Aviva Bass grew up a secular Jew in Florida. When I met her she was the assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Israel in Melbourne, Australia. Female rabbis are a recent phenomenon in Judaism, with the first accepted about a century ago. There are now some three hundred around the globe. I soon discovered her habit of talking faster when she became excited about something, and when she talked about the Sabbath, she talked fast.
She told me of the roots of the Sabbath in the Creation story in Genesis, with God resting on the seventh day. She then called my attention to the Torah—the five books of Moses—and pointed out that the Ten Commandments are presented twice in these books, each time with different emphases in the Sabbath commandment. The Sabbath is to be remembered in Exodus, but observed in Deuteronomy.
“So what the [Jewish] tradition has done,” she said, “is teach that both of these things are important. The memory of Shabbat [the Hebrew word for Sabbath] and the observance of Shabbat are both integral to a Shabbat experience.”
I’ve found that these two aspects— the memory and the observance—are neat ways to consider the Sabbath.
The Memory of Sabbath
On the seventh day of Creation week, God stepped into time. He created time—day and night— and now He gave time as a gift to His creation. The first holy object in the history of the world was not a mountain or an altar or a temple, but a space in time. It was holy time, which simply means time set apart for a special use.
The problem is that time never stops. It doesn’t matter what you do—or don’t do. Time keeps ticking silently away. Titus Maccius Plautus (254–184 b.c.) complained, “God confound the man who first found out how to distinguish hours. Confound him, too, who in this place set up a sundial, to cut and hack my days so wretchedly into small portions.”
We’ve been slicing and dicing time ever since. In laboratories, transistors can switch faster than a picosecond (a billionth of a second). How slow is that when compared to a laser strobe light in 2007 that emits pulses lasting 110 attoseconds (110 billionths of a billionth of a second!).
The problem is that the more we divide time, the less of it we seem to have.
Lewis Mumford suggests that, from the fourteenth century, the clock made us into timekeepers, then time-savers, and now timeservers. “The clock,” he writes, “is a piece of power machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes.” He says that a world made up of minutes and seconds has taught us “irreverence” toward the sun and the seasons because the authority of nature has been superseded. In fact, with the invention of the clock, eternity has ceased to serve as the measure and focus of human events.
Neil Postman adds, “The inexorable ticking of the clock may have had more to do with the weakening of God’s supremacy than all the treatises produced by the philosophers of the Enlightenment.” The clock, he adds, has “introduced a new form of conversation between man and God, in which God appears to have been the loser.” He writes, “Perhaps Moses should have included another Commandment: Thou shalt notmake mechanical representations of time.”
We’ve become slaves to time!
But in the Sabbath commandment, we find a counter to this problem. This holy time is a reminder of eternity, a reminder of God, and a reminder of how time began at Creation. And the Sabbath is measured, not by marking it off with a human made instrument, but by sunsets—a feat of God’s creation.
God is the Creator of time, every attosecond of it. Unfortunately, time marked out by whatever measurement has become linked to human productivity and performance, to the workplace, to deadlines and appointments.
God says, “Stop this nonsense.” God says, “Remember.” God says, “I am Lord of the Sabbath, I rested; you do the same.” And God says, “This is time for us.”
Remember the Sabbath day—use it as holy time, set-apart time. Use it as a celebration of time, suggests the theologian and rabbi Abraham Heschel, in his classic work, The Sabbath: “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of the things of space. On the Sabbath we become attunedto holiness in time. It is a day on which God calls us to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”
To see the Sabbath as a gift from God makes this day a high point and a weekly reminder of God. It’s a gift that helps bring time under control. One day a week, the Sabbath, a gift of time, is the right gift for any age. It’s the perfect gift for our age.
Observance of Sabbath
Six days a week we struggle to make a living. The Sabbath provides a time for the seed of eternity that God has planted in our souls. It’s in relationship building with God that the seed of eternity is especially cared for. The Sabbath gives the time to do this. Here is time to reflect, time for the Word, time for prayer, time for fellowship, time for worship, and time for service.
It’s as if God is saying to us, “I know you’re going to be pressed for time to care for your affairs during the week, so let Me help you out. Here’s a slice of time. It’s a gift. I know you’re busy, but let’s keep this as an appointment together so we can get to know each other better.”
The heavenly Father made an appointment with His children. He blocked out a whole day—just for us!
In His gift of the Sabbath, God is saying, “Let’s spend some quality time together, regularly.” He wants us to build a relationship with Him, and He’s given the time for it to happen.
In addition to time for building our relationship with God, the Sabbath allows time for families and friends. On the Sabbath we are privileged to nurture relationships with each other, to do the things we know are important for ourselves and for others but never seem to have time for during the week.
There are several things we can do to help gain the most out of the Sabbath.
Prepare. Preparing for the Sabbath indicates that this day will be special, that it has an appointment we value. When people come to visit our homes, we prepare. All business affairs are finalized so they won’t interrupt our time together. We prepare the house so there’s no need to do it while they are there. The food is planned. Similarly, in preparing for the Sabbath, we make it a welcome visitor in our lives.
Block out business and commerce. Blocking commerce out of our minds can be difficult, particularly for those of us who run our own business. It requires discipline and, again, preparation in the sense of finalizing what can be finalized before the end of the week.
God says, “ ‘Keep the Sabbath day holy. Don’t pursue your own interests on that day, / but enjoy the Sabbath and speak of it with delight as the Lord’s holy day. / Honor the Sabbath in everything you do on that day, and don’t follow your own desires or talk idly’ ” (Isaiah 58:13, 14, NLT).* This is better read as “don’t pursue your own business interests” and avoid idle business talk. Sabbath is a time to reflect on the ways of God.
Block out the secular. The world will survive without us, and we will survive better without it for 24 hours. When the football team I follow plays its games on the Sabbath, I can wait until later to find out how good or how poorly they did.
The Sabbath is intended for rest and celebration, not the normal, not the everyday. It’s a day for refreshing the spirit. Everything else is an intruder.
Build on relationships. The central purpose of the Sabbath is to build a stronger relationship with God and with family and friends—to build community.
God says to families, “I give you the Sabbath, set-apart time, holy time. Observe it, and you will discover the time you’re looking for.”
Remember the Redeemer. Worship is central to the Sabbath. Jesus is central to our worship, for He is our Redeemer and Lord. The Israelites were instructed to observe the Sabbath as a reminder that they “ ‘were once slaves in Egypt, but the Lord [their] God brought [them] out with his strong hand and powerful arm’ ” (Deuteronomy 5:15). The Sabbath was a reminder to them of their salvation from Egyptian bondage.
The Sabbath is also a reminder to us of our salvation from sin by Jesus. Through Him we’re no longer slaves. Our Savior is Lord and Master of the Sabbath (see Mark 2:28). The Sabbath only finds its ultimate meaning in Jesus, the Creator, Lord over time, Lord of the Sabbath, Redeemer, and Risen One. In Him alone is salvation.
Jesus was God-focused in His teaching and fellowship. He read the Scripture and preached it. He was people-focused in His application of Sabbath observance. For Jesus, the core of the Sabbath came back to relationships: the relationship with God and the relationship with those around Him. Jesus brought the gift of grace called the Sabbath back to its original purpose. It can deliver us from the tyranny of time.
When my family moved to a different place, our neighbors gave us a gift—a plate to put dip and chips on. Nothing dramatic. A small gift. Yet it has incredible value because of what it stands for. We were saying our farewells when our neighbor’s wife pulled out the gift, gave my wife a hug, and said, “You’re the best neighbors we’ve ever had.” That gave the gift its value.
God has given us a gift in the Sabbath. What we do with it is up to us. We can feel a warm glow about it, but if we don’t unwrap it and use it, there is little value in it for us.
Learning from the Rabbi
Rabbi Aviva mentioned two words: memory and observance. As she talked, two other words came to my mind: anticipation and reluctance. She taught me about anticipation for the Sabbath and reluctance to let it go.
The anticipation was highlighted as she spoke about the preparation for the Sabbath and the festive, family nature of the Sabbath. For the practicing Jew, it’s the highlight of the week, often beginning with a worship experience in the synagogue, then a family meal together on Friday evening.
Sabbath rituals are involved: lighting candles, washing hands, and various blessings at the Friday evening meal. And these are done with a festive air. There’s a warm family atmosphere with the expectation of guests. There’s lots of talking, prayer, and singing that often goes long into the night.
The Sabbath is a day of celebration. Religious-minded Jews expect to have three festive meals during Sabbath hours. Families or groups take the time to go for walks, sit and talk, or drive to a park. They may simply spend time with their family or play games with their children.
Rabbi Aviva surprised me when she spoke of the Sabbath as a 25-hour experience. She then described the reluctance to let the Sabbath go, so the Sabbath is finished when the third star rises in the sky. It’s dark. It’s about an hour after sunset. The Havdalah ritual completes the Sabbath.
“Havdalah means ‘to separate,’ ” she explained. “This is very sensory, a beautiful ceremony with spices and wine and candles. It’s a sweet ending of Shabbat.”
The perfume from the spices is an attempt to spread the essence of the Sabbath into the new week by “infusing it with the calm of the Shabbat.”
None of this is to suggest that Christian Sabbath keepers should be Jewish in how they observe the Sabbath. While we can learn from what they do, Jesus must be central in our Sabbath celebration. We can learn to develop a stronger sense of anticipation of its arrival, and a stronger reluctance to let it go.
That’s the best way to treat this gift from God.
Jesus: Lord of the Sabbath
In the time of Jesus Sabbath keeping was a burden. This isn’t to say there wasn’t joy on the Sabbath. People ate their finest meals on the Sabbath, they socialized, and they fellowshiped in the synagogue. It was a day elevated above the humdrum. But it tended to be law based, not grace based. Jesus challenged this.
Jesus demonstrated how to observe the Sabbath. Note the following:
- Jesus fellowshipped with others. The text is simple. He went “on the Sabbath day . . . to the synagogue” (Luke 4:16). This was His custom.
- Jesus taught with authority (see Mark 1:21, 22). And He taught with real authority, not like the teachers of religion, who tended to rely on the authority of the teachers before them.
- Jesus was practical in Sabbath observance (see Mark 2:23–28). Walking through fields on Sabbath, His disciples broke off heads of wheat, rubbed them in their hands, and ate the grain. The Pharisees called it harvesting (working).
- Jesus was people focused. Jesus says, “ ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ ” (Mark 2:27). This is the philosophy that drove the things He did on Sabbath. The Sabbath is for doing good.
- Jesus performed healings and works of mercy (see Luke 13:10–17). There are many Sabbath healings recorded in Scripture. Jesus: Lord of the Sabbath.