I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood and I knew that Orthodox Jews make a big thing out of observing the Sabbath. Having a day off from the hectic activities of everyday life for some fun and relaxation always seemed like a good idea to me, but in watching how seriously my Jewish friends took Sabbath keeping I knew there was more to it than that.
The commandment to keep the Sabbath, as many people know, is right up there near the top of the big ten. Of all the commandments, it is the one that is most reiterated and discussed in Scripture. Furthermore, Jesus regarded the Sabbath as a special gift from God. He said, “The Sabbath was made for man; not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)
Knowing there was a lot about Sabbath keeping that was missing, I asked a rabbi friend of mine to help me understand why this day was so important. The first thing I learned from him was that the Sabbath was a day to stop what we’re doing and to reflect upon who we are in the eyes of God.
We have a tendency to see our significance in terms of what we do. We think that our doing is the essence of our being. We are a busy people and we deem our busy-ness a sign of importance. But the Sabbath destroys such illusions. It is a day, the rabbi told me, when we stop the routines of everyday life and reflect upon who we are apart from our socially prescribed roles.
The Sabbath commandment is the only one that begins with the word “remember.” It is a day when, apart from all we do, we call to mind that God loves us regardless of our accomplishments. Our busy-ness does not impress God as He instructs us to stop what we are doing and remember that there is nothing we can do that can get Him to love us more; and that there is nothing we can do that can get Him to love us less. On the Sabbath we remember that His love is unconditional..
Secondly, my rabbi friend told me that Sabbath keeping was a way for the people of God to differentiate themselves from those who embrace a consumerist lifestyle. In a world in which so many are wrapped up in earning money and believe that not a day should be set aside for anything else, Sabbath keeping reminds God’s people that they are not to be like that. We are to trust God to meet our needs, and this should free us from constantly keeping our noses to the grindstone. Consequently, Sabbath keeping is a counter-cultural act that declares to a world marked by commercialism that our lives are more than just making money.
Thirdly, I was taught that the Sabbath is to be a day for expressing love for others. Martin Buber, the famous Hasidic philosopher, drove home this point with a story of a certain rabbi whose reputation for holiness was such that members of his synagogue jokingly said that after Sabbath services he ascended into heaven to commune with God. Some children, overhearing this, believed it to be true and decided to follow the rabbi on the next Sabbath to see what happened to him.
The following week the children watched as the rabbi left the synagogue. They followed him, and to their surprise they saw that he visited Gentile widows, cleaned their houses, and cooked meals for them.
When the elders of the synagogue heard what the children had done they asked, with tongues in cheek, “Well? Did our rabbi ascend up to heaven?” They were taken back when the children answered, “Oh no! He went much higher than that!”
Lastly, I was told what I already knew — that the Sabbath was created for revitalization. We need physical and spiritual recuperation. Physical and psychological exhaustion makes us vulnerable to temptation and prone to sin.
Rest is essential for spirituality. I know that as a preacher there is a special dynamic to my sermons when I am rested.
Given all of these dimensions of Sabbath keeping, it is no wonder that we are commanded to carve out this special day each week, and to keep it holy.