Jerusalem can get a little crazy on a Friday afternoon.
My friend Annalisa tells of her journey through the Holy Land during her college years. Her journey’s final day happened to be a Friday in Jerusalem. Already busy with the hum of hustle and bustle, Jerusalem picks up an even more frantic pace as Friday’s sun begins to descend toward the skyline. Hurry overtakes the city. Cars zoom by faster and faster. Buses start moving before newly boarded passengers even have a chance to sit down. Pedestrian paces pick up dramatically. All of a sudden, Jerusalem is in a flurry. Conservative Jewish men can be seen running so fast that the tightly wound Orthodox curls dropping from their temples flow far behind their heads as they race to home sweet home just in time for the sun to disappear into the night.
What’s the hurry?
Why? What provokes the Jerusalem rush?
Of course, this same scene has been playing itself out for centuries every Friday evening in the ancient city. Jerusalem before Friday sundown is a city buzzing in anticipation of the weekly celebration—the Sabbath that begins as soon as Friday’s sun descends. The sun’s setting inaugurates a day of rest and joy and hope as an entire city once again finds itself wrapped in the arms of a God at rest. Week in, week out, for centuries, the city has made its way home once again to the sacred day of rest to rejoin God, synagogue, and family in celebration. Jerusalem is making its way home to light some candles, take its sigh of relief, and party with wine and laughter and the sweet taste of challah. It’s the dawn of creation all over again!
The ancient Jewish rabbis have always seen the Sabbath as a kind of homecoming. It’s that perfectly timed day each week when God’s people—prone to wander from the Lord their God—are once again welcomed back into the loving, eternal embrace of their Creator. Sabbath isn’t just a day of rest or family or good food. Rather, it’s a structured reminder each week for all of God’s people to return to their Maker, who intricately crafted them with love. The Sabbath day is the day when we all together run back home to the presence of God in our sacred lives.
Jerusalem on Friday is a whole city coming home. A whole city entering rest. Soon the city will be shut down for a day. Can you imagine it?
A day for community
Sabbath is first about a relationship with God, and it’s also about our relationships with each other. Leviticus 23 makes this crucial connection: “There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a day of Sabbath rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the LORD” (Leviticus 23:3).
The weekly Sabbath, alongside other yearly celebrations, such as Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the Feast of Weeks, was not celebrated individually or in isolation but as a sacred day for the community to come together. Such a rhythm offered a texture in the yearly and weekly calendar for people to enter into enriching, life-giving relationships around shared worship. Sabbath as such has never existed as individualism or isolationism. Particularly following the temple’s destruction in A.D. 70, the synagogue served as a central communal gathering place for Sabbath-keeping Jews. God’s intention for the Sabbath was, and is, that we be drawn into the richness of community.
Years ago, one researcher discovered something interesting about Sabbath in Jewish communities: mortality rates plummet on the Sabbath. How could it be that fewer people die on this one day? The researcher concluded that even the sick and terminally ill “rallied” for the Sabbath day because it was a chance to be with family and friends. Sabbath creates a kind of community that we can look forward to.
Why we need community
What significance does this have for those of us who live in a hyper-individualistic society?
In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam describes the ways in which Western society is increasingly lived in isolation and individualism. Putnam famously said that instead of having friends, we watch Friends on television. We no longer truly need each other. We think we can fulfill all our own needs with the click of a button. And in many cases we can. Because of this, we trade the kind of community that’s forged around the Sabbath for a “sense” of community wherein we aren’t vulnerable to each other in real and tangible ways.
In many urban Jewish communities one will observe far more people walking on the street on the Sabbath than on any other day of the week. Why? Because many Orthodox Jews believe driving a car on the Sabbath is work. While such a thought may seem arcane, it has a powerful social implication. On the Sabbath, one must walk with fellow worshipers to Sabbath services.
David Jacobson illustrates the social dynamic that’s involved in this “It is . . . the fact that one group of people who live in separate homes are walking together to the same place at the same time. Try to think of another community that similarly walks together. This doesn’t happen in very many churches anymore, nor does it happen for baseball games or grade school. Occasionally a neighborhood might have its own Fourth of July parade where people walk the streets together, but that’s only once a year.”
In a very real sense, the Sabbath gives a framework and context for the flourishing of ethical communities where a day shapes our relationships. The Sabbath draws people together, not around shared likes or dislikes but around a commitment to God and each other. The Bible, it turns out, has nothing to say about the building of communities where we gather because of shared opinions. The church is the church that Christ builds, not our shared interests. And we are called to live in covenant community where we live and die for each other.
The biblical picture of community can best be illustrated by the early church community: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42–47).
This expression of ethical community was costly, painful, and dangerous. It was possible only if people were willing to give up their rights and serve. John Gager once attributed the success of Christianity to this kind of community, “open to all, insistent on absolute and exclusive loyalty, and concerned for every aspect of the believer’s life.” Christian community was radical community. Christianity was marked by people willing to die to self for the sake of others because of the work of Christ.
There remains a big difference between finding a church we like and serving the church that Jesus calls us to love and lay down our lives for. The words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer should be written on the canvas of our hearts “Every human dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”
True community isn’t born of our efforts in creating a sense of community—it’s the natural outcome from the act of loving other people. As far as I can tell, in the Gospels, love leads to crucifixion.
I’m convinced that the kind of community we yearn for and need most is severely lacking in the church today—a place where we learn to love even the people we don’t like. In that ethical community, Democrats and Republicans worship together, men and women serve together, and majority and minority can be reconciled.
A Sabbath community is where commitment to each other becomes deeper than our commitment to shared desires and wants. In the Sabbath, we share space with others whom God has placed before us.
During World War II, Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas was imprisoned by the Germans occupying France. Despite his feelings of rage and anger toward his Nazi captors, Levinas insisted on his obligation to the other: “To be able to see in the face of the other, in the face of those who would try and kill me, in the face of the criminal, the face of God, this is the hardest challenge of the religious enterprise.”
The Sabbath opens up space for us to enter into community with the people of God whom we may or may not like, those in our family and our church whom Christ died for. In a world where we enter community as long as it’s full of people we like, the Sabbath becomes a prophetic act of learning to love even those we deplore and dislike.
The Sabbath is the gateway to God’s dream community.
This article is adapted with permission from Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World by A. J. Swoboda (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2018).