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The Sabbath

A Practical Guide to the Laws and Customs of Shabbat

Introduction

In our previous article, we discussed the concept of the Sabbath and its importance in the lives of Jesus and his followers. Not only did they keep the laws of the Sabbath but they did so "in obedience to the commandment" (Luke 23:56, NIV). Their observance of the Sabbath, or Shabbat in Hebrew, was not merely done out for tradition's sake or habit. It was not done simply because it was their culture. It was not done because society was pressuring them to do it. No, the reason that Jesus and his disciples observed the Sabbath was because they had a deep desire (rooted in their love for God) to obey God's commandments. They understood that these commandments are really only for our benefit, anyway (Romans 8:28). But wait a second, what "commandment" were Jesus and the apostles living by? Of course they observed the commandment of "keep the Sabbath," but what does that mean exactly? What does Sabbath observance really entail and can it still be observed today? Absolutely! Thank God we can still rest in His Sabbath and enjoy His company on His special day. However, while the answer to the previous question was simple, the answer to the former question is not so plain. How exactly are we supposed to keep the Sabbath? This article will walk you through the details of what it means to observe the Sabbath from start to finish. So let's get started!

As we learned in Part 1 of our series on the Sabbath, the Sabbath was established by God personally in the first few books of the Bible (Genesis 2:1-3, Exodus 20:11). It is in passages like these that drive home to the reader the immense yet beautiful importance of the Sabbath to God who gave it. Yet God did not stop at "ye shall keep My Sabbaths" or "ye shall do no work thereon." It is my belief that the God of the Bible is infinite: omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. As such, God cares with an infinite amount of care about you and me, how we live, how we treat one another, how we treat ourselves, how we eat, how we dress, how we pray, how we work and conduct business, etc. God is infinitely caring. He really cares a lot. As such, could God have punished people for breaking rules they didn't know existed? This is why God not only gave the Sabbath but also gave us guidelines to determine whether we are keeping the Sabbath or not, whether we are within the realm of its blessings or not, whether we are keeping it holy or not. 


These guidelines are by no means designed to imprison man in an endless list of rules and regulations. God takes no pleasure in frivolity, vanity, or meaninglessness. Rather, everything He gave us is there for a reason - and a good reason at that! Every word of God originally comes from the mind of God, so when things don't make sense to us humans, we have to remember that we are dealing with the mind of God here! It's not something humans are meant to grasp without challenge, otherwise we ourselves would be God. So even sometimes when we don't understand God's reasons, we need to trust that He is acting only for our good. "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28, NIV).


God knew these challenges, doubts, and confusions would exist, so He makes a point to remind us that "my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. 9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9, NIV). In fact, in terms of the different types of commandments (mishpatim/ judgments, eidot/ memorials, and chukim/suprarational), the chukim are the ones that have no logical basis for doing them. They must be accepted by faith alone because while they do not violate logic, they do transcend logic because we cannot logically deduce them from nature. So with this in mind, let's begin by seeing what God says in the Bible about the Sabbath.

The Biblical Basics

There are some biblical basics that are fundamental to cover in order to understand the basics of Sabbath observance. Some of the passages in the Bible list general commandments such where at other times very specific commandments are issued. Since the Sabbath is mentioned over 100 times in the Bible, I will list each verse by their category rather than citing them verbatim. This way, the article will not be tediously long but the reader will stay have the ability to look up each verse if so desired at their convenience. (One thing I would like to note before we review the commandments, there are many times when the holidays are called Sabbaths and the Land of Israel itself was supposed to observe Sabbath years and Jubilee years. I have not included these in the list below).

Personal Obligatory and Permitted Acts

  • Beginning - God gave the Sabbath (Genesis 2:1-3, Exodus 16:23, 20:11, Deuteronomy 5:12-15, Nehemiah 9:14)
  • Blessing - God blessed the Sabbath and blesses those who keep it (Genesis 2:1-3, Exodus 20:11, Isaiah 56:2, 56:6, 58:13, Matthew 12:8, Mark 2:27-28, Luke 6:5)
  • Circumcision - it is permitted to circumcise a baby boy if his eighth day falls on the Sabbath (John 7:22-23)
  • Commerce - Doing business on the Sabbath is not permitted (Nehemiah 10:31, 13:15-21, Jeremiah 17:21-27, Amos 8:4-6)
  • Communal Learning - The Sabbath is the day which God Himself set apart as the day we are to gather together and learn His ways (Leviticus 23:3, Mark 1:21, 6:2, Luke 4:16, 4:31, 6:6, 13:10, Acts 13:14, 13:27, 13:42-44, 15:21, 16:13, 17:2, 18:4)
  • Eternal - God calls the Sabbath a perpetual, everlasting, continual, eternal observance that cannot be abolished (Exodus 31:16, Leviticus 24:8, Isaiah 66:23)
  • Fire - While burning a fire is allowed, the following things are not: kindling (starting), transferring (igniting something from a pre-existing fire), and using for benefit (e.g. cooking) are not permitted (Exodus 35:3) 
  • Holiness - God sanctified (made holy) the Sabbath, so humans should too (Genesis 2:1-3,  Exodus 16:23, 20:8, 20:11, 31:14-15, 35:2, Deuteronomy 5:12, Isaiah 56:2, 56:6, 58:13, Jeremiah 17:24, 17:27)
  • Place - Humans must not leave their "place" on the Sabbath (Exodus 16:29, Matthew 24:20, Acts 1:12)
  • Personal Matters - We re to refrain from doing personal tasks on the Sabbath and instead doing what God commands (Isaiah 58:13
  • Preparing - Humans should prepare on Friday, called erev Shabbat, for both Friday and the Saturday Sabbath. This involves all forms of food preparation that require heat such as baking and boiling (Exodus 16:23-29, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54-56, John 19:31)
  • Resting - God rested on the Sabbath, so humans should too. This includes those who typically work for humans such as servants and livestock. (Genesis 2:1-3, Exodus 16:23, 20:11, 31:15, 35:2, Leviticus 23:3, Deuteronomy 15:14)
  • Saving Life - it is permitted to save life on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:11-12, Mark 3:4, Luke 6:9, 13:15-16, 14:3-5)
  • Transferring Domains - It is not permitted to carry or move things from public to private places, and vice versa, without an "eruv" (Numbers 15:31-36, Nehemiah 10:31, 13:15-21, Jeremiah 17:21-27, Mark 16:1)

Observing Sabbath in the Temple

  • Bread - The priests must prepare Sabbath bread in the Temple (Leviticus 24:8, 1 Chronicles 9:32)
  • Gates - During the Messianic era, the Sabbath gates are always to be left open (Ezekiel 46:1)
  • Guard Duty - The priests were permitted and expected to serve as guards on the Sabbath (2 Kings 11:5-9, 2 Chronicles 23:4-8, Nehemiah 13:22)
  • Innocence - Jesus says the priests violate the Sabbath in the Temple yet they are nonetheless without condemnation (Matthew 12:5)
  • Offerings - The priests were to offer special Sabbath day offerings in the Temple (Numbers 28:9-10, Isaiah 66:23, Ezekiel 46:4, 46:12)
  • Psalms - David wrote one of the Psalms to specifically be sung in the Temple on the Sabbath day (Psalms 92:1)

Punishments

An article about commandments would be incomplete without briefly addressing the punishments associated with violations. While it is certainly not the most pleasant of topics, it is nonetheless important to provide seekers of the truth a full and fair survey of the information.

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Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it is to be put to death; those who do any work on that day must be cut off from their people. 15 For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death (Exodus 31:14-15).


For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a day of sabbath rest to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it is to be put to death (Exodus 35:2).

While God does provide numerous incentives for people to voluntarily guard His Sabbath and keep it holy, He know that there will be some who willingly chose to resist His instructions. These people make light of God's word and consider violation of it to be inconsequential. Unlike many of the other commandments in the Bible, we are given a story of a man who violates the Sabbath and we watch his fate unfold in real time.

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While the Israelites were in the wilderness, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. 33 Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, 34 and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. 35 Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” 36 So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the Lord commanded Moses (Numbers 15:32-36, NIV).

This above scenario involves a man collecting sticks on the Sabbath. He is promptly arrested and brought to jail. The question then arises - did this man violate the Sabbath? We feel that he did, but we can't quite put our finger on which commandment he violated so we're not sure if the court can put him to death, because if we put to death a man without actually having violated something, that would be unjust! Moses, Aaron, and the assembly of the elders (Exodus 24:9) have difficulty determining if the man transgressed or not, so they consult God directly. How does God rule, as a judge, in this case? God tells Moses that the man did indeed sin. However, by what standard did God determine this? Which commandment did God say the man violated? Among the Sabbath references I listed above, there is no explicit command to abstain from gathering sticks. So again, how did the man transgress? What God is teaching here is that there are commandments not explicitly listed as "Sabbath prohibitions" that are nonetheless Sabbath prohibitions. These are referred to as the thirty-nine works, or melachot in Hebrew. These thirty-nine melachot are Sabbath prohibitions found within the Bible but they are not explicitly listed as "Sabbath prohibitions" as clearly as the other commandments are. Because of this, I have designated a special section in this article to discuss just these.

The 39 Melachot

"Any labor that was performed on in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) may not be performed on Shabbat. This law is learned from the juxtaposition of the two portions in the Torah."[1] What the author is saying is that since the command to observe the Sabbath is placed right next to the Tabernacle-related commandments, God was trying to communicate to us that the two sets of commandments are connected. So rather than merely listing the commandments, God chose to show in action the Sabbath prohibitions. This is also the purpose of telling the story of the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath - to teach Sabbath lessons.

"There are thirty-nine general categories of labor that are forbidden on Shabbat. Each of these categories include a range of derivative laws and activities, some of which are described in "The Shabbat Laws." The melachot are generally divided into six groups, classified according to the Mishkan's [Tabernacle's] activities with which they are associated."[2]

Field Work
  • (1)Sowing
  • (2)Plowing
  • (3)Reaping
  • (4)Binding/ Gathering
  • (5)Threshing
  • (6)Winnowing
  • (7)Selecting
  • (8)Grinding
  • (9)Sifting
  • (10)Kneading
  • (11)Baking

Marking Material Curtains

  • (12)Shearing
  • (13)Cleaning
  • (14)Combing
  • (15)Dyeing
  • (16)Spinning
  • (17)Arranging untied threads
  • (18)Making Loops
  • (19)Weaving Threads
  • (20)Separating the Threads
  • (21)Tying a Knot
  • (22)Untying a Knot
  • (23)Sewing
  • (24)Tearing
Marking Leather Curtains
  • (25)Trapping animals
  • (26)Slaughtering
  • (27)Skinning
  • (28)Tanning/ Salting
  • (29)Smoothing
  • (30)Ruling Lines
  • (31)Cutting

Making the Beams of the Tabernacle
  • (32)Writing
  • (33)Erasing
The Putting up and Taking down of the Mishkan
  • (34)Building
  • (35)Breaking Down


The Tabernacle's Final Touches

  • (36)Extinguishing a Fire
  • (37)Igniting a Fire
  • (38)Adding the finishing touches
  • (39)Carrying from one domain to another

Sources

[1] Rabbi Reuven Amar, The Sephardic Kitzur Shulchan Aruch: In accordance with the customs of Edut Hamizrach and the Sephardic Heritage, (Israel: Tehillat Yitzchak, 2007) 183.
[2]"The 39 Melachot" by Chabad.org. Retrieved on 12 Jan 2017.

  • The Bible (NIV)
  • Herbert Danby, The Mishnah: Translated from the Hebrew with Introduction and Brief Explanatory Notes (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013) 100-121.
  • R. Hayim Halevy Donin, To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life (New York: Basic Books, 1972) 61-96.
  • Rambam: Mishne Torah, tract. Zemanim, Ch. Shabbat. Retrieved from Chabad.org on 10 Jan 2018.