Summary: The Sabbath is a transformative tradition, an antidote to anxiety. We are restless till we find our rest in God. We set aside our anxieties and busyness, our pursuit of more, and we recognize that our refuge is God alone.
The President of local synagogue, and a close friend of mine, asked me if I knew the most sacred Jewish holy day. I said it must be either Passover or Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). He smiled and said, “No, it’s the Sabbath. It is the most important day in the Jewish calendar.”
The Sabbath is a Creation Ordinance, given by God prior to giving Israel the Ten Commandments at Sinai. God rested, and expects us to rest too. The 4th Commandment urges us to “remember” this day because it is too easily forgotten or neglected. We follow God’s pattern when we work six days and cease our normal labor one day.
On any given Friday evening, as sundown approaches, observant Jewish families are winding down…sending one last email, paying one more bill, cleaning one more room of the house. There’s an atmosphere of joyous anticipation. Then the family gathers around the table, covered with a white tablecloth, a symbol of purity. The mother lights the Sabbath candles and prays an ancient Hebrew blessing. Family members then greet one another with “Shabbat shalom!” or “Good Shabbos!”
The family then enjoys a glass of wine and two loaves of challah, a traditional braided bread; two loaves to represent the double portion of manna provided for the Sabbath during the wilderness journey to the Promised Land. And the six braids of the two loaves represent the Twelve Tribes. The challah loaves are covered with a white cloth as the veil of a bride. The unveiling welcomes the Sabbath, followed by a prayer: “Blessed are You, Lord, King of the Universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.”
At the arrival of the Sabbath, the home is transformed into sacred space, and the meal becomes “a glimpse of human life as it should be, in the design of God” (Harvey Cox). Rabbi Abraham Heschel describes the Sabbath observance as a cathedral, constructed not of brick and mortar, but of time. The Sabbath helps us escape the tyranny of time. Heschel says that “Judaism tries to foster the vision of life as a pilgrimage to the seventh day; the longing for the Sabbath all the days of the week,” and a taste of the world to come…which we will be better prepared for by observing a Sabbath rest. “Six days we wrestle with the world; on the Sabbath we care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.”
We glimpse the sacredness of the Sabbath in Fiddler on the Roof, as Tevya and Golde pray a blessing for their daughters around the Sabbath table. The song concludes, “May the Lord protect and defend you; may the Lord preserve you from pain. Favor them, O Lord, with happiness and peace. O hear our Sabbath prayer, Amen.”
Gordon College professor Marvin Wilson writes that the Sabbath is marked by shalom, peace. He says, “A home of shalom is a healthy home. Strife brings sickness, but shalom is wellness and wholeness. Shalom is supernaturally produced in the life of each believer. The unity of the home, and of all God’s people, is the unity of God’s Spirit” (Our Father Abraham).
The Sabbath is both a commandment and a gift. It is a day of freedom and release from labor. It is described by Jews as a visiting queen to be greeted with festivity and oneg shabbat, “joy of Sabbath.”
The early Christian church initially gathered for worship on Saturday, but then as more and more Gentiles converted, the day was shifted to Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection, the “Day of the Lord.” Though this caused a severe divide between Jews and Christians, it too was observed as a Sabbath, a day of rest. The Apostle Paul urged believers not to judge one another with respect to the day of worship (Col 2:16, Rom 14:5-6). The principle is one day out of seven.
Jesus said that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath,” Mark 2:27-28. The Sabbath is a safeguard reminding us that there is more to life than work. For some religious leaders of Jesus’ day, Sabbath laws had become more important than Sabbath rest. Christian churches have been known to also make strict rules regarding the Sabbath, some of which were oppressive. However…I do think kids’ sports should wait for Sunday afternoon, and maybe we could use a Sabbath break from technology.
The Sabbath is a custom the whole world needs. We need time for rest and reflection, time to unwind from the pace of life. We sense a kind of holiness in stepping aside from the frantic routine of day-to-day stresses. We rest and recover a full sense of self. We forsake the false gods of hectic busyness and accept from the One True God the gift of restfulness.