How the Jewish Sabbath Sheds Light on the Lord’s Day

Originally published in The Catechetical Review, Issue 1.1 (January 2015)

The Jewish Observance of the Sabbath: Pharisaic Legalism?

When I first moved to Israel, I was stunned to hear about the many prohibitions that bind orthodox Jews in their observance of the Sabbath day: No driving, no cooking, no watching TV, no phones, computers or any other forms of media, no shopping or handling of money, no writing, and much more.

Like many Christians who first encounter these practices, I couldn’t help but wonder: isn’t this legalistic approach to the Sabbath just like the pharisaic one that Jesus so severely criticizes in the Gospels? At the same time, I was fascinated by the earnestness with which religious Jews observe the seventh day, especially when compared to the fading role of Sunday as day of rest in most culturally Christian countries.

It took me a few years to understand the spirit behind the Jewish observance of the Sabbath, and what I discovered greatly enhanced my appreciation of the Lord’s Day.

Creation and Rest

The origins of the Shabbat go back to the dawn of creation, as narrated in the book of Genesis. The six days of creation are concluded by the declaration that God “rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.” (Gen 2:2-3)

In this initial context, long before it becomes a commandment, the Sabbath is first and foremost a testimony to the goodness of God’s creation. God’s “rest” is not so much a kind of ‘divine inactivity’ as much as the Lord’s ‘contemplative gaze’ which, in the words of John Paul II, “does not look to new accomplishments but enjoys the beauty of what has already been achieved.” [1]

Scholars have noted a close link between the order of creation and the order of salvation, with the Sabbath as the key link between them. [2] Israel’s redemption from Egypt is portrayed in the Bible as the renewal and completion of creation, where God “creates” Israel as His own treasured people, called to witness to His presence in the world. [3] When God establishes His covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai and gives them the Decalogue, the commandment to “remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” with the attendant prohibition against work on that day, recalls God’s creative work in six days and His rest and blessing on the seventh day. (Ex 20:11; cf. CCC 2169)

The Sabbath rest is thus a memorial to the creation of the world. As God stopped creating on the seventh day, so is man to cease all creative activity on that day. For six days, man exercises his God-given dominion over creation by manipulating nature through his work. On the seventh day, he forsakes his creative power over the universe and surrenders it back to God, acknowledging that “he has no rights of ownership or authority over the world.” [4]

This is the first rationale for the Jewish Sabbath laws: Contrary to popular belief, the categories of prohibited “work” (Hebrew melachah) have nothing to do with the effort required to perform them or whether they are related to one’s employment or livelihood. The forbidden activities, in fact, consist in creative work, that is, “the execution of an intelligent purpose by the practical skill of man,” or “production, creation, transforming an object for human purposes; but not physical exertion.” [5] This is why Jewish law stipulates that it is okay to take out the trash on the Sabbath, but not to write a letter or to plant a seed in the ground.

Liberation from Slavery

The Sabbath has a second major purpose: it is a memorial of the Exodus from Egypt. As expressed in the book of Deuteronomy, Jews are to observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy because they are to “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” (Deut 5:15; cf. CCC 2170)

As Rabbi Hayim Donin explains, in recalling the deliverance from Egyptian slavery the Sabbath becomes “a weekly-recurring divine protest against slavery and oppression.” [6] Yet freedom is not only gained from hard labor and professional obligations. The Sabbath is also an opportunity to be liberated from the myriad household obligations, trivial amusements and restless diversions that so clutter our lives. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel:

Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self. [7]

A Sanctuary in Time

Shabbat CandlesIn other words, the Sabbath is a sanctuary in time. It is not by coincidence that the commandment to keep the Sabbath is repeated immediately following the instructions for the building of the Tabernacle in Exodus (Ex 31:13-17). Just as God’s sanctuary in space needed clear boundaries (a courtyard surrounded by a fence) to keep the realm of holiness separate from the common, so the Sabbath, as sanctuary in time, requires clear boundaries to separate it from the other six days of the week.

This concept reveals a second key to understanding the Sabbath: the ancient rabbis defined as prohibited melachah the thirty-nine classes of work that were carried out in the construction of the sanctuary in the desert [8] – itself considered by the ancients to be a microcosm or “world in miniature.” [9] Just as God “rested” from creating the world on the seventh day, and as the Israelites ceased their creative work on the Tabernacle/microcosm to enjoy God’s presence in the sanctuary in space, so Jews of every generation cease from all creative activity in order to enjoy the rest and blessings of the “sanctuary in time.”

When orthodox Jewish friends in Jerusalem began to invite me to their Shabbat meals, I started to understand why they view the Sabbath observances not as burdensome obligations but as a gift that they love and cherish. Simply said, the commandments are boundaries that protect the sanctity of the Sabbath from common, mundane activities. For twenty-four hours, the observant Jew is released from his obligations to check his email, clean the house, mow the lawn, drive the kids to soccer practice, or watch his favorite TV show. Conversations are not interrupted by phone calls or texts; the inner voice nagging mom to take a quick trip to the store is silenced. For one day, all worldly concerns are set aside for the sake of spiritual pursuits such as prayer, Torah study, quality family time, conversation and songs around a bountiful Shabbat table, leisurely strolls, and rest. The result is a wonderful atmosphere of peace, serenity and joy. Fittingly, observant Jews don’t usually greet each other with a casual “hi” on the Sabbath, but with “ Shabbat shalom,” or “the peace of the Sabbath” (be with you).

Even though Jesus had some sharp disagreements with the Pharisees concerning the observance of the Sabbath, the Catechism reminds us that he “never fails to respect the holiness of this day” (CCC 2173).

His views on the sanctity of Sabbath, in fact, are in close agreement with an old midrashic saying that will have a familiar ring to the Christian reader, revealing how the ancient rabbis were well aware of the danger of Sabbatical legalism: “The Sabbath was given over to man and not man to the Sabbath.” [10]

A Taste of the World to Come

Yet the Sabbath is much more than a well-deserved rest at the end of the week. Heschel states poignantly that “we look to the Sabbath as our homeland, as our source and destination.” [11] Indeed, Jewish tradition views the delight of the Sabbath rest as a foretaste of the world to come. As stated in the blessing that is pronounced after every meal: “The compassionate One! May He cause us to inherit the day which will be completely a Sabbath and rest day for eternal life.” [12]

In the words of another midrash:

The world to come is characterized by the kind of holiness possessed by the Sabbath in this world… The Sabbath possesses a holiness like that of the world to come. [13]

Such is the Jewish love for the Sabbath that the seventh day is experienced not as an “it” but as a “she.” As expressed in the mystical song Lecha Dodi, sung in the synagogues every Friday night, the Sabbath is personified as a bride and queen who is invited to come and join herself to Israel: “Come my beloved to welcome the bride; let us receive the Shabbat presence!”

From the Seventh to the Eighth Day

What are Catholics to make of all this? Since the Sabbath was specifically given to Israel as the sign of God’s covenant with them, Gentiles were never bound to observe it as Jews are. And yet the Lord’s resurrection on the first (or eighth) day not only recalls the first creation but also “symbolizes the new creation ushered in by Christ’s Resurrection” (CCC 2174). [14] For Christians, therefore, “Sunday fulfills the spiritual truth of the Jewish Sabbath and announces man’s eternal rest in God” (CCC 2175).

Even though the “Sunday obligation” does not require Catholics to restrict their activities to the degree of orthodox Jewish Sabbath observance, we may ask ourselves whether we have not reduced our celebration of the Lord’s Day to a bare minimum, considering our Sunday duty “done” once we have attended Mass (CCC 2180-82). Perhaps we should reconsider how to erect some concrete “boundaries” to protect the sanctity of the day, not only from hard labor but also from frivolous and mundane activities that distract us from the rich meaning of the Lord’s Day (cf. CCC 2184-85). Just as Jews see the Sabbath as a “foretaste of the world to come,” so are Catholics called to reveal the eighth day as an “image of eternity,” and “the day without end which will know neither evening nor morning, the imperishable age which will never grow old.” [15]

[1] John Paul II, Apostolic letter Dies Domini on Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy 11.

[2] Cf. Dies Domini 12.

[3] For example, the Wisdom of Solomon concludes a long description of the Exodus by stating that in it “the whole creation in its nature was fashioned anew” (Wis 19:6). Cf. Terrence E. Fretheim, “The Reclamation of Creation: Redemption and Law in Exodus,“ Interpretation (1991): 354-365; Bernard Och, “Creation and Redemption: Towards a Theology of Creation,” Judaism (Spring 95, Vol. 44 Issue 2): 226-243.

[4] Hayim H. Donin, To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life (Basic Books, 1972). Kindle Edition, loc. 925.

[5] Donin, loc. 945.

[6] Donin, loc. 954. In the words of the Catechism, the Sabbath is “a day of protest against the servitude of work and the worship of money” (CCC 2172).

[7] Heschel, Abraham Joshua, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (Farra, Strauss and Giroux, 1951), p. 1.

[8] “The main classes of work are forty save one: sowing, ploughing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, cleansing crops, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, washing or beating or dyeing it, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying [a knot], loosening [a knot], sewing two stitches, tearing in order to sew two stitches, hunting a gazelle, slaughtering or flaying or salting it or curing its skin, scraping it or cutting it up, writing two letters, erasing in order to write two letters, building, pulling down, putting out a fire, lighting a fire, striking with a hammer and taking out aught from one domain into another.” Mishnah Shabbat 7:2; cf. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 49b; Donin, loc. 1212; Heschel p. 16.

[9] Cf. Jon D. Levenson, “The Temple and the World,” JR 64 (1984): 275-98.

[10] Mekhilta on Ex 31:13, as quoted in Heschel, p. 5 and Donin, loc. 1284; cf. Mk 2:27; CCC 2173.

[11] Heschel, The Sabbath, p. 18.

[12] Blessings after meals.

[13] Mekhilta on Ex 31: 17, as quoted in Heschel, The Sabbath, p. 61.

[14] On the resurrection as new creation, cf. Dies Domini 24-25.

[15] Dies Domini 26, quoting Saint Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, 27, 66.

Dr. André Villeneuve is Associate Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. He obtained his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and his Licentiate in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Commission in Rome. He is the author of Divine Marriage from Eden to the End of Days (2021), and the director of Catholics for Israel.

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