Keeping the Sabbath was of critical importance to first century Jewish practice. The day is set aside for rest and those that willfully broke the Sabbath were to be stoned to death. This Sabbath was considered by non-Jews to be a most peculiar practice and a practice which could be exploited. The Romans took advantage the practice by building earthworks near the walls of Jerusalem on the Sabbath because the Jews refused to shoot weapons at them (War 1.15-147). In the Diaspora it was common for a Jew to be taken to court on the Sabbath, hoping they would not appear to defend themselves (Antiq. 16.45-46). Greek and Roman writers regularly mocked the Jews for the practice of the Sabbath. The poet Rutilius Namatianus, for example, ridiculed the Jews for being lazy, wasting one day a week when they ought to be working.
Sabbath was not intended to be simply a cessation from all activity. On the contrary, most Jews tried to make it as festive a day as possible. Food was prepared ahead of time so that it was available for an evening meal after sundown when the Sabbath came in. There were rules (devised by the Pharisees) allowing people to carry food to a neighbor’s house, increasing the festive, community aspect of Sabbath. Meals were likely fish or fowl, better than a regular mean but not the red meat of a feast day. Many Jews gathered at a synagogue for prayer and scripture reading.
Modifications of the Sabbath laws were made. For example, the Law prohibits fighting on the Sabbath, but the command does not refer to fighting in defense during a war on the Sabbath. To attack was not permitted, but if the enemy tried to take advantage of the Sabbath, defense was permitted. In the Mishnah, there are 39 activities prohibited on the Sabbath (m.Shabbat 7:2). One was not permitted to reap on the Sabbath, since this is a form of work. By the time of the Talmud, some rabbis would not climb a tree on the Sabbath lest they accidently break off a branch and be guilty of “reaping on the Sabbath” (Shabbos 8:3–5, 21:6–10). It is highly unlikely that these specific rulings go back to the time of Jesus, but undoubtedly the process of clarifying the Sabbath was underway in the first century.
Some Jews made other modifications in order to make keeping the Sabbath easier (or perhaps more difficult). For example, according to the Law one is only permitted to neither walk a short distance nor carry burdens on the Sabbath. How is it possible, then, for a family to gather in one home for a Sabbath meal? They may have to travel more than a short distance and they certainly would have to carry some food to share at the meal. By the time of the Talmud a person was permitted to walk and carry within an area bounded by walls and doors, like a city wall. This led to the development of eruvin traditions. An eruv is a boundary within which movement and carrying is permitted. This tradition is far more complicated than my short description here, but it illustrates the trend to make the Sabbath easier for people to keep and enjoy.
Jesus’ words in Matt 23:1-4 may refer to these additional clarifications of Sabbath and other laws. While Jesus never breaks the Sabbath, he seems to challenge more restrictive interpretations of the Law. In Matt 12:8 he declares himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath and proceeds to heal someone who is not critically ill on the Sabbath. If the Sabbath was so important to some Jews that they were willing to place themselves in mortal danger to keep it, how might Jesus’ words and actions be understood? Is he challenging the Sabbath itself, or the accumulating traditions about the Sabbath?