Sabbath - rest and prayer with the family
Sabbath runs from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday, and Friday evening or `Erev Shabbat', as it is known in Hebrew, is an important part of the Sabbath. The Jewish practice of counting days in this way stems from the Genesis account of Creation where the days run from evening to evening. Here we also find the origin of the Sabbath rest.
Sabbath in the Hebrew Bible
God created rest
In the beginning of Genesis we find the account of the creation of the world. The Hebrew name for Genesis is `Bereshit' which means `In the beginning'. God created the world and everything in it in seven days. Each day started in the evening (`And there was evening and there was morning - the first day' Genesis 1:5). Once the heavens and the earth were created, Genesis continues:
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 (Genesis 2:2-3).
We do not find the Sabbath day mentioned again in the Bible until the book of Exodus where it is commanded as a day of rest for the Israelites. No indication is given as to whether it was observed as a rest day before this time. It is first outlined in Exodus 16 where the instructions are given for manna and quail. Each day there would be enough food for that day only and if any were saved it would go bad. On the sixth day, however, the Israelites were commanded to collect a double portion, which would stay fresh for two days. In this way the Sabbath could be observed as a day of rest. Jewish people still remember the double portion of manna by placing two Sabbath loaves on the table for the eve of Shabbat.
A sign of the Covenant
The culmination of the Exodus instructions for the Sabbath came in the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:8-11).
This passage reveals the strong community element to the keeping of Sabbath and in this it is highly humanitarian. It was not simply the head of household who should keep the Sabbath for religious purposes, but the whole household should have rest, including the servants and even extending to the animals. This continues the Genesis command to be stewards of creation.
Most importantly, it should be noted that the Israelites were commanded to keep the Sabbath holy, not to make it holy. The implication is that God created it as a holy day and we need to honor it as such. When reflecting on the wilderness experience of the Israelites, Ezekiel saw this commandment to keep the Sabbath as a sign of God's covenant with Israel: `I gave them my Sabbaths as a sign between us, so that they would know that I the Lord made them holy' (Ezekiel 20:12). Not only did God make the Sabbath holy, but he also made the people of God holy.
The problem throughout history has been the tension between observing the Sabbath properly but also making it truly a delight. A person's inner attitude is all-important. Amos (8:5) discovered that people were just waiting for the Sabbath to end so that they could reopen their businesses. He realized that it was not sufficient to simply keep the Sabbath outwardly but also to honor it inwardly. This deeper reflection on the meaning of Sabbath developed through the Second Temple period and it was one of the theological debates of Jesus' day.
Jesus and Sabbath
As Jesus came from an observant Jewish family, there is no reason to suppose that he did not take seriously the command to `keep the Sabbath Holy'. In Luke 4:16-30 there is a description of him going to synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath. The major point of describing this incident is to show that Jesus was rejected in his home town, but it also gives us insight into his Sabbath practices. Going to synagogue on the Sabbath was his usual custom (v.16), indeed it would be unheard of for an observant Jewish man of his day not to go to synagogue.
Jesus must have been a respected person within his community because he was asked to read. Today in synagogue there is a reading each week from the Torah (Pentateuch) followed by a `Haftorah' reading which is a reading from the Prophets selected to fit the Torah theme. During the year, the Torah is read through once systematically. There are various suggestions concerning the lectionary in Jesus' day. One common view is that there was a three year cycle for reading the Torah and that there were also Haftorah readings. Each week the Torah reading was divided into three. The person who read the last portion of the Torah may also have read the Haftorah and then taught on the passages. If this were the case, Jesus would have been the person chosen not only to read but also to speak. The scrolls were written in Hebrew and as they were read, they were explained in Aramaic, sometimes drawing on the Septuagint for help in translation. This translation with explanation was known as a Targum and would account for some scriptural quotes in the New Testament seeming to be a little different to the Old Testament verse in the same translation of the Bible. For example, the last two phrases of Luke 4:18 (`recovery of sight for the blind; to release the oppressed') are alternate meanings of the Hebrew original for the final line of Isaiah 61:1 (`and release from darkness for the prisoners'). This may have been a Targum by Jesus.
In our English translation of Luke it seems as if Jesus, after reading from the scroll, simply went back to his seat after reading and then added his challenge, almost like an afterthought. It must be remembered that at this time it was traditional to stand to read and to sit to teach. So the description of him standing to read the passage and then sitting down before he spoke fits the customs of his day. Jesus' teaching on that day was very challenging to his hearers. He not only proclaimed himself as the Messiah (anointed one) but also suggested that the Gentiles would be more responsive to his ministry than people from his own home town. His rejection by the people of Nazareth inevitably followed and from here he moved to Capernaum.
Although this does not exactly describe an average Sabbath in Nazareth, from this passage we can conclude that before he began his ministry Jesus was not only a respected member of his synagogue but he was also a regular lay preacher.
From Sabbath to Lord's Day
As a child growing up in a Christian home, I assumed that Sunday was the Sabbath day. As far as I was concerned, the Old Testament command to `remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy' (Exodus 20:8) referred to Sunday and instructed that we should not work on that day. It was only when I became exposed to Judaism that I discovered an alternative day for the Sabbath and this was the original Saturday. Like many Christians who have followed this path, it led to some confusion and the inevitable question, which day really is the Sabbath? To begin to answer this question we need to examine the development of Sunday as a special day in Christianity.
The first Christians, like Jesus, were accustomed to go to synagogue on Saturday and to treat this as their day of rest. Jesus rose on the first day of the week and the belief in the resurrection became central to the faith of these new believers. There is very little New Testament evidence for them particularly meeting on that day, though it is commonly believed that they may have met on Saturday evening (the Jewish start of the first day of the week). The only New Testament description of a Christian meeting on the first day is found in Acts 20:7-12. It is the story of a Christian gathering to celebrate communion together and hear a sermon from Paul who was leaving the next day. The scene is an evening one: lamps have been lit and Paul spoke until late into the night. A young man dropped off to sleep, fell out of the window and was killed. Paul went downstairs, put his arms around the boy, declared him alive and then returned upstairs to `break bread', eat and preach until daybreak! The traditional Christian view has set this on Sunday evening but a literal Jewish understanding of the evening of the first day would place it on Saturday evening. If this were the case then Paul would have `broken bread' in the early hours of Sunday morning and left for his journey on that day. The very early morning communion corroborates early Christian practice for Sunday worship though it later became detached from a meal. It does not indicate that Sunday had been designated as the Sabbath day, however - had this been the case Paul would not have started out on a journey. There are many references to Paul attending synagogue on the Sabbath (Saturday) in Acts and it seems likely that this remained his day of rest. In 1 Corinthians 16:2 Paul encourages the church to set aside a sum of money for alms on the first day of each week. Again this becomes the pattern in the early church, who took a collection for the poor each Sunday, but it does not tally with the hypothesis that Sunday had become the Sabbath since handling money is an act of work.
The apostle John described himself as being in the Spirit on the `Lord's Day' (Revelation 1:10). Though there is no indication that he meant Sunday, this title had become fixed to the first day of the week by early in the second century AD. The term retained the strong end times connotations of the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah 13:6) and it was seen not so much as the first day but as the eighth day. This was thought to be symbolic of the ultimate paradise beyond the tribulations of this age and each Sunday would be a foretaste of heaven as Communion was a foretaste of the messianic banquet to come. This is not unlike a Jewish concept that Sabbath was a glimpse of the Eden we have lost, and was probably a development of the teaching on a final Sabbath rest in Hebrews 4.
Sunday became the regular day of worship for Christians in the very early years of the church, but it did not become established as a day of rest - a Christian Sabbath - until much later. Constantine in 321 AD declared Sunday to be a day free from work. This may have been from a Christian motivation, though there are strong indications that Constantine retained much of his previous sun worship and Sunday was the Sun's day. After the Roman Empire, other rulers in Europe periodically sought to maintain Sunday as a `holiday' and ensure that Christians attended Church. Strict keeping of Sunday as a Sabbath only finally arose out of the Scottish and English Reformation.
In the Jewish community the change from Saturday to Sunday as a day for corporate worship was seen as an anti-Jewish statement. Indeed the Council of Laodicea in 364 AD ordained that Sunday should be the day for Christian worship and Christians should work on Saturday rather than `Judaise'. Though the reasons for changing the day were considerably more complex than simply an anti-Jewish reaction by Gentile Christians, it continues to provide a divide between the two religions. Until recent years, a Jewish person who became a follower of Jesus would have to worship on Sunday rather than Saturday to be part of their new faith community. Today the considerable growth of Messianic Jewish congregations in Israel and elsewhere enables Jewish followers of Jesus to have their regular worship on Saturdays and retain a Jewish approach to the rhythm of the week.
Sabbath in Later Judaism
The meaning of the Sabbath
The themes of Creation, Covenant and Rest underlie the Jewish understanding of Sabbath. God created Shabbat to give time for his whole creation to rest and he commanded his covenant people to observe the Sabbath as a sign that they were his people and that he was their God. It is a step back into Eden when we can temporarily enjoy life without toil. It is above all a family time when relatives come together to worship and rest. In the Middle Ages a tradition developed to see the Sabbath as a bride for Israel who would come each Friday night, making the Sabbath a kind of weekly wedding celebration.
Making the link
One of the questions we began with was should Christians celebrate Sabbath on Saturday or Sunday? We have seen that the development of Sunday happened early in the church but that it only gradually became a Sabbath. My personal view is that it is more important to apply the teaching of Sabbath regularly to one day a week than to one particular day of the week. Some Christians with many responsibilities in Church do find that a Saturday Sabbath for rest and family time can be quite liberating and frees them to give their energies wholeheartedly to Sunday as the day to `work' to provide worship for others. In this case some of the themes of Sabbath become spread over both days and produce a pattern that may even have similarities with the early church.
In our very busy society it is important for us to regain the teaching of Sabbath and make the time to take a day of rest. If we do so, we will indeed come to find the Sabbath a delight.
This page contains edited extracts from the Sabbath chapter of A Feast of Seasons. The full chapter give the complete development of Sabbath, including a discussion about the meaning of rest, Sabbath as a sign of Gods covenant and Sabbath breaking in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible). Jesus' attitude to Sabbath is also explored including the question of whether he broke the Sabbath. There is a description of Sabbath in a devout Jewish household today and the second part of the chapter gives ideas for celebration including a liturgy to have a Friday night Sabbath meal with prayer. Recipes include Sabbath bread and traditional Cholent.