On the Sabbath

As we remember the sabbath (Ex 20:8) in the midst of a fallen culture, we find ourselves questioning what kinds of activities are allowed. This isn’t new; even in Torah-keeping cultures there’s controversy here. It’s one of the chief obstacles Jesus Christ Himself faced. (Jn 9:16)

God says we’re to stop working on sabbath (Ex 20:10), and do all our work the remaining six days (9), but He never defines work, and for good reason — it’s evidently related to our motives, which are context-specific. He does, however, give us some helpful examples.

Gathering manna on sabbath was forbidden (Ex 16:29), as well as cooking and preparing it (23), gathering firewood (Nu 15:32,35) and kindling a fire. (Ex 35:3) Conducting business as usual, in manual labor and routine commerce, violates sabbath (Ne 13:15-17), and carrying burdens profanes the sabbath. (Je 17:21-22)

Jews extrapolate from this to extremes, forbidding us to operate elevators, microwaves, stoves, light switches, or tear off pieces of toilet paper, drive a car, or lift anything heavier than an infant.

In light of our modern conveniences, is there perhaps a balance here which honors the spirit of sabbath without perverting it into a burden (Mt 23:4), especially in cultures which are ignorant of sabbath?

For example, is it OK to go to a restaurant, go shopping, warm up some left overs, or to go for a hike or a jog on Saturday? Perhaps this depends on what we do for work the other six days, to provide for ourselves and those we care for.

Perhaps we should each take the time to define what work means for us; maybe whatever that is should be off limits for us on Shabbat, without neglecting our duty to ourselves or others. If our work requires shopping during the week, then maybe we should avoid going on Saturday; if we’re manual laborers, then prioritize physical rest; if we make a living straining our brains, best forget problem-solving on Saturday.

It’s perfectly consistent with sabbath to engage in needful, useful activity, even if it happens to be difficult. (Mt 12:12) The key appears to be related to both our weekly routine and what it means to love each other. We ought to do our best to set the day apart, and not impose rigorous work on others, but when people are working anyway, how do we integrate this into our own observance? Must we isolate ourselves and disengage, or might it be wisdom to leverage their voluntary sabbath violations to make our own more peaceful, joyful and restful?

These questions get at the heart of obedience, yet we may not have definitive answers until our Lord returns. Meanwhile, each of us must do our best to honor Him as our conscience directs in our particular circumstances, enlightened by the Word, and the Spirit of the living God.

Keeping the spirit of Sabbath in mind, that it’s sanctified by our Father for our benefit in rest, what can we do to set this day apart and make it more of a delight? This perspective will lead us on a journey to discover sabbath, to orient our lives around God’s appointed times of rest, teaching us, as each sabbath evening draws on, to rest in what He’s allowed us to accomplish for the week, and to worship Him as our Fountain of eternal rest.

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3 thoughts on “On the Sabbath”

  1. In the examples Father has provided, I see each grounded in the concept of the weekly, temporal routine.

    Israel’s primary work in the wilderness was gathering manna and firewood, and preparing meals with the manna. Setting sabbath apart naturally involved setting these routine activities aside, since it could easily be done without harming or significantly inconveniencing anyone.

    But to forbid any kind of meal preparation on sabbath seems to ignore the command to roast the Passover lamb on sabbath. (Ex 12:8 – “And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it.”)

    And considering the ease with which we can generally prepare meals today, it seems a stretch to say we can’t heat something in a microwave with the touch of a button, or on a stovetop by turning a nob, something much easier than getting out of bed and getting ready for the day. Defining work in such a mechanical way seems to miss the spirit of the sabbath command and get us focused on trivialities.

    Granted, the more we can reasonably prepare in advance for the Sabbath the better, but being legalistic and arbitrary here seems inordinately burdensome to me, especially in non-Torah observant contexts.

  2. Kindling a fire using primitive methods is a very difficult task, so this kind of activity should evidently be done prior to sabbath when possible, and the fire and coals maintained accordingly to avoid such intense labor.

    But to extrapolate from this that we should not dive a car on shabbat (since it generates sparks, a kind of fire), or press an elevator button (since this sends an electronic signal, another type of fire) borders on the absurd, in my opinion.

    It is these kinds of extrapolations that appear to me to miss the entire spirit of the sabbath and create burdens which cause us to stumble.

  3. In non-Torah observant cultures, such as we have in the West, it is more difficult to keep sabbath since it puts us out of sync with society. We must acknowledge that Torah was not given to individuals in isolation, but to communities to keep together. This makes a big difference in the context of the sabbath.

    So, in the West, is it inconsistent with Torah to take advantage of the fact that others are already working, in order to make our own sabbath’s more restful? I think not.

    For example, if my wife is not a sabbath keeper and wants to go out to a restaurant on sabbath in the West, am I compelling anyone to work? No, I am not; everyone around me is working whether I benefit from their labor or not. God doesn’t tell me that if others voluntarily work for my benefit on sabbath that I should refuse it. I am not responsible to impose sabbath on others who don’t wish to observe it, and my being difficult and obstinate with them about it isn’t charitable; I am merely responsible for my own behavior, which includes speaking the truth to those who are seeking it and doing my best to be obedient myself. If my sabbath is easier and more restful by not contending with my wife every weekend, and going out with her to a restaurant when she wishes, and this does not appear to be causing anyone to stumble, then this seems consistent with the law of love in my circumstance, best I can tell.

    Now, if I lived in a culture that was even partially sabbath keeping, and if my wife was on board in preparing for the sabbath, and in going to a store or a restaurant on Saturday I was tempting others to work when they might not otherwise, then I would not participate in such commerce on sabbath, nor encourage anyone else to do so.

    This is, as in most moral dilemmas, all about context, and the fact that God does not over-specify His instructions, calling us to apply them in context based on the spirit of His commands, is evidence to me of His matchless brilliance.

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