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On remembering the Sabbath

Many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, refer to the seventh-day Sabbath — the only biblical Sabbath — as the “Jewish Sabbath.” But is this an accurate label?

Hebrew Scriptures with Benjamin Leon

We know that devout Jewish people have kept the seventh day of the week as the Sabbath for many centuries. But is there more to the story? Did God intend the Sabbath to be kept only by Jews?

To find the answer, we need to go back in time — to a time long before a Jewish nation existed. In fact, we need to go back to the very beginning of life on earth. Let’s take a close look at Genesis 2:1-3: “Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.”

The Bible is telling us that right after God finished creating life on this earth, He ceased His work, rested, and blessed and sanctified the seventh day. It’s pretty obvious what “blessed” means, but what is “sanctified”? What did God do to the seventh day that made it different from the other six days of the week?

In this context, to sanctify something means to declare it holy, to set it apart for a divine purpose, to make it sacred. God set an example for us in resting on the seventh day. The Sabbath was to be, from that time forward, a sacred day of rest and special communion with the Creator. Because of the timing — at the end of creation week — it’s obvious that the Sabbath was meant for all mankind down through the ages.

In fact, Jesus confirmed this when He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

Later, when the 10 Commandments were given to the Jewish nation, God specifically stated, in the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8, emphasis added). Why would God tell them to “remember” unless they had forgotten about it? These Hebrews who had just been rescued from Egyptian captivity had, while in bondage, forgotten about the long-established Sabbath of the Lord.

In fact, mankind was aware of God’s laws long before they were given on Sinai. For example, Joseph refused to give in to Potiphar’s wife, saying, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9). Joseph was aware that God had forbidden adultery long before the Ten Commandments were given.

Finally, the Sabbath will be kept in the new earth. Isaiah 66:22, 23 says: “For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before Me,” says the Lord, … “from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me.”

Christians adopted the sabbath but observed it on a Sunday. For the Muslims the Friday is the Sabbath. In colonial times the Shop Hours Act forbade the opening of stores on a Sunday. Sport was played on a Saturday afternoon. Cinemas were not permit to exhibit on a Sunday.

In the late 1970s a well known supermarket set a precedent by opening one of its branches on a Sunday morning and the number of patrons attending was overwhelming.

Today in Zimbabwe, the Sabbath has lost its meaning with the repeal of the Shop Hours Act that allowed shop keepers to stay open at all hours. Of particular note are the supermarkets that stay open seven days a week. Cinemas exhibit seven days a week. Restaurants have full houses on a Sunday but close on a Monday or Tuesday.

For six days, you may perform melachah, but the seventh day is a complete Sabbath, holy to the Lord … it is an eternal sign that in six days, the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed. (Exodus 31:15-17)

The nature of Shabbat

Shabbat Table: Challah, wine and candles. The Sabbath (or Shabbat, as it is called in Hebrew) is one of the best known and least understood of all Jewish observances. People who do not observe Shabbat think of it as a day filled with stifling restrictions or as a day of prayer like the Christian Sabbath. But to those who observe Shabbat, it is a precious gift from God, a day of great joy eagerly awaited throughout the week, a time when we can set aside all of our weekday concerns and devote ourselves to higher pursuits. In Jewish literature, poetry and music, Shabbat is described as a bride or queen, as in the popular Shabbat hymn Lecha Dodi Likrat Kallah (come, my beloved, to meet the [Sabbath] bride).

It is said “more than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel.”

Shabbat is the most important ritual observance in Judaism. It is the only ritual observance instituted in the 10 Commandments. It is also the most important special day, even more important than Yom Kippur. This is clear from the fact that more aliyot (opportunities for congregants to be called up to the Torah) are given on Shabbat than on any other day.

Shabbat is primarily a day of rest and spiritual enrichment. The word “Shabbat” comes from the root Shin-Beit-Tav, meaning to cease, to end, or to rest.

Shabbat is not specifically a day of prayer. Although we do pray on Shabbat, and spend a substantial amount of time in synagogue praying, prayer is not what distinguishes Shabbat from the rest of the week. Observant Jews pray every day, three times a day. See Jewish Liturgy. To say that Shabbat is a day of prayer is no more accurate than to say that Shabbat is a day of feasting: we eat every day, but on Shabbat, we eat more elaborately and in a more leisurely fashion. The same can be said of prayer on Shabbat.

We take the five-day work-week so much for granted that we forget what a radical concept a day of rest was in ancient times. The weekly day of rest has no parallel in any other ancient civilisation. In ancient times, leisure was for the wealthy and the ruling classes only, never for the serving or labouring classes. In addition, the very idea of rest each week was unimaginable. The Greeks thought Jews were lazy because we insisted on having a “holiday” every seventh day.

In Israel the Sunday is regarded as a normal working day.

Benjamin Leon is a member of the Jewish Community in Zimbabwe.
Feedback: vleon@ mango.zw

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