Why Sabbath Was Such A Fitting Topic for Oliver Sacks' Final Essay

A few years ago, my dad announced that he had discovered a family relative that none of us knew, living in Pennsylvania. He made contact on Facebook with this long-lost (or more appropriately, heretofore unknown) cousin. They subsequently met in real life, and struck up a correspondence. Although the cousin was my dad’s age, I also added her as a Facebook friend. It was interesting to see, with help from social media, the ways she resembled my dad’s side of the family and the ways she was different.

Reading Oliver Sacks’ final message to the world—an essay in the New York Times on Sabbath—felt similar in a lot of ways to the discovery of a previously unknown relative. Sacks, a neurologist famous for his published case-studies, most notably “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” was raised an Orthodox Jew in England.

Sacks passed away on Sunday of this week, succumbing to cancer, in his adopted home of New York City. He was 82 years old.

In his final essay, “Sabbath,” published two weeks before his death, Sacks reminisced on an early life marked by religious peculiarities that, in many ways, sounded Adventist. Reading the essay made him feel like a (brilliant) older family member I had never known, but with whom I shared much in common—especially the rituals surrounding Sabbath.

We lived in a fairly Orthodox Jewish community in Cricklewood, in Northwest London—the butcher, the baker, the grocer, the greengrocer, the fishmonger, all closed their shops in good time for the Shabbos, and did not open their shutters till Sunday morning. All of them, and all our neighbors, we imagined, were celebrating Shabbos in much the same fashion as we did.

Around midday on Friday, my mother doffed her surgical identity and attire and devoted herself to making gefilte fish and other delicacies for Shabbos. Just before evening fell, she would light the ritual candles, cupping their flames with her hands, and murmuring a prayer. We would all put on clean, fresh Shabbos clothes, and gather for the first meal of the Sabbath, the evening meal."

The essay brought painful reminders of the ways in which religious communities, his and mine alike, have struggled with their gay and lesbian children. Sacks was gay, and his mother reacted to the news the way that many Adventist parents have done.

...the next morning she came down with a look of horror on her face, and shrieked at me: “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.” (She was no doubt thinking of the verse in Leviticus that read, “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: They shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”) The matter was never mentioned again, but her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty."

Sacks described the eventual extinction of religious rites in his adult life in a way that also felt familiar to me. When he became a man, he put the ways of his childhood behind him.

I did not embrace the ritual duties of a Jewish adult—praying every day, putting on tefillin before prayer each weekday morning—and I gradually became more indifferent to the beliefs and habits of my parents…”

But near the end of his life, Sacks experienced what some describe as a second naïveté—a new valuation of Sabbath, if not for its religious necessity, then for its ability to help him come to terms with an impending rest from his life's labors.

Finding breathing difficult, and his body wasting away from cancer that overtook him, Sacks remembered the Sabbath Day:

I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

Rest well, Cousin Oliver. Rest in peace.

READ: From the New York Times, Oliver Sacks, "Sabbath."

Jared Wright is Managing Editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7057

When people know they are ending their time on earth it is quite common to return to memories of childhood; memories that are softened in older age. The ritual and ceremony that were so common are remembered not with the unpleasant times but those that are long buried but come back when days are numbered.

For Sacks, what was not appreciated as a child became more precious as he knew the end was coming. And his memories raised as an Orthodox Jew are even more imprinted than those of many Adventists who may not always have had such strong recollections.

He did not say that his mother ever reconciled to his sexuality. Did he write of a later change in her heart toward him?


Elaine, It is not clear to me that Sacks ever reconciled with his mother, but in his essay, he does note that his family in Israel received him:

…in the spring of 2014, hearing that my cousin Marjorie — a physician who had been a protégée of my mother’s and had worked in the field of medicine till the age of 98 — was nearing death, I phoned her in Jerusalem to say farewell. Her voice was unexpectedly strong and resonant, with an accent very much like my mother’s. “I don’t intend to die now,” she said, “I will be having my 100th birthday on June 18th. Will you come?”

I said, “Yes, of course!” When I hung up, I realized that in a few seconds I had reversed a decision of almost 60 years. It was purely a family visit. I celebrated Marjorie’s 100th with her and extended family. I saw two other cousins dear to me in my London days, innumerable second and removed cousins, and, of course, Robert John. I felt embraced by my family in a way I had not known since childhood.

I had felt a little fearful visiting my Orthodox family with my lover, Billy — my mother’s words still echoed in my mind — but Billy, too, was warmly received. How profoundly attitudes had changed, even among the Orthodox, was made clear by Robert John when he invited Billy and me to join him and his family at their opening Sabbath meal.


Thank-you, Jared. There are so many that have been declared an abomination. But so few have so gracefully avoided that becoming a millstone around their neck. I will search for Bro. Sachs in heaven to thank him.

There are many of us for whom religion has been killed by it’s “capacity for bigotry and cruelty” but have found, in Him, rest:

[quote]Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.
For we which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, As I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.
For he spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, And God did rest the seventh day from all his works. And in this place again, If they shall enter into my rest. Seeing therefore it remaineth that some must enter therein, and they to whom it was first preached entered not in because of unbelief:
Again, he limiteth a certain day, saying in David, To day, after so long a time; as it is said, To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
For if Jesus had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day. There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his. Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.[/quote]

Trust BEing!


There is a renewal and refreshing aspect to the Sabbath. The problem with most Sabbatharians is insisting there is an end time redemptive requirement. In heaven as we learn in Revelation God is worshiped constantly.


Well done, Jared.

Of all his books, I like “Uncle Tungsten” the best.

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Thank you for sharing this, Jared. Sach’s story is bittersweet. He was alienated from a mother whose love seemed conditional and, as a result, he lost the joy and comfort of faith. Less than 10 years before his death he learned to accept his sexuality and experienced the joy of loving and being loved. How beautiful that he ultimately seemed to experience acceptance from at least some of his family in addition to finding value in the Sabbath. Thus he found double rest.

This is a tragic story of how choosing what one believes the Bible says (hard-line literalism) over unconditional love for family can cause them to lose their faith and experience much suffering.


I would like to change one line of your comment if I may.
“It can be a tragic story [of one’s life] of how choosing what one believes the Bible says [hard-line literalism] over unconditional love for one self, can cause one to lose their faith [and believe that they are not loved by God] and experience much suffering.”

Rejection of one’s person by BOTH God and Man can be an awful place to live one’s whole life.
This is the position that many Religions, including the Seventh day Adventist religion places a lot of humans.


At once touching and evocative. Thanks, Jared.

As for religion’s “capacity for bigotry and cruelty,” let me says that it’s important to read sacred texts with attention to their character as stories–narratives that go somewhere, often from exclusion toward embrace. That is certainly true of the Christian Bible. There really IS bigotry and cruelty in the Bible, and there really IS movement toward embrace–of the Other, of all God’s children, of a peace which brings flourishing to all.

Fundamentalists don’t get stories, or at least don’t get the Bible story. So religion, with its stunning capacity to galvanize revolution, often seems rutted and ruthless.

Nobody reads Hebrews 1:1-3. Everybody should, and should then digest its meaning.



Losing Oliver –
An exquisite treasure lost.
Goodbye, Uncle Sacks!


Every week on our way to church, we drive past Orthodox Jews
walking to temple. They walk because
they know that igniting fires (under the hood or elsewhere) on Sabbath is
Sabbath-breaking. (Ex 35:3)

I guess we ride anyway because the General Conference (in session)
has not voted against it.

I remember Sabbath afternoons at old E.M. C. that after peach harvest we would walk through the orchard looking for arrow heads and for tree ripened peaches that the packers has missed. We kept the story of the disciples walking through the grain field in mind.

the best Sabbath afternoon story was the Sabbath that a young lady co worker in the college store and I took a walk along the old inter urban rail bed. we went past the second cut which was deemed off limits for couples. on our return we met the president and son . I was walking with a cane. so I began twirling it like a baton. As we met I said, wonderful Sabbath afternoon. the next day the son said Tom, we had to almost run past the second cut so we could laugh our sides out…Tom Z

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Thank you Jared Wright for reminding us of the legacy that Oliver Sacks left us. The gifts of his understanding and ideas regarding music and the therapeutic benefits it brings, and his Sabbath reflections, reminds me of what a good Mennonite friend told me after he had considered our SDA understanding of the Sabbath doctrine. He said ”As an Adventist you need to take time not only to hear the music but to FEEL it as well. The same with the way you observe the Sabbath rest. You have the right day, you have the right method, and the right reasons, for your Sabbath, now what you need is the right attitude.”
In our subsequent exchange he elaborated by saying that what we’ve lost as Adventists is a correct “attitude” of the rest that God bestows on the Sabbath and, with it, that part of Himself we can know only through stillness. We are so busy on Sabbath, we hardly have time to rest or spend time with God. Oliver Sacks reminded me that the Sabbath stillness I need, as a virtue, is a foreign concept in our society, but there is wisdom in God’s own rhythm of work and rest. Jesus practiced Sabbath among those who had turned it into a dismal thing, a day for murmuring and finger-wagging, a day of frenetic social activity. Jesus reminded us of the day’s true purpose: liberation-to heal, to feed, to rescue, to celebrate, to lavish and relish life abundant, time to commune with God, as Oliver Sacks would remind us, to honor God by truly keeping the Sabbath as rest. Rest in peace Oliver.

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