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Sabbath

Then there is the Sabbath, the Shabbat, celebrated from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown.

"If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD's holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob." The mouth of the LORD has spoken." (Isaiah 58:13-14)

The principle behind it is simple. God rested on the seventh day after creating the Heavens and the Earth, and so should we. Of course the goalposts have been moved now, and, following Jesus's lead, the Sabbath is not obligatory for Christians.

Then he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." (Mark 2:27)

But this is not the point. The fact is that this most important of all Jewish holidays (Holy Days), as Jesus reminded us, was meant for mankind, for joy, for rest, for family fellowship. Unfortunately, at times, it had become dry ritual and encumbered by volumes of rules and regulations. At the time of Jesus, thousands of these had been created, listing what you can and can't do on this day, surely substituting the joy and the freedom with added unwelcome regimentation.

For religious Jews now, Sabbath is a time for family and friends, a time to pray, to sing songs, to read, to rest from the frantic business of the rest of the week. One thing they don't do is work and thirty nine categories of forbidden tasks have been created to remind them of what they can and can't do on this day. Here they are, without commentary.

Carrying, burning, extinguishing, finishing, writing, erasing, cooking, washing, sewing, tearing, knotting, untying, shaping, ploughing, planting, reaping, harvesting, threshing, winnowing, selecting, sifting, grinding, kneading, combing, spinning, dying, chain stitching, warping, weaving, unravelling, building, demolishing, trapping, shearing, slaughtering, skinning, tanning, smoothing and marking.

Is anything left? It seems an impossible task to keep Sabbath but human beings are by nature adaptable and a Jewish Sabbath lifestyle is perhaps made special by its very difference from the norm. Through these restrictions, the day itself becomes detached from the rest of the week and consequently stands out as a day put aside for God.

For a Christian, the Sabbath, has been curiously moved to a Sunday. It is regarded as the day you go to Church, but, apart from that obligation, generally the secular world has chipped away at Sunday and, in most ways, it has lost much of its specialness and has even become a working day for many (including the clergy, of course!) Perhaps the rules and regulations of the Jewish Sabbath have been more of a blessing than people realise? Perhaps Jews need them for their own good, to keep creeping secularism at bay, to preserve an oasis of holiness away from the pressures and demands of the outside world.

Just compare the two days. There is little special any more about the Christian Sunday "Sabbath". Is it really a day of joy, rest and family fellowship, or is it just another day for work, shopping or the frantic search for entertainment? Yet the Jewish Sabbath, celebrated at the centre of religious life, the Jewish home, has generally successfully cut off the outside world and provided a day that is certainly different from every other day.

This may not be the final word on the matter, neither is it a thorough theological treatment of a massive subject ... but it's worth a thought or two, isn't it?

Steve Maltz
October 2012

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book How the Church Lost the Way)

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