The Jewish Sabbath Drama
“Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to light the lights of Sabbath. ”
Around the world, through the generations, going back many centuries, with these words, the woman of a Jewish household would light two candles and mark the beginning of Sabbath just before sundown on Friday.
After this prayer, family and friends would walk to synagogue for an evening service or host one at home. This would be followed by dinner. To start the dinner, the man of the house would pick up the Sabbath wine glass and recite the Kiddush that gives the reasons for Sabbath:
It was evening and it was morning, the sixth day. So the heavens and the earth were finished, with all their complement. On the seventh day, God had completed His work, which He had undertaken, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work, which He had been doing. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He ceased from all His creative work, which God had brought into being to fulfill its purpose. Blessed are You God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine. Blessed are You God, King of the Universe, who made us holy with Your commandments and favored us, and gave us Your holy Sabbath, in love and favor, to be our heritage, as a reminder of the Creation. It is the foremost day of the holy festivals marking the Exodus from Egypt. For out of all the nations You chose us and made us holy, and You gave us Your holy Sabbath, in love and favor, as our heritage. Blessed are you God, Who sanctifies Sabbath.
A leisurely dinner would then be enjoyed and Sabbath observance would continue until Saturday sundown with other prayers and rituals. And, of course, there is a list of 39 types of actions to be avoided during Sabbath.
As followers of Jesus, we do not keep the Sabbath in this way today.
The Sabbath in the Early Church
The early church wrestled with how much “Jewishness” to keep as the message of Jesus began to draw in many non-Jews. Jews had a strong sense of identity that set them apart from all the peoples around them. They held tightly to their distinctives such as the Torah and the Temple and their practices of kosher, circumcision and Sabbath keeping. Because of the completed and sufficient work of Christ, keeping the rituals is not required.
However, might there be some value behind the ritual?
Sabbath simply means to cease, to stop and to rest. In Biblical times, the Jewish Sabbath of taking a total break from work one day a week was strange to the dominant culture. Some Roman and Greek writers of that era saw this practice as evidence of the laziness of the Jewish people. Thus, it was possible that Gentile Christians in the employ of non-believing Gentiles would have had to work seven days a week making a Jewish style Sabbath observance impossible.
But the teachings of Jesus on this matter gave them and us freedom in how to observe Sabbath. The Gospels recount Jesus clashing with the religious leaders of the day over the Sabbath.
Mark 2:23-28 was emblematic:
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grain fields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
The religious leaders of the day foisted on the people a very legalistic practice of Sabbath. Jesus countered with common sense. In this case, he reminds them that David and his friends were hungry so they were fed. In another incident (Matthew 12:9-14), Jesus told them, you would rescue a sheep that falls in a pit on the Sabbath so I will heal on the Sabbath because a human life is worth so much more.
But Jesus did more than just appeal to common sense, he cited his authority: “The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” This claim of Messianic authority would not have been lost on the religious leaders of the day. And so he exercised his authority to restore the proper interpretation of the Sabbath: “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”
Sabbath in Twenty-First Century
Should we keep Sabbath? And if so, how do we make it holy?
Lauren Winner, who converted from Judaism to Christianity, wrote a book with the title, Mudhouse Sabbath, where she shared how her Jewish roots influence some of the practices in her Christian life. The first chapter of her book was about Sabbath and she describe how she missed, “A true cessation from the rhythms of work and world, a time wholly set apart, and perhaps above all, a sense that the point of Sabbath, the orientation of Sabbath, is toward God.”
Getting us refocused on God is good for us and Sabbath can help. Making it a priority to regularly cease, stop and rest can help us in our life with God.
One of the things God wanted the Jews to remember on Sabbath was that they were delivered from slavery from Egypt and thus a free people.
How important might Sabbath be today?
- How do we cope with the temptation of being workaholics?
- What do we do about 24/7 news on cable TV?
- How eager are we to go to shopping malls that are open every day of the week?
- Would we even consider temporarily disconnecting from instant access to work, information, communication, and entertainment that is available with a mouse click or a cell phone?
- Can we actually ever cease, stop, and rest, willingly?
If we can’t cease, stop, and rest from these things, are we in a sense, slaves to these things?
But rest isn’t just for rest sake so we will be more productive the other days of the week. That may be a benefit of Sabbath rest but that isn’t its purpose. Sabbath is an opportunity to cease our regular activities with the purpose of remembering who God is and to relish the relationship we have with God.
We are free in Christ! Just as God delivered the Israelites from Egypt, Jesus has freed us for the many things that can and do hold us captive. Most importantly, we are forgiven and freed from our sin and alienation from God. Jesus has done the work and he has set us free and we can rest in our belonging to Him! Let us take time to cease, stop and rest so we can cherish this wonderful reality that we are free in Christ.
God wanted the Jews to observe Sabbath also to remember that He is the Creator.
With the recent Academy Awards ceremony, Hollywood takes pride in being the entertainment capital of the world. In California, Apple and other technological companies design and make all sorts of remarkable and wonderful devices. In America where pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps is an iconic image. Good does come out of these things. But does pride sneak into our hearts too?
Sabbath could be a powerful antidote to this. Quoting Lauren Winner again, “I think when we cease creating or interfering with creation for just one day a week, we are reminded powerfully that we are creatures, we are not the Creator.”
Maybe the “old” idea of Sabbath still has something valuable for us in the 21st Century. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” Let us use Sabbath – the intentional decision to cease, to stop and to rest – to help us reflect and remember that God is God and we are not.
May Sabbath not be mere ritual for us, just a day off, but may it be life giving and God honoring. Let us seek the wisdom of God and encourage each other to find practical ways to set aside time to differentiate Sabbath from the rest of the week and make it sweet and beautiful. Each of us has different life situations, so our Sabbaths won’t look alike, but each of us has a need to carve out time to cease, to stop and to rest so we can remember. Whatever it looks like for you, find the answer to this question: how shall we organize our time to serve the cause of remembering?
Consider this beautiful word picture offered by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who said, “Sabbath is a cathedral in time.”
Let’s build those cathedrals in time to meet with our good and gracious God.