As a verb, it is an action word, to stop, to cease or to keep. The origin of the Hebrew sabbat seems to have been derived from the verb sabat, which will take us back to the creation story. The theological meaning is rooted in God’s rest following the six days of creation (Gen 2:2 – 3). The Greek noun sabbat translates the Hebrew noun sabbat. The noun form is used primarily to denote the seventh day of the week, though it may occasionally refer to the Sabbath week (Leviticus 23:15 – 16), at the end of every seven Sabbaths or 50 days, or the Sabbath year (Leviticus 25:1 – 7) in which the land was to be at complete rest.
The Old Testament.
The observance of the Sabbath is central to Jewish life.
Of the eight holy days or Shabbat, the first and seventh days of Pesach, (Passover) Shavout, (Pentecost) Rosh Hashanah, (Feast of Trumpets) Yom Kippur, (Day of Atonement) and the first and eighth days of Succot (Feast of Tabernacles) prescribed in the Torah, only the Sabbath is included in the Decalogue. Though not holier than other holy days like Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, the Sabbath is given special attention because of its frequency.
Yet despite any significance that accrues on the basis of its frequency or inclusion in the Decalogue, its importance rests ultimately on its symbolic representation of the order of creation. For, according to the Genesis narrative, God himself rested on the seventh day, thus making it sacred (Genesis 2:1 – 2). For the pious Jew, keeping the Sabbath holy is a mitzvah, or duty, before God. Indeed, The Old Testament takes Sabbath observance so seriously that profaning it results in the death penalty (Exodus 31:14, 35:2, Numbers 15:32).
The meaning of the Sabbath institution comes to light against the background of several key facts:
First: Exodus 20:8 – 11 makes a clear connection between the Sabbath day and the seventh day on which God the Creator rested. Sabbath observance therefore involves the affirmation that God is Creator and Sustainer of the world. To “remember the Sabbath” meant that the Jew identified the seven-day-a-week rhythm of life as belonging to the Creator. This connection is particularly important in light of the Jewish doctrine that human beings are co-partners with God. They receive the world in a finished state so that they may share with God the purposes he seeks by continuing to fashion and subdue the creation. If the Creator stopped his creative activity on the seventh day, then those who share in his creative work must do the same. Sabbath contravenes any pride that may accompany human mastery and manipulation of God’s creation. In ceasing from labour, one is reminded of one’s true status as a dependent being, of the God who cares for and sustains all his creatures, and of the world as a reality belonging ultimately to God.
Second: The Sabbath is an affirmation of Israel’s identity. The words of Moses to the people in Deuteronomy 5:12 – 15 demonstrate that, however much its rhythm reflects the order of God-created life in general, the Sabbath functions also to remind Israel of her specific origins. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” Here the acknowledgment that God is the Creator of life is intensified by the acknowledgment that he is also the saving presence in the history of the Jewish people, and by that means of the entire creation. Israel’s keeping of the Sabbath was a reminder of her very identity as a people liberated from slavery to the Egyptians and for a special role in the cosmic drama of human salvation.
As such it was a cherished gift of God, “a sign between me and you for generations to come” (Exodus 31:12 – 17), testifying of God’s faithfulness to his covenant throughout the generations. The covenant relationship demands Israel’s sanctification, and by keeping the Sabbath holy, Israel is reminded continually that the God who sanctified the seventh day also sanctifies her.
Third: The Sabbath is a day of rest and worship given as a gift from the restless condition of slavery. The prohibition of work extended to all those living within Israel, including slaves and animals (Exodus 20:10), even during the cultivating season (Exodus 34:21).
This necessitated additional work on the sixth day (Exodus 16:5, Exodus 16:23). What constitutes rest and work? In the Torah there are only two explicit prohibitions concerning work on the Sabbath. No fires were to be kindled in Jewish dwellings (Exodus 35:3), and no one was to leave their place (Exodus 16:29). However, more can be inferred from other texts. For example, Moses instructed the people to bake and boil the manna and put it aside until morning (Exodus 16:23 – 24), hinting that cooking was not fitting for the Sabbath.
A man found gathering sticks on the Sabbath was stoned to death (Numbers 15:32 – 36). The carrying of a burden or bringing it by Jerusalem’s gates was prohibited (Jeremiah 17:22). Nehemiah closed the city gates to the merchants who were said to profane the Sabbath by carrying their goods and selling them (Nehemiah 13:15 – 22). Most important is the Torah’s placement of the laws concerning the Sabbath directly adjacent to the instructions for building the tabernacle (Exodus 31), implying that each of the many varieties of work associated with tabernacle construction was prohibited on the Sabbath.
Just as joy is more than the absence of sorrow, the Sabbath is more than cessation of labour. Resting in bed all day does not amount to a keeping of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is to be a delight and joy (Isaiah 58:13). Noteworthy is the fact that the fourth commandment (Exodus 20:8) places the positive command to keep the Sabbath holy before the negative prohibition to cease working. As worship, additional sacrifices were offered (Numbers 28:9 – 10) at the temple, and the special shewbread was to be set out “sabbath after sabbath” to signify Israel’s commitment to the covenant (Leviticus 24:8). During and after the Babylonian exile, worship became a more prominent part of Sabbath observance. In Jewish homes the benedictions of kiddush (Friday evening) and habdalaha (Saturday evening) were recited, and there were morning and afternoon services at the synagogue.
The joyous character of the Sabbath is reflected in, among other things, the Jewish tradition of eating richly, which derives from its inclusion in the list of “festivals of the Lord” (Leviticus 23) the prohibition of fasting, and the forbidding of outward expressions of grief and mourning.
In the prophets, observance of the Sabbath becomes the touchstone for Israel’s obedience to its covenant with God. The future of Jerusalem depends on faithful Sabbath keeping (Jeremiah 17:24 – 27). One’s personal well-being is also at stake (Isaiah 56:2 – 7).
Those who honour the day will find joy, riding on the heights of the earth and being fed with the heritage of Jacob (Isaiah 58:14). As God once desired to destroy his people in the desert because of their Sabbath desecration (Ezekiel 20:12 – 14), so he now counts this among Israel’s present moral failures Ezekiel 22:8) for which there will be purging and dispersion.
Amos issues a stern warning to those merchants who endure the Sabbath, anxious only to get on with the selling of grain (Amos 8:5).
The consistency of the prophets’ call to honour the Sabbath testifies in part to the growing need, especially during the exilic period, to preserve Jewish identity in a pagan environment. In this sense prophetic aims are continuous with those of the Mosaic period. But scholarly consensus finds in the prophetic writings a subtle transformation wherein the Sabbath, formerly a social institution of festivity, rest, and worship, became above all a religious mark of personal and national holiness inclusive of the Gentiles (to be continued).
Rev Vaka Ngaro