Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Work six days and do everything you need to do. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God, your God. Don’t do any work—not you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your servant, nor your maid, nor your animals, not even the foreign guest visiting in your town. For in six days God made Heaven, Earth, and sea, and everything in them; he rested on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the Sabbath day; he set it apart as a holy day. [Exodus 20:8-11 (MSG)]
During the Israelites’ 400-year stay in Egypt, they were enslaved by the Egyptians and cruelly oppressed by Pharaoh. Imagine how strange the fourth commandment seemed to a people who’d never enjoyed a vacation day in their entire lives. Taking a day of rest and worship was unheard of in Egypt. Now they were commanded by God to do just that.
The Jewish Talmud prohibits 39 kinds of work on the Sabbath. Activities like planting, reaping, baking, cooking, laundering, sewing, writing, building, tearing, and igniting or extinguishing a fire are all forbidden. Through the years, those 39 prohibitions have been further defined. For example, no sewing also includes no gluing, welding, or stapling and the ban on igniting a fire means no fuel can be added to an existing fire. The Talmud, however, does more than prohibit. It also encourages certain Sabbath activities including temple attendance, singing Sabbath songs, reading the Torah, hospitality and spending time with family and friends.
I have a Conservative Jewish friend, the head of a large law firm, who works long hours six days a week. But, from dusk Friday until early Sunday morning, he turns off his phone and computer, stops billing over $500 an hour, and strictly observes the Sabbath. The Talmud’s many restrictions mean he and his family must plan ahead and prepare for their holy day. He has to finish work early Friday afternoon to be home before sunset, food must cooked Friday, the table needs to be pre-set, lights must be turned on or set on timers, and toilet paper and paper towels must be pre-torn. As they follow their Sabbath rules, my friend and his family are reminded of the holiness of the day. For them, the Sabbath is not a day of unreasonable restrictions but rather a very special day of relaxation, family, worship and study—a day dedicated to God and rest.
As Christians, we don’t have a list of prohibited work nor do we have specific rules for how to keep the Sabbath day holy—perhaps we could use some. Our preparation for Sunday may be no more than laying out our church attire or setting the DVR to record an early game. Sunday morning, if we don’t sleep in or have a golf game, we attend church. Then, during the sermon, we check our watches and hope the pastor will finish up quickly so we can beat the Methodists to the Pancake House. Some of us return home to play “catch-up” and spend the remainder of Sunday doing the chores we’ve put off all week. Others settle down in front of the TV for a long afternoon of sports and/or naps. After the hour or two spent in church, we probably don’t give God another thought until we say grace (if we say grace) before dinner. For most of us, other than attending church and not going to work, our Sundays look much like any other day of the week. Have we truly made the Sabbath “holy”?
God commanded the Israelites to dedicate one day a week to Him and to relaxation; is that too much to ask? Perhaps our Sabbath should be more like that of my Jewish friend—not a day of prohibitions but rather a day of worship and rest—a day to mindfully spend time with family, friends, God and His word.