Keeping Sabbath

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 RestSabbath 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?

25 thoughts on “Keeping Sabbath

  1. The fact that the rules are so strict about what the Jews do on the Sabbath really shows the severity of what Jesus did when he healed that man in the synagogue. Jesus was pushing the envelope with his teachings. By telling the people to do good on the Sabbath, even if it meant to do some sort of work, he was really pushing one of the most foundational traditions that the Jews partake in. But if we ask the question “Is He challenging the Sabbath itself, or the accumulating traditions about the Sabbath?” I would honestly say that He was challenging the traditions that were starting to accumulate. Reason being, the intentions behind resting on the Sabbath is to worship the Lord and to glorify Him. That is something I do not think the Lord wants people to stop doing. But when taking a ‘day of rest’ means that you do not help someone when they are in need, or something along those lines, then it goes to far and I believe that is what Jesus was trying to get at when he healed the mans hand in the synagogue.

    • I believe he was challenging the authority of the religious leaders, something we should do more of. In addition, how can one place divine healing in one of the 39 categories of melacha (creative work?) I suspect they were perplexed because this defied categorization and therefore application.

      Interesting that there is a prayer said every Shabbat called the misheberach, that pleads on behalf of all who are sick. Okay, I researched it and it is of fairly modern origin, but I can imagine that something similar took place in ancient times, and that there were no restrictions on what sort of prayer one could pray on Shabbat.

  2. The fact that the rules are so strict about what the Jews do on the Sabbath really shows the severity of what Jesus did when he healed that man in the synagogue. Jesus was pushing the envelope with his teachings. By telling the people to do good on the Sabbath, even if it meant to do some sort of work, he was really pushing one of the most foundational traditions that the Jews partake in. But if we ask the question “Is He challenging the Sabbath itself, or the accumulating traditions about the Sabbath?” I would honestly say that He was challenging the traditions that were starting to accumulate. Reason being, the intentions behind resting on the Sabbath is to worship the Lord and to glorify Him. That is something I do not think the Lord wants people to stop doing. But when taking a ‘day of rest’ means that you do not help someone when they are in need, or something along those lines, then it goes to far and I believe that is what Jesus was trying to get at when he healed the mans hand in the synagogue.

  3. In Mark 2:27 Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The Jews put a lot of seriousness to obeying the Sabbath and they were very strict with what rules they had to follow on the Sabbath. Jesus healed on the Sabbath, it was not a case where he saved someone who was dying, but it did not matter, he was helping someones life, even on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was not made for people to feel like they have to obey the rules on the Sabbath or feel guilty or just feel like they need to worship on the Sabbath, it should be something that they want to do. It seems that Jesus was just showing people that the point of the Sabbath was to worship and honor God, not being so silly as not be willing to help out another Brother or Sister or Christ, just because it is on the Sabbath.

  4. Jesus came to restore. I don’t believe he was trying to destroy the Sabbath at all rather that he wanted to restore it to what it was to begin with. He wanted it to be about worship and not about rules. With a rule that you can’t help/heal someone on the Sabbath it breaks the rule to love your neighbor. The Sabbath was not about not doing work, rather it was about taking time to relax and focus on God. Some people have to do things in worship to God and that’s fine. Like you stated they had a festive time on Sabbath so why the need for so many rules?

  5. Jesus was challenging the traditions building up around the Sabbath. God created the Jewish law and that includes the law of the Sabbath. How could Jesus, being fully God, challenge or contradict the Law that God created? Also, the Pharisees constantly built up traditions and fences around the Law to try and protect themselves from breaking it. Christ often went out of his way to call them out on this. He made the point that it is pointless to try to be perfect by keeping the Law through strict rules. In the story where Jesus tells the rich man to sell everything and give it to the poor, the man goes away sad because he knows it is impossible. I don’t think that is strictly a story about being kind to the poor. I think he was making the point that trying to earn salvation by following the Law is impossible, as the rich man realized.

  6. With all of the rules set in place for the Sabbath, it is obvious that the Jews took it very serious seeing how strict they took everything. Leviticus 23:3 is a great example of how important the Sabbath day really is. It says, “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. I don’t think Jesus was necessarily challenging the Sabbath by healing someone. Even though it says that the Sabbath is a day of rest, I think that Jesus was trying to spread the importance of worship and spreading the love of God. In my mind, healing is an act of “work”, but rather an act of kindness and love.

  7. Wow, that’s a really good point. It would seem, based on what was said in your post, that Jesus wasn’t actually attacking the Sabbath itself, merely the traditions made about the Sabbath. This is obviously true, since Jesus is God and made the law in the first place. But it is refreshing to look at it from such a perspective as the Pharisees may have had. Jesus’ actions would have seemed to them to be unlawful, and for Him to claim to be God when He had also by their standards broke the law would have been infuriating. This makes much more sense as to why they would have stood in such stark opposition to what He said and did. But it also makes a lot of sense as to why Jesus would have done what He did and said things the way He did. Because the Pharisees’ and Scribes’ perspectives were completely wrong.

  8. While I wouldn’t argue that Jesus was challenging the Sabbath itself, He was definitely challenging the Pharisees’ understanding of the Sabbath. They had built up such a wall around the Law to keep from breaking it, it would seem they could no longer understand where God’s Law ended and their own regulations began. When Jesus defied their concept of Sabbath, then, it is no wonder that they were upset. While they could have been upset simply because of their sense of justice for keeping the Law (as was mentioned in the original post, a man who willfully broke the Sabbath could be stoned), it is also possible that, at least to some extent, they were just as upset about Jesus’ refusal to submit to their religious authority.”The separatist Pharisees attacked. . . the way [Jesus] placed himself above Sabbath regulations” (Strauss, 133). While Jesus didn’t actually break the Sabbath, He did make it clear that He was the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28). Contrary to what the Pharisees thought, Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law, but rather to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17).

  9. Back then for the Jews to keep the Sabbath as for a day of rest as much as possible, and for Jesus to go heal a man on the Sabbath, would be seen very much so for Jesus to be challenging the Sabbath. For me thought I don’t think Jesus was challenging the Sabbath. I think Jesus was trying to teach the Jews that it’s ok to keep the Sabbath, but if you do little work for something that is right, it is ok. I think for Jesus to do that was more so of a way to tell the Jews to relax a little bit on the laws of the Sabbath, but to still keep the Sabbath as well. I remember that when I was a kid we wouldn’t do any yard work, or cleaning in our house on Sunday because it was a day of rest. Yet I still remember going to down to my friend’s house and playing with him. I think that is where Jesus was trying to get at. He is saying that we should still keep the Sabbath for a day of rest, but it is ok to bend a little bit of the rules.

  10. Initially when thinking about the Sabbath, I think of a day made with rules that mean you are not allowed to work or anything. Pretty much as you said it was not. I never really understood the traditions or rules of the sabbath, mostly because it does not seem like hardly anyone really observes it anymore. Hearing about how festive it actually was for some certainly surprised me. It is also interesting to hear how many modifications were made to it through the years that made it more restrictive. I believe in doing what He did in Matthew 12:8, Jesus was trying to point out that there was fault in the ways that the sabbath was observed at that time. He still wanted people to keep the sabbath, but in the way He originally intended. The way it was written in the Law by God. It was a day to rest and worship Him, was it not? Did He ever once state that absolutely no work or activity was to be done? I could be wrong, but I do not believe so.

    • It is true that many of the Sabbath traditions are not carried out today by most Christians because these traditions, as well as others, fall under the old laws specifically for the Jewish people. Many Jews today still follow the Sabbath, but probably not as strictly as many did once with the laws given by the Pharisees. I think that there is a difference between challenging the Sabbath itself and challenging the restrictive interpretation as Professor Long put it. As said in the text, Jesus did follow the laws of the Sabbath because it was part of the laws that God had given to the Jewish people. For Jesus to not participate in these laws would have been skeptical and led people to question whether he was the Messiah. The Pharisees put extra importance on insignificant things and made their own rules of how to go about following the Sabbath. So I do not think it was wrong of Jesus to question the rules of the Pharisees when they were already misguided, he simply confronts their motives as he does multiple times in the gospels.

  11. Keeping the Sabbath was very important for the Jews and they strictly obeyed the rules that were set in place for the day of rest. Jesus was not challenging keeping the Sabbath as a whole, but rather challenging the traditions that were made that were not in accordance to God’s design for the Sabbath. The purpose of the Sabbath was for a day of rest to worship and glorify God; however, it had turned into strict rules that had to be followed. Jesus wanted to make a point that doing good was not breaking the Sabbath. In Matthew 12:1-14, Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath and the Pharisee’s are accusing Him and questioning Him about what is lawful to do on the Sabbath. Jesus says, “…It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12). Jesus was seen by the Pharisee’s as someone who broke the law and should be put to death, but we can look to Jesus’ healing of the man as an example of how we should treat people.

  12. This was a really good article to read because so many people even Christians do not give the Sabbath the respect that it deserves. I understand that the Jews were hyperlegalistic towards the Sabbath, but they still had a reverance for the day, and most people do not remember that it is the Lord’s day not their day. The Jews were so focused on the laws and regulations that they couldn’t focus on God. Jesus was trying to point them to God instead of the laws. Mark 3:28 says, ” so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” I really like this quote from my study bible that says, ” Since the Sabbath was instituted at creation and not only under Moses, the Lord of the Sabbath is also Lord of creation.”

  13. It seems pretty clear that Jesus did not want to abolish the sabbath. Seeing as it has been a practice since the beginning of time (and he was there), it does not seem the type of thing that he would want to just throw out. He did however want to remind people of the reason for the sabbath. It wasn’t an excuse to make more laws, or to be lazy. The sabbath has a much more simple purpose: rest. It was simply the practice of taking a day to recuperate after long weeks of work. It’s a day to reunite oneself with God, and remember His creation of the world, and following his example of rest. The Pharisees, however, wanted to have more control than just telling people to rest. It almost seems as though they intended to use the sabbath as one more way to show their control. Jesus definitely wanted to abolish this. Jesus’ declaration of himself as “Lord of the sabbath” shows just one more way that HE was in control, not them.

  14. My understanding is that healing in ancient times involved digging up roots, grinding herbs, cooking potions, etc., all prohibited on Shabbat except in the case of Pikuah Nefesh (saving a life.) Guess where you can find the first use of any form of the word translated, “holy,” – “kadosh,” in Hebrew? Gen. 2:3, and that was prior to the giving of the torah at Sinai and prior to the birth of Abraham, the father of the Jewish people.

    In the time of the Maccabees, the Assyrians knew Shabbat was the perfect time to attack, as Jews refused to fight, until Matathias urged fighting to preserve life be allowed.

    Taking advantage of Jewish people due to Shabbat observance is still going strong, with a stealth BDS vote scheduled for Shabbat at CUNY revealed only a few days prior.

    • The CUNY story is good, that is a kind of anti-Semitic action that most people think died out years ago!

      The healing you describe is “medicine,” and would be used when a person was not in mortal danger, therefore forbidden on the Sabbath. There are no healers quite like Jesus, who healed on the Sabbath by his word, as in Mark 3:1-6. No “mixing up the medicine” there!

      • From what I observe is that rabbis are in the practice of putting things into categories. While you are probably familiar with the 39 categories of melacha (those activities performed in the building of the mishkan) this isn’t exactly able to fit into a category.

    • Chaya, this is an interesting discussion since it points out one of the problems with using mishnaic or tamudlic texts as a lens for reading the actions of Jesus. I am not sure I can know which of the 39 actions were “settled” by about AD 30 when Jesus is healing on Shabbat. Jesus does something that is neither forbidden or permitted, so it is “up for discussion.” If someone is suffering from a life-threatening illness, healing/medicine is permitted, but what about genuine acts of kindness for people who are going to suffering any more if they are not healed immediately? This sounds to me like the very thing the rabbinic schools would discuss and eventually codify in the Mishnah more that 200 years later, and even later for Talmud.

      I do not want to give the impression Jesus’ attitude toward Shabbat effected the discussions that ended up in the Mishnah, although that is always a possibility.

  15. When Jesus heals someone on the Sabbath and claims He to be the Lord of the Sabbath, I believe, this act sets everything in motion for the conspiracy of His execution. Blaspheme was one of the most punishable sins in Jewish culture. Claiming to be the Messiah was a radical statement that stirred up everyone, especially the Jewish officials. The fact that Jesus was not only challenging the society with the fact that He was the Messiah, He decides to challenge them on their beliefs about the Sabbath. The cultural value of the traditions of the Sabbath had such a prominent role in their life that Jesus literally shocked the whole Jewish world. I believe that this was furthering any conspiracy to kill him.

  16. Though the Sabbath is definitely an example, Jesus challenges the more restrictive interpretations of many other laws. He challenges the interpretation of giving when he talks about the woman giving all she had, compared to giving a strict percentage. Jesus said that giving to God should be from the heart, not just a set percentage. In the same way, Jesus challenges the interpretation of the Sabbath. This must have been confusing for many Jews, since the Sabbath was very strictly followed. Jesus challenged these strict interpretations by saying that the Sabbath was a day to do good, not do nothing. He used his healing in Matthew 12 as an example to follow. He also did this same thing while talking about gathering food on the Sabbath. By doing this, Jesus isn’t throwing the Sabbath out the window, but rather saying that it is a day to be selfless, not selfish.

  17. In my opinion, would Jesus really call himself “the Lord of the Sabbath” if he wanted to challenge the Sabbath? In my opinion he is challenging the added customs surrounding the Sabbath. You point out Matthew 12:8. When I look at my NIV Bible, plenty of the side notes give great insight into this question. Jesus was not ignoring rebellion to God’s laws. Instead he was stressing judgment and empathy in applying the laws. Jesus continuously highlighted the intent of the law, the meaning behind the message. He is indicating that God is more vital than the bent implements of worship. Also, that if we become more apprehensive with the means of worship than with the One we worship, we will miss God even as we think we are worshiping him (kind of like they missed Jesus). We know that when Jesus claimed to be “the Lord of the Sabbath”, he claimed to be superior than the law and beyond the law. This means if you’re a Jew following strict Sabbath laws and customs, you probably along with the Pharisees see Jesus as a heretic. They thought he was cursing the one true God they follow and being led by Satan. Jesus made it clear how ridiculous and petty their rules were. Jesus knew that God is a God of people, not rules. When it comes to the Sabbath, this is the easiest question or blog that I believe we’ve had to answer. He was not challenging the Sabbath; he was challenging those who put religious systems and rules over God and human need.

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