, and raspberry jam to sell. Wherever they are, however, they regularly cease their labors to gather, sing, and pray, using language and music that is more than a thousand years old.  “All work is important if it is a service done for your brothers and sisters,” reflects Leiva-Merikakis. “So there’s nothing too sublime and there’s nothing too menial.”

The monks’ intentional integration of work and worship also had the effect, for me, of drawing attention to one tension that I wish Doblmeier had been more willing to explore: the labor that frequently undergirds Sabbath celebration.

In the section immediately following the Abbey, we hear from a group of Hasidic Jewish men in Brooklyn who are extremely strict in their religious observance. Orthodox Jews – of which Hasidic Jews are a subset – make up approximately 10% of the American Jewish population.1 More than anything, Orthodox Jews are defined by their Sabbath observance. Rabbi Manis Friedman quotes an old saying: “More than Jews have kept the shabbos shabbos has kept the Jews.”

We witness a weekday meeting at the Hasidic synagogue, where men with long beards and sideburns wearing black hats and long black coats pray using phylacteries, read in Hebrew, and argue over the finer points of Talmudic interpretation. They don’t believe in using electricity in any capacity on the Sabbath – including allowing filming of their services – but Rabbi Mayer Friedman assures the viewer that this service is very similar.

I am struck, immediately, by the total absence of women from this scene. Hasidic Judaism is a notoriously patriarchal sect, and I can’t help but think about these men’s mothers and wives, and the immense amount of cleaning, cooking, and other labor necessary to accommodate total Sabbath “rest,” not to mention hours of study time every weekday evening after work.

Loma Linda University Church pastor Randy Roberts’s understanding of the Sabbath is, of course, much more relaxed. He speaks about growing up with arbitrary rules around what he could or couldn’t do on Sabbath – and focusing instead, as an adult, on the restoration and community observers can enjoy. Still, the film is strangely quiet in regard to the necessary labor happening on Sabbath only footsteps away from Roberts’ church, at the medical center. Even the strictest Adventists routinely make concessions for nurses, doctors, and other essential workers who must take shifts on the Sabbath to keep their patients alive. I would have welcomed a moment spent with one of these workers, reflecting on how their vocation affects their understanding of a day of rest.

And, of course, there are the pastors themselves, and their families: a subject dear to my own heart as an Adventist pastor’s daughter.

Growing up, Sabbath meant extra work and obligations. I helped clean the house, endured hours upon hours of mandatory church services and other religious programming, and aided my mom in cutting out craft projects, making casseroles, and practicing sheet music as she went from her full-time job as an elementary school teacher to her equally demanding role as a pastor’s wife. I quickly became disillusioned by the contrast between the rhetoric of rest and fulfillment, and the knowledge that Saturdays were the busiest and most stressful day of the week for my family.

The first time I remember consistently looking forward to the Sabbath was as a freshman at Andrews University. Finally, I was free from the obligations, from the scrutiny of church members who had opinions on everything from the length of my skirt to my participation in Sabbath school. I could attend church – or sleep in. I potlucked with my friends, read novels on blankets in the grass, went to the beach. I rested. That practice – that love of Sabbath as a space for community, restoration, and pleasure – was what sustained me through graduate school, even as I deconstructed other aspects of my childhood faith.

“In our own contemporary context of the rate race of anxiety,” writes Walter Brueggemann, “the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative.” That vision of Sabbath – one both articulated and witnessed throughout this film – is nothing short of revolutionary.

SABBATH is available online now and will air on PBS stations nationwide beginning June 1.

Notes and References:

[1] Orthodox Jews are theologically and traditionally conservative, and keep the entire Jewish law. Hasidic Jews combine theological and traditional orthodoxy with cultural characteristics of 18th century eastern European Jews, including a distinctive form of dress and the speaking of Yiddish).

Dr. Roschman is a writer, researcher, and public educator who studies contemporary American Christianity, gender, and popular culture. She has a PhD in English from the University of Colorado, Boulder (2022), where she wrote her dissertation: "Identity, Counternarrative, and Community in Progressive Christian Women's Memoir." She has a MA in English from McMaster University (2016), and is a proud graduate of the J. N. Andrews Honors program at Andrews University, where she earned a BA in English and Journalism (2015) and served for two years as a controversial editor-in-chief of The Student Movement. She now works as a Communications Officer in the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

Title Image by Journey Films

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