Core Beliefs of Second Temple Judaism: Sabbath

When it comes to distinctively Jewish practices, how much did the “average Jew” care about keeping these traditions?  The great majority of Jews, comments N. T. Wright, “cared sufficiently about their god, their scriptures, and their Jewish heritage to take a fair amount to trouble over the observance of at least biblical law” (Jesus and the Victory of God, 213-214). Thi would certainly be true for the practice of Sabbath in the Second Temple period.

Keeping the Sabbath was of critical importance to first century Jewish practice. The day is set aside for rest, those that willfully broke the Sabbath were to be stoned.  This day of rest was considered by non-Jews to be a most peculiar practice and a practice which could be exploited.  The Romans took advantage of the Jews’ refusal to shoot on the Sabbath to build earthworks near the walls (War 1.15-147).

Image result for shabbat shalom memeSabbath was not dour cessation from 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 (often devised by the Pharisees) allowing people to carry food to a neighbor’s house, increasing the festive, community aspect of Sabbath (erub). 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.

Practices like Sabbath worship caused problems for Diaspora Jews.  For a Palestinian Jew, it was likely more difficult to break Sabbath or to not eat kosher than to obey.  But in Gentile cites far from Jerusalem, Jews were a small minority with some “strange” traditions.  Why should the Jews not work once a week?  Why should the Jews receive other privileges other ethnic groups did not?  Rome consistently upheld the rights of the Jews to assemble and keep the Sabbath. These protections were remarkable since Julius Caesar dissolved all associations except those of very ancient practice.  Philo praised Augustus for allowing the Jews alone to assemble in synagogues.

In Matthew 23:1-4 Jesus refers 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 Matthew 12:8 Jesus 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?

14 thoughts on “Core Beliefs of Second Temple Judaism: Sabbath

  1. The sabbath represents the cornerstone of the Jewish faith – the law. The guidelines given by God to Israel as a code of conduct to live righteously was essential to the Jews. Naturally, it was of incredible importance to keep the law, even to the point of laying down their lives to keep it. When Jesus acted in ways that were perceived to be deliberately breaking the law, it makes sense that the devout Jews would react strongly. The specific traditions concerning keeping the Sabbath were considered the equivalent of the original commandment during Jesus’ time, so what he did was essentially viewed as blasphemy. Obviously, Jesus wasn’t wrong about the law, but he understood the reasons for it. The law was intended for the benefit of man, not to burden him with rules (Mark 2:27). Jesus understood this, but the religious leaders who were watching him were outraged because of their understanding of the law.

  2. Sabbath is part of the Shema, henceforth it would be a Jewish core belief as it corresponds with another. It’s part of honoring God — having a Sabbath and keeping it holy and dedicated. It’s interesting how now, in modern times, most dub Sunday as the Sabbath or holy day (in alignment with the ‘seven days of the week’, the seventh being Sunday and ‘the day God rested’). However, as some people work on Sundays in other religious beliefs, it is possible in views of Christianity to have Sabbath on a day that is not Sunday. Even for some Jews this may be the case, even though nowadays workplaces are understanding if your religious beliefs prohibit you from working on a certain day. That is why Sabbath is so crucial — that one takes time to separate themselves from work, labor and worldly things to honor the Lord.

  3. Israel did not fail to honor the Sabbath, but they failed by giving too much honor to the Sabbath. They made it a work of righteousness not a gift of God. In Matthew 23:1-4 Jesus talks about the heavy burdens that the Pharisees put on the Jews. Jesus understands that the Pharisees are making a false standard. They are raising the bar of difficulty to make themselves look more amazing, but they fail to follow though. Jesus is challenging the traditions surrounding the Sabbath. Jesus is challenging piety.The Pharisees are not having a good value system. They are following the law just to have a level of religious status. The law that the Pharisees do follow, they follow with the wrong heart.

  4. I don’t think Jesus was challenging the Sabbath itself, but more of the traditions that were picked up along the way. I think that the Sabbath is a needed day of rest. Does it have to be a specific day, no, but we need one. As someone who consistently feels like they are running around and never have a moment to rest, the Sabbath sounds real nice. I don’t think you have to stoop to the level of doing nothing that the Jews did either. I think that is one of the things Jesus challenged. That was probably something that a Rabbi somewhere along the line stated and it was picked up and enforced. I’m sure the Jews had some sort of unofficial, subconscious competition who could be the most restful.

  5. The Sabbath was a day of rest that was known and practiced by devout Jews. Over time, there have been stipulations put onto remembering the Sabbath and what it means to rest. When Jesus was on earth, living and doing ministry, He seemed to push the boundaries of keeping the Sabbath. To Jews, He was disrespecting and not upholding the Sabbath. It is kind of ironic that the one who created the Sabbath was being questioned and tried for not resting on the Sabbath. I think a major factor that played into this confusion is that “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” as stated in the 10 Commandments was never really defined with ‘do’s’ and ‘dont’s’. From scripture, we can see that we are meant to remember the Sabbath, keep it holy, and are not meant to do any labor. Therefore, the word ‘labor’ is never defined any more past that. Does labor mean to not leave your house? Does it mean to just sit on your couch all day? Are we able to go the grocery store and get food if we need it? Since the command was never really defined for us, over time we have taken it into our own hands/words to make it what we can and can’t do. Personally, I believe that back in the day they were more focused on the religious side and keeping the law that they missed the bigger picture—by keeping the Sabbath we have a day to reflect on Christ and remembering what He did for us.

  6. The Pharisees’ treatment of the Sabbath day is reminiscent of many religious practices today; a lot of complex, earthly rules and traditions placed on what was originally meant to be a very simple practice. As God rested on the seventh day, the Jews were commanded also to rest one day per week (Exodus 20:11). This was not purely symbolic, however. It was also to give the people time to rest, relax, and focus on God. As Mark 2:27 and Hebrews 4:9 explain, the Sabbath was made for man to have rest. However, Isaiah 58:13 makes it clear that the Sabbath is still not a day of laziness; instead it is a day to rest from physical work, but to focus and be refreshed through the worship, honor, and study of God.

    So, then, the Sabbath had few rules and regulations. Rest from your work, delight in the Lord, and be refreshed in His Word and His promises. However, the Pharisees continually added small rules which made the Sabbath the most complex day of the week. Rather than resting, the Jewish people began, ironically, to work harder on the Sabbath than on any other day! On top of that, they were often forbidden by the Pharisees to even help those who weren’t in critical danger (as shown when Jesus heals on the Sabbath and receives reactions of shock and anger from the religious zealots). It can be argued that Satan certainly had a hand in the creation of all these earthly rules and regulations, as he was able to destroy the intended purpose of the Sabbath (a focus on rest and God, not on rule-following), and he also was able to prevent those who needed spiritual and physical healing from getting such help.

  7. I do remember parts of this from Old Testament/New Testament class. The Sabbath is very sacred to Jews. They have to follow very strict rules and shall not break them. Breaking Sabbath is punishable by stoning. I find that horrific and unacceptable. Back then that might have been tolerable, but in today’s society that should not stand. Just as Jesus said, “those who are free of sin can cast the first stone,” (John 8:7). I believe that is one of the most sacred rules to follow, none are free from sin and we all should treat others as we would like to be treated.

  8. The Sabbath is a long-debated topic in evangelical churches, and as scripture tells us, it was a debated topic for the Jews and new Christians as well. In Matthew 12, Mark 2, and Luke 6, the story of Jesus “breaking” the sabbath is well discussed. Did Jesus really break the Sabbath that day? It seams to be that Jesus was clarifying or setting a new standard for the Sabbath. For the Jewish people, the Sabbath was a very significant day and one that was made almost festive. As is stated in the post, many Jews kept this tradition in fear of retribution. It had long been criminalized by the Pharisees and Jesus sought to show mercy, instead of condemnation. One of the ten commandments is “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8). If it is included in the ten commandments, we can well assume that it’s pretty important. It is a command we ought to take seriously for ourselves, but does it look the same to us now? Jesus sought to do good on the sabbath, which the Pharisees condemned because it took effort. Jesus was breaking traditions built up for centuries, and maybe because they had lost sight of the real purpose of the Sabbath. The American Sabbath does not look too different. We might go to church in the morning, have a big family meal for lunch, and then sit around and read, watch a movie or sports, take a nap, and then, if your church has it, go back to church a few hours later for a night service. Is there something that can be changed about our Sabbath? Is our Sabbath even on the correct day? Does it matter when our Sabbath is as long as we dedicate it the Lord? Some denominations have made the Sabbath a matter of righteousness, condemning those who don’t keep it the same way. Does that make us more like Jesus or like the Pharisees?

  9. Part of understanding Scripture lies in understanding the difference between horizontal and vertical truths portrayed throughout Scripture. One of the most prominent examples of a vertical truth were the laws for Jews. The Sabbath was a big deal to the Jews, Scribes, and Pharisees to keep. Oftentimes, Pharisees would take extra steps to create more laws to restrict people further, so to better abstain from breaking the Sabbath law. When Jesus healed the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, there were practically riots among the Pharisees (Matthew 12, ESV). Something that makes this law seem to be more of a horizontal truth (and Tori J. mentioned this just above my post) is the fact that it is clearly stated in Exodus to keep the Sabbath holy (Ex. 20:8, ESV). Because this law was given to God’s people even then, is this law simply restated and re-supported in the New Testament by the Pharisees? Is this something that Christian’s today are inclined to obey? Personally, I find this law is now applied to Christians as a guideline and a way to worship Christ. Personally, I take a “Sabbath”, or a day off, to really reflect on the week and what God has done for me. I find that taking an entire day to really praise God and reflect on His blessings can be a great way to strengthen my relationship with Him. I might not take the same day off every week, but it is a personal, intentional goal that I set for my spiritual health. Sometimes I do wonder though, is this command still relevant to Christians today? Should we obey this as if we were the Jews during the Second Temple Period?

  10. Jesus said to the Pharisees, “What is easier to do? to say to the man that his sins are forgiven or to say stand up and walk?” (Matt. 9:4-5) I believe that Jesus was challenging the Pharisees on what is better to do according to the practices of keeping the Sabbath. The only thing that they can do while not breaking the Sabbath is saving someone’s life. Other than that, they would say that they could stay crippled, mute, deaf, leprous, or blind for another day. The Pharisees are going off by what the Law says to do on the Sabbath. Jesus says to have a relationship with others and forgive them just as God has forgiven us. Something like this reminds me of modern day situations. People will see homeless people on the streets asking for a job, food, money, just about anything to just survive. Passerby’s will see them and think to themselves that someone else will come by and help out or that they don’t have the money right now to give them anything or any excuse to avoid helping them out. We make assumptions of how the homeless got there and think badly of them. Jesus said that what we have done to the lest of these we have done to Him.

  11. To answer your questions off the bat, Jesus’s apparent breaking of the Sabbath would not have been taken well at all. The Sabbath was clearly of vital importance to the Jews because it was part of the Jewish law, which was necessary because it was part of what set Israel apart as a holy nation. Jesus was not challenging the Sabbath itself, but the Sabbath traditions that overshadowed the initial intent of the Sabbath; Mark 2:27 says, “…The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (NIV). You also mentioned that Jesus did not break the Sabbath himself, demonstrating that He understood and valued the purpose of the Sabbath, but he did not practice it according to the growing list of traditional guidelines placed on it. Tomasino in Judaism Before Jesus even talks about how the strictness with which the Sabbath was practiced led to the utter destruction of groups of Jews (during the Antiochian persecution) who refused to break its “commands” (2003).

    The way in which the Jews during this time practiced the Sabbath may seem extreme to us today, and it can be easy to quickly judge the Pharisees for their misunderstandings, but in reality it was the sacredness of the practice that made it such a big deal. The Jews of this time were living under the Law, and things were much different then than they are today. What may seem silly to us now certainly would not have back then. We must use the knowledge we have today to appreciate this day that the Lord has given us to rest and bring glory to God. We must refrain from becoming legalistic in our observance of the Sabbath.

  12. During this second temple I think that the Jews were really challenged to see what they truly valued and what they were willing to give up and even how much they would have to adjust their traditions to meet the new culture around them. For the Jews, obviously the Sabbath was quite important to them if the punishment for not following it was to be stoned. Just like it is mentioned in the blog, that the Romans used the Jews dedication to this practice to their advantage by doing things that allowed them to get ahead. This didn’t just happen that one time either. This also happened when the Jews were at war for their freedom and many men were killed and even the women and children were killed in the process because they wouldn’t fight back, but this just proves how important it is to the Jews to keep that law in place and how important their reasoning behind it is. “…to fight on the sabbath day would defile the very covenant they were supposedly defending” (Tomasino, 143). Since this wasn’t a one-time occurrence, it shows that it was one of the more universal practices that the Jews knew had value and showed their dedication to God.

  13. The Jews were concerned with following the traditions of their culture. As Hellenization became more prevalent and the Jews were faced with decisions of how much of Greek culture they should accept, it forced them to be very clear on what traditions they would not compromise. Keeping the Sabbath was one practice they viewed as very important and they continued to keep it, even in extreme circumstances. Sometimes this caused problems because other nations would unfairly attack the Jews on the Sabbath, knowing the Jews would not fight back because they would have to break the Sabbath to do so. Tomasino explains that the Jews gave up some wars because they lasted into the Sabbatical year and the Jews could not fight then (Tomasino 190). The Jews also faced harsh losses because they refused to even defend themselves on the Sabbath. Tomasino describes it as, “whatever their thoughts, they wouldn’t be goaded into violating the sanctity of the sabbath day. The pagan soldiers advanced on the Jew’s position and slaughtered a thousand men, women and children in their sabbath observances” (Tomasino 143). In some ways the Jew’s enemies were cruel and would wait until the Sabbath, allowing them to slaughter the Jews without any opposition. I thought it was interesting that the sabbath was made into such a festive day. I really enjoyed learning in class about how they would build walls around the cities so the Jews would be free to move about the city and go visit family and friends within it on the Sabbath. I think this really added to the festive aspect of the Sabbath, being allowed to spend it with family and friends. I can see how traditions like this would be hard for diaspora Jews because they lived among cultures that did not understand their practice of the sabbath. I think it is very interesting and somewhat conflicting that the Jews went to great lengths to make it so they could move about the city on the Sabbath, but they would not move a rock to protect themselves on the Sabbath. I think Jesus’ actions challenged the traditions that build up about the Sabbath, he challenged them because they were willing to make a way for themselves to walk around, but they would not help someone who could not walk.

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