The word Sabbath
has its origins in the Hebrew word shabbat
from a root meaning "to cease, desist, or rest." In both
and modern Judaism, the observance of the Sabbath has been regarded as
a sacred and inviolable duty. Over the centuries the
relatively simple Biblical concept of a weekly day of rest has been
increasingly embellished with the prohibitions, rituals and ceremonies
of rabbinical tradition, but the essential spirit of the Sabbath-rest
remains unchanged. This paper will briefly consider three
significant aspects of Sabbath observance: firstly, its
origins; secondly, its modern-day practice among the adherents of
Judaism; and lastly, the question of whether or not the Sabbath should
be observed by Christians today.
In Scripture, the concept of the seventh day of the week as a time of
rest from work is introduced early -- indeed, as early as Creation
itself. Genesis 2:2,3 tells us that "By the seventh day God
finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested
from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made
holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had
done." Of course, an infinite and immortal God has no physical need of
rest as humans do; rather, He was deliberately setting a precedent for
His creatures. "For in six days the LORD made the heavens and
earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh
day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy." (Ex.
20:11) If God Himself is prepared to observe a Sabbath-rest,
certainly no mere mortal being dare balk at doing likewise.
The formal institution of the Sabbath did not occur, however, until
many centuries after creation. It is first mentioned in Exodus 16:23,
where Moses explains to the Israelites in the wilderness that on the
sixth day of the week they are to gather and prepare enough manna for
two days instead of the customary one. On the seventh day
are not to gather manna, for none will be given them. Rather,
they are to remain where they are and rest (vs. 29-30), eating the
manna they have stored up in advance. Although the Sabbath is
named and instituted in this passage, it did not immediately receive
its full formal significance, for the violation of the Sabbath by some
of the Israelites earned them no more than a verbal rebuke (vs. 28-29).
Later, however, the Sabbath was explicitly codified in the Mosaic Law,
even receiving a central place in the Decalogue: "Remember
Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and
all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God.
On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter,
nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien
within your gates." (Ex. 20:9-10) The keeping of
Sabbath was a sacred sign between God and Israel, a day "holy to the
Lord" (Ex. 31:12-17) and violation became punishable by death (Ex.
35:2). When a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath
contrary to the Lord's command, he was stoned to death by the community
(Num. 15:32-36). Thus it was clear from the very beginning
this day of rest was not to be taken lightly.
In addition to abstaining from work during the Sabbath, the Israelites
were to remember their slavery in Egypt and the Lord's deliverance
(Deut. 5:15). In the Tabernacle on this day, fresh cakes of
shewbread were set in order before the Lord (Lev. 24:5-8) and a burnt
offering was made consisting of two year-old unblemished male lambs and
a measure of fine flour mixed with oil. This was all the
required of the Israelites by the Torah.
Today, however, the Sabbath ritual is considerably more
complicated. As traditions developed among the Jews of the
Diaspora, they were gradually incorporated into the general Sabbath
procedure. Departing from the simplicity of the Torah, the Jewish
people added rabbinical strictures and ceremonies to the Sabbath until
it reached its present complex and demanding form.
despite the difficulties involved, observant Jews look toward the day
with warm anticipation, hailing it in cabalistic fashion as a "bride"
and as "Queen Sabbath". It is a time for cultivating family
and for forgetting the cares of the workday, as well as the day on
which Jews attend synagogue services.
Although variations on Sabbath observance exist among the branches of
Judaism and even among families, the basic pattern is
The Sabbath begins on Friday at sundown and lasts until sundown on
Saturday, but preparation for the Sabbath begins well in
The majority of Sabbath activity is carried out in the home, so Friday
is a day of hard work by the women of the household as they shop and
prepare. All cooking and baking for the Sabbath day must be
completed before the Sabbath begins, so the Jewish home is a hive of
activity in the morning and afternoon. In addition to the
preparation of food, the house is likely to receive a thorough
cleaning. Fortunately for the housewife, the men of the house
assist her in this task.
On Friday afternoon everyone puts on their best clothing, and mundane
items like money, tools and utensils, which might remind them of
weekday work, are hidden from view. The table is covered with
white cloth and set with the necessary items for the Sabbath
meal: the two challot (braided loaves) in their embroidered
cover, a bottle of wine and a goblet, candlesticks and candles, and in
some homes, Sabbath flowers. After a coin is dropped into the
charity box, the wife of the house ushers in the Sabbath by lighting
the two candles on the table. Shielding her eyes from the flickering
flames, she recites a prayer of blessing on the family, opening her
eyes only after the benediction has been pronounced. Now the
Sabbath has truly begun.
The father of the house lays his hands upon his sons, blessing them
with the words, "May God make you like unto Ephraim and
Manasseh." His daughters are similarly greeted, "May God make
like unto Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah." This blessing is
followed by a priestly benediction and a personal prayer of the
father's choice. Turning to his wife, the man praises her
the recitation of Proverbs 31: "An excellent wife, who can
find? For her worth is far above jewels..."
Gathering around the table, the family then prepares to take the first
Sabbath meal. The Kiddush
a prayer for the sanctification of the Sabbath, is recited over the cup
of wine, and everyone has a taste. The man of the house then blesses
the loaf with the Ha-Mosi'
and hands out pieces of challah bread to everyone present.
or Sabbath table-hymns, are joyfully sung. These are songs of
cheer, light-hearted and pleasant to celebrate the day. The
part of the meal is set upon the table, and the family helps themselves
to tasty portions of special Sabbath foods like Gefilte (stuffed) fish
and Kugel (pudding). In the past a Sabbath guest, usually a poor Jew,
was invited to share the meal. After the meal, the family
together at home, or goes to the Friday night service at the synagogue
before retiring to their beds.
Saturday begins with the morning synagogue service, which lasts about
three hours. After the Torah reading and the recitation of
prayers has concluded, the Jewish people greet each other with a hearty
"Gut Shabbos" or "Shabbat Shalom". Returning home, the family
gathers for the second Sabbath meal, which is a leisurely affair
similar to the meal enjoyed Friday night. Again the Kiddush
Ha-Mosi' are recited and the Zemirot sung.
The Sabbath afternoon may be spent in various ways according to the age
of the participant: resting, taking leisurely strolls in the
neighborhood, or making social calls to friends and
summer, when the afternoons are longer, a chapter of the Pirke Avot
"Ethics of the Fathers," is read by the diligent Jew.
The third Sabbath meal after the afternoon service is called the Se'udah Shelishit
It is less joyful and relaxed than other meals, as the end of the
Sabbath is approaching and the prospect of another work week
looms. The Jews prolong their beloved Sabbath until three
are visible to the naked eye. Then the mother of the house
recites the prayer which begins, "O God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,
guard Thy people Israel for Thy praise!"
The Sabbath is concluded with the Havdalah
ceremony. The Havdalah prayer commemorates God's division of
light from darkness, holy from profane, Israel from the
The light is blessed in honor of its creation on the first day; then
spices are blessed and smelled as a feast for the Neshamah Yeterah
the "extra soul" which Jews are believed to possess on the Sabbath
day. Zemirot referring to the prophet Elijah, the forerunner
Messiah, are sung. "Queen Sabbath" has now departed
the house, and the Jewish family resumes their weekday duties.
Although few outside Judaism would advocate that the modern-day Jewish
observance of Sabbath be extended to all professing Christians, there
are many who believe that the Biblical injunction to keep the Sabbath
has been grievously neglected by Christianity. With the
of the Seventh-Day Adventists, who worship on Saturday, most
the Sabbath-advocates regard Sunday as the "Christian Sabbath" and
believe that it should be scrupulously observed by Christians as a day
of rest similar to that commanded in the Old Testament. The
support for this view, however, is questionable in light of the rest of
There is certainly nothing wrong with taking a day out of the week to
rest and to occupy one's thoughts with the things of God.
good for the body and for the soul. Even secular medical
agree that a day of rest each seven-day cycle is an excellent
idea. However, this does not mean that Christians are
before God to observe the Jewish law of the Sabbath.
Firstly, the Jews observed Sabbath on the last day of the week,
Saturday, and that is the day on which they met together to read the
Law and the Prophets in the synagogue. However, when the
Christian church desired to set aside a regular day to read the
Scriptures and break bread together, they chose the day on which Christ
had risen from the dead, which was Sunday (Acts 20:7). John
called this "the Lord's Day" (Rev. 1:10). If Christians use
Sunday as a day of rest and meditation on God's Word, they are doing a
godly and sensible thing, but they are not actually observing the
Sabbath, because God specifically designated Sabbath as the last day of
the week (Ex. 20:10). Since Paul could often be found both
preaching in the synagogues on Sabbath (Acts 18:4) and with the
believers on the Lord's Day (Acts 20:7), and since the term "Sabbath"
is never used in Scripture to refer to any day but Saturday, it would
seem clear that early Christians did not confuse Sabbath and Sunday or
regard the Lord's Day as "the Christian Sabbath."
Secondly, the Sabbath was given to the Jews as part of the Jewish Law,
but it was never given to the Gentiles. Paul wrote a letter
the Colossians, a Gentile church, in which he pleaded with them not to
listen to Jews who insisted that Gentiles could not be right with God
unless they observed Jewish customs, laws, and special days.
said, "Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in
respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath
days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is
Christ." (Col. 2:16-17) Paul made it clear that it was not
for either Jews or Jewish believers to judge the Colossians for not
keeping the Jewish rituals and ceremonial laws. He said that
Law was only meant as a shadow or a symbol of what Christ would bring
when He came. In Christ the believer enjoys a rest from his
and the assurance of an eternal rest in heaven (Heb. 4:1- 11), the
ultimate fulfillment of that which the ancient Sabbath anticipated in a
merely ritual form. Since the Colossians already had Christ,
reality, they did not need to cling to the Law, the symbol, in order to
be right before God.
Since Sunday is not the Sabbath, since the Sabbath law was given only
to the Jews and not to Gentiles, and since all Christians are "no
longer under the law, but under grace" (Rom. 6:14), we may conclude
that there is no Scriptural basis for insisting that Christians must
observe the Sabbath. Though the Sabbath was undeniably given
God to the nation of Israel in the past, and though Jews continue to
observe the Sabbath in their own way today, the Christian is free to
enjoy the true and lasting spiritual rest of salvation through faith in
the Lord Jesus Christ.
Rebecca J. Anderson 1994
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