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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Remember the Sabbath

In both Jewish and Christian tradition, the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

On Mount Sinai God gave Moses the Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” (Exodus 20:8-10) Ever since, the relationship between God and the Jewish People has been intertwined with the observance of the Sabbath.

The word of God is the story of His Covenant with mankind. The Bible focuses on what He asks of human beings, and on their response to Him. In God’s name, the Prophet Isaiah promised, “…everyone who keeps the Sabbath, and does not profane it, and holds fast My Covenant – these I will bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer…” (Isaiah 56:6-7)

The Hebrew Scriptures give two reasons for keeping the seventh day holy. The Sabbath is a reminder of God the Creator. The Sabbath is a remembrance of God the Deliverer.

In the Bible, the Sabbath signifies the power that the Lord has over the world He created out of nothing. “The seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.” (Exodus 20:8-11)

In the Old Testament, the events of Exodus recall that the Lord’s Day symbolizes the Covenant between God and the People He delivered out of bondage. “You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:15)

Observing the Sabbath rest was so strict an obligation that God provided a double portion of manna to the Jews in the desert on the sixth day of the week. Otherwise, they would have had to labor on the Sabbath to collect their food.

The earliest prohibition of labor on the Sabbath was the command: “…you shall kindle no fire in all your habitations on the Sabbath day.” (Exodus 35:3) Rabbinic law eventually distinguished thirty-nine types of actions that violate the Sabbath. Popular Christian thought tends to restrict the meaning of the Sabbath to prohibitions against working, but Jewish thought considers Sabbath observance as a positive, even a mystical experience. The Sabbath is more than a fast from labor; it is a festive celebration of the things of God.

Sabbath observance takes up the whole of the day, not just the time spent in worship in the synagogue. The Prophet Isaiah calls the Sabbath “a delight.” For medieval Jewish mystics, the Sabbath is a bride for the soul of man. For contemporary Jews, the end of the day is like the departure of a Queen.

Regular Sabbath services did not become part of synagogue life until the Roman army under Titus destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Although synagogues existed in Jerusalem before then, it was customary to visit the Temple on the Sabbath to hear the reading of the Law.

After the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish People were dispersed throughout the world. Observance of the Sabbath became the principal means for Jews to identify themselves as God’s Chosen People, bound to Him by Covenant. Historically, as the Jewish writer Ahad Ha-Am said, it is not the Jew who has preserved the Sabbath, but the Sabbath which has preserved the Jew.

Since the destruction of the Temple, loyalty to Sabbath observance as a way of life has become the equivalent of keeping the other Commandments of the Covenant. Disregard of the Sabbath is tantamount to the worship of alien gods.

The Sabbath always begins at sundown of the sixth day of the week. This follows the reckoning of time used in the Book of Genesis: days start at sundown and end at the beginning of the next evening. Friday, the day before the Sabbath, is traditionally called the “Preparation Day.” It is spent in cooking and preparation for the household observance.

Traditional Judaism observes the Sabbath today in essentially the same way that it was observed at the time of Christ. Lighting fires on the Sabbath is forbidden. Twenty minutes before sundown on Friday, the woman of the house lights two candles. As she does this, she says a prayer of blessing: “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who have sanctified us by Your Commandments and commanded us to kindle the Sabbath light.”

Traditionally, Jews observe the Sabbath with three synagogue services and three festive meals. At the time of Christ synagogue services took place only in the day-time, since the evenings were set aside for household celebrations. Today, Jews worship at a Friday night service which is followed by a festive meal. The meal begins with a prayer known as Kiddush. The head of the household takes a cup of wine. He says: “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Who have sanctified us with Your Commandments…. You have graciously given us Your holy Sabbath as a heritage, in remembrance of the work of creation…and of the deliverance from Egypt….”

The Saturday morning service centers on the reading of the Law – the Torah. The meal which follows this second service also begins with the recitation of Kiddush. The rest of the morning and the early afternoon are spent in studying and discussing the passage of the Law which was read during the morning service at the synagogue.

Before leaving the house for the afternoon synagogue service, Orthodox Jews partake of a third festive meal. The afternoon service concludes with a ceremony known as the Havdalah, which means “distinction.” This ceremony is a blessing that emphasizes the distinction between the Sabbath and weekdays. Like Kiddush, this blessing is recited over a cup of wine. Unlike Kiddush, this ceremony uses a spice box and a candle in addition to the cup of wine.

Today’s Christians have little personal experience with the observance of the Sabbath. The Apostles and the first generation of Christians did. Christ had disputes with some of the Pharisees about how Sabbath rest should be observed. Those disagreements do not mean that Christ did not keep the Sabbath. He did. Three-quarters of the Pharisees shared Christ’s interpretations of Sabbath observance. Christ’s disagreement was with those Pharisees who had adopted the rigorist interpretations of the Sabbath proposed by the Saducees.

In the second century, the Jewish author Mekelta, commenting on Exodus 31:13, wrote: “The Sabbath is given over to you; you are not delivered unto the Sabbath.” This maxim is a restatement of Christ’s own words in St. Mark’s Gospel: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” Observing the Sabbath without excessive restrictions was also part of the tradition of the Pharisees.

The Christian Scriptures took form a generation after Christ’s death and resurrection. By that time, non-Jews had become converts to the Christian Faith. The Jewish converts continued to observe the Sabbath as a holy day, even though they worshipped on Sunday too. Gentile converts did not keep the Sabbath. They worshipped only on Sunday, to commemorate the resurrection.

The authors of the Christian Scriptures reported some of the disputes which Christ had with the Pharisees. The incidents they selected made it clear that Christianity had broken away from Judaism. By this selection, the Evangelists called attention to the Christian theology of the Sabbath: while it is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God, it is “only a shadow of what is to come. The substance belongs to Christ.” (Colossians 2:17)

Father Mulkerin is Coordinator for Volunteers, Refugees and Disasters for Catholic Relief Services.

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