THE SABBATH IN ANCIENT AND MODERN PRACTICE



The word Sabbath has its origins in the Hebrew word shabbat, from a root meaning "to cease, desist, or rest."  In both ancient and modern Judaism, the observance of the Sabbath has been regarded as a sacred and inviolable duty.  Over the centuries the original, 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 Biblical 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 had 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 it 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 the 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, then 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 they 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 the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do 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 the 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 that 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 ritual 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.  Nevertheless, 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 bonds 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 universal.  The Sabbath begins on Friday at sundown and lasts until sundown on Saturday, but preparation for the Sabbath begins well in advance.  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 may 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 a 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 you 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 with 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.  The Zemirot, or Sabbath table-hymns, are joyfully sung.  These are songs of cheer, light-hearted and pleasant to celebrate the day.  The main 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 relaxes 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 and 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 relatives.  In summer, when the afternoons are longer, a chapter of the Pirke Avot, or "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 stars 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 nations.  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 of Messiah, are sung.   "Queen Sabbath" has now departed from 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 exception of the Seventh-Day Adventists, who worship on Saturday,  most of 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 Scripture.

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.  This is good for the body and for the soul.  Even secular medical experts agree that a day of rest each seven-day cycle is an excellent idea.  However, this does not mean that Christians are responsible 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 early 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 to 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.  He 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 of Christ."  (Col. 2:16-17) Paul made it clear that it was not right for either Jews or Jewish believers to judge the Colossians for not keeping the Jewish rituals and ceremonial laws.  He said that the 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 works 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, the 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 by 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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