Upon the arrival of the Shabbat (Sabbath) at the end of the week in Israel, it is customary to nuance the traditional greeting of shalom (peace) to “Shabbat shalom.” This association of Shabbat and shalom is significant. The Shabbat is the only day which deserves to have its name embellished with shalom. There has never been any occurrence of “Monday” or “Tuesday shalom.” On the other hand, the Shabbat sees itself as well adorned with shalom. The expression “Shabbat shalom” has liturgical connotations to the Jewish worshiperʼs ears as she or he opens the prayer book on Friday night to the words “shalom aleikhem.” The reason for this particular affinity between the Shabbat and the shalom can be explained by the fact that the meaning of the word shalom contains all the dimensions of the Shabbat. Yet, shalom means more than “peace” (shalom) and wholeness (shalem)—more than communion with others and oneself. Shalom also implies beauty; it thus brings into the Sabbath feelings of awe and wonder and awakens in everyone who enters into the Sabbath the slumbering nostalgia which yearns for another space and another time.
So the heavens and the earth and everything in them were completed. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing. So on the seventh day he rested from all of his work. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. He rested on it. After he had created everything, he rested from all of the work he had done (Genesis 2:1-3).
“Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy. Do all of your work in six days. But the seventh day is a Sabbath in honor of the Lord your God. Do not do any work on that day. The same command applies to your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and your animals. It also applies to any outsiders who live in your cities. In six days I made the heavens and the earth. I made the oceans and everything in them. But I rested on the seventh day. So I blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Exodus 20:8-11).
Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. The Lord your God reached out his mighty hand and powerful arm and brought you out of there. So he has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day (Deuteronomy 5:15).
Then the Lord spoke to Moses. He said, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people must go out each day. Have them gather enough bread for that day. Here is how I will put them to the test. I will see if they will follow my directions…Moses said. ʻToday is a Sabbath day in the Lordʼs honor. You wonʼt find any flakes on the ground today. Gather them for six days. But on the seventh day there wonʼt be any. Itʼs the Sabbathʼ” (Exodus 16:4, 25-26). (cf. vs. 22, 23)
“Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy. Do all of your work in six days. But the seventh day is a Sabbath in honor of the Lord your God. Do not do any work on that day. The same command applies to your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and your animals (Exodus 20:8-10).
• “The Shabbat is equal to all the other commandments of the Torah” (Exodus Rabbah 25:12).
“This woman is a member of Abrahamʼs family line. But Satan has kept her disabled for 18 long years. Shouldnʼt she be set free on the Sabbath day from what was keeping her disabled?” (Luke 13:16) (cf. Matthew 12:12; Mark 2:27)
• “Have I then given you the Shabbat for your pain? No, I have given it to you for your good” (Devarim Rabbah, Ekeh).
• “The Shabbat was committed unto you, not you unto the Shabbat” (Mekhilta on Exodus 31:13).
“Do not think I have come to get rid of what is written in the Law or in the Prophets. I have not come to do that. Instead, I have come to give full meaning to what is written” (Matthew 5:17). (cf. Matthew 24:20)
Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. On the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue as he usually did. And he stood up to read (Luke 4:16).
Paul and Silas passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia. They came to Thessalonica. A Jewish synagogue was there. Paul went into the synagogue as he usually did. For three Sabbath days in a row he talked about the Scriptures with the Jews (Acts 17:1, 2).
• Constantineʼs decree: “The Emperor Constantine to A. Helpidius. All judges, townspeople and all occupations should rest on the most honorable day of the sun” (Code of Justinian III.12, de feriis, 3).
• Canon 29 of the Council of Laodicea: “Christians may not Judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, honoring rather the Lordʼs Day [Sunday] by resting.”
• Marcion ordered: “to fast on Saturday… Because it is the rest of the God of the Jews…we fast on that day in order not to accomplish on that day what was ordained by the God of the Jews” (Epiphanius, Adversus haereses 42, 3, 4)
• “Over the centuries the Jewish community has interpreted the Churchʼs decision to worship on Sunday as a rejection of the very heart of Jewish experience—rejection of the Law. This move to Sunday worship made it exceedingly difficult, if not virtually impossible, for the Jew to give any serious consideration to the Christian message, or even enter into Christian-Jewish dialogue without suspicion. The Jew saw the Churchʼs move to Sunday worship as a call to abandon the Law and embrace a “new” covenant that now replaced the “old” covenant, which was thus declared ineffective and passé. In short, to become a Christian was the equivalent of leaving behind the Jewishness of oneʼs past, hardly a viable option for any faithful Jew to consider.” (M. R. Wilson, Our Father Abraham [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989], 80).
Then the Lord spoke to Moses. He said, “Tell the people of Israel, ʻYou must always keep my Sabbath days. That will be the sign of the covenant I have made between me and you for all time to come. Then you will know that I am the Lord. I make you holy (Exodus 31:13).
“Do not work on the Sabbath day. Do not do just anything you want to on my holy day. Make the Sabbath a day you can enjoy. Honor my holy day. Do not work on it. Do not do just anything you want to. Do not talk about things that are worthless (Isaiah 58:13).
• “He who takes delight in the Shabbat, receives his heartʼs desires” (Shabbat 118).
“I will create new heavens and a new earth. The things that have happened before will not be remembered. They will not even enter your minds. So be glad and full of joy forever because of what I will create. I will cause others to take delight in Jerusalem. They will be filled with joy when they see its people” (Isaiah 65:17-18). (cf. Revelation 21:1)
• “What is the foretaste of the world to come? The Shabbat” (Bereshit Rabbah, 17:7).
• “The Shabbat is one sixtieth of the world to come” (Bereshit 57b).
Like a Tree in the Wilderness1
What does it mean to keep the Sabbath?
“The seventh day is a palace in time,”2 wrote Abraham Heschel dusting off the ancient definition of the Hebrew prophets for whom the Sabbath was a “sign.” Instead of being a sign in space, like a monument eroded by time which becomes a sign of death, the Sabbath is a sign in time that stands out with actuality and freshness—a palace erect in the midst of hovels, a sublime beauty which inspires our song and welcomes us.
A Sign of Remembrance
The Sabbath is essentially linked with memory. This is most explicit in the Ten Commandments, where one is called to “remember”3 the Sabbath. Memory is also involved when an event of the past is concerned, as is the case of the Sabbath. In fact, the Sabbath is the act of remembrance par excellence, for it recalls an absolute past: the origin of the universe and of humanity, the past of all things and of all peoples. The association in the Decalogue (The 10 Commandments) of the fourth commandment of the Sabbath with the fifth commandment, honoring father and mother, also alludes to the importance of memory. Not only are the two commandments juxtaposed; they are also the only two to be formulated in a positive way: “Remember. . . . Honor . . . .” All other commandments are negative (“Thou shall not . . .”). This indicates a common preoccupation. These two commandments exhort one to remember by evoking the origin and roots of man: the fourth commandment pointing to the creative act of God and the fifth to the procreative act of the parents.
The binding together of Sabbath and memory, does not inspire a philosophical flourish nor a beautiful truth to meditate upon, for remembrance implies the concrete, historical fact that thrusts its roots into reality. Hence, the Sabbath reminds us that Creation is not the result of an autonomous process, but an intervention from above at a given moment in time, with a beginning and an end.
But the Sabbath is not only a remembrance of creation; it is also a remembrance of the Sabbath itself, as indicated by Exodus 20:8: “Remember the Sabbath day . . . .” This remembrance, as developed by the commandment, goes beyond mere mental strain to involve the whole person in a concrete act. To remember the Sabbath is to reactualize the Sabbath in oneʼs existence, week after week. This involves a gesture of “setting apart” the time of the Sabbath, distinguishing it from other times. One implication of this is fidelity to the “real time” of the Sabbath. In a society where not only the meaning of the Sabbath but also the time of the Sabbath is lost, it is the elements of time and content that are entwined in the remembrance of the Sabbath.
A Sign of Hope
In remembering the event of creation, the Sabbath emerges as a sign of hope, in that it evokes the miracle by which light shone out of the shadow and plenitude was drawn from the void. Furthermore, the Sabbath is used in the Bible as a sign of liberation from the Egyptian yoke,4 and later as a sign of liberation for the Babylonian exiles.5 These two events involve the powerful act of recreation, evoking the original act of creation.6 In the New Testament, many of Yeshuaʼs miracles occurred during the Sabbath.7 Hope was revived for the woman crippled for eighteen years who found herself “loosed from this bond on the Sabbath.”8
But the Sabbath contains an even more explicit lesson of hope, one that is linked directly to its source. The story of Genesis teaches us that the Sabbath was the first full day for man and woman, their first full day with God. The Sabbath reminds us, therefore, of the first experience of manʼs communion with God. This dimension of the Sabbath is noted by the prophet Isaiah, who associates the delights of the Sabbath with the delights of God: “If you . . . call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord . . . , then you shall delight yourself in the Lord.”9 The Sabbath is described here as the moment in time when one can delight in the experience of “God with us.” This notion is also implied in the authorʼs association of the Sabbath to the shekhinah, sign of Godʼs presence. One can also observe that the phrase “wayyekal melakhah” (He completed the work), introduces the Sabbath at the end of creation.10 It is the same phrase which introduces the shekhinah at the end of the construction of the sanctuary by Moses11 and of the temple by Solomon.12 These are the only three passages which use this phrase, as though to emphasize the link between the Sabbath and the shekhinah.
As a sign of Godʼs presence, the Sabbath nourishes our deep longing for the day when His presence shall be fully revealed. Significantly, the Sabbath is referred to as the “day of the Lord,”13 an expression which also designates the day of the coming of the Lord, which will put an end to all misery, inaugurating a new era. The Sabbath “day of the Lord” points to the other “day of the Lord” as the sign par excellence of hope.
A Sign of the Absolute
The Sabbath evokes the absolute, as it refers to a reality which transcends us, a law which comes from beyond, a gift and sign from God.
The Sabbath is a sign of the absolute primarily because it is divine law. The way the Sabbath is introduced in the Decalogue is significant: “Remember . . . .” This is not an ordinary imperative. We are dealing here with an absolute infinitive, which denotes an imperative of emphasis. The Sabbath is therefore perceived as an imperious law which imposes itself absolutely from above. Certain elements even suggest that the Sabbath predominates the other laws. For example, in the Levitical account, the Sabbath is distinguished from the other festivals and days of rest.14 In the Biblical tradition, the Sabbath has been preserved as the first commandment which men and women observed immediately after Creation; the first couple inaugurated their existence and the course of human history by observing this commandment. The Sabbath was also the first commandment given to Israel immediately after their flight from Egypt.15 Among all the Levitical laws, the Sabbath is the only commandment which is not annual, the only day independent from the natural and astronomical cycles, which has no moral or natural cause to justify its observance. The only raison dʼêtre of the Sabbath is religious. It is, in fact, the only commandment which implies faith.
The Sabbath is also a sign of the absolute in that it embodies the gracious act of Godʼs love, what the psalmist celebrates as hesed (loving kindness) of God.16 The Sabbath reminds us that we are nothing but the outcome of divine generosity. In fact, the gift of the Sabbath was given neither as an answer nor as a reward for human work. The Sabbath reminds us that it was God who took the initiative to give men and women the rest which they did not deserve, enabling them to enjoy a communion which they had not sought. In practice, the Sabbath is also a pedagogy of hesed in that it teaches us the value of non-action in relation to God; in abstaining from work on the Sabbath, we demonstrate our total dependence on God. What we have is not the result of our work or our effort, but a gift from God. It is hesed which causes the psalmist to burst out in song: “Let your face shine on your servant, save me in your unfailing love [hesed!].17 At the heart of the Sabbath, law and the grace customarily opposed in Christian tradition, find reconciliation. By observing the fourth commandment, the believer does not exclude the grace of God. Quite the opposite, it is by observing the law that the believer expresses faith that his salvation depends entirely on the grace of God.
Finally, the Sabbath is a sign of the absolute in that it testifies of God Himself, the One who is absolutely “Other.” From then on, the Sabbath is called the “day of the Lord.”18 It is the day which the Lord has made,19 the sign of God.20 The Sabbath day is therefore a time intrinsically sacred, which stirs in us the deepest respect along with the desire to observe the day chosen by God, rather than another decreed by human tradition. The Sabbath is more than a day of rest and recreation at the end of the week; it is the concrete expression of our faith in God, the sign that our values depend on Him.
A Sign of Love
And yet, the Sabbath finds no existence outside of the human person, for it is not only an action of God on behalf of humans; it is also an action by humans for God.21 The Sabbath is sanctified inasmuch as two partners are involved. It is a sign between God and his people.22 However, the human “doing” is but an answer to the divine “doing.” An expression of Godʼs love toward mankind, the Sabbath is also our expression of love for God. This understanding of the Sabbath clearly suggests that humans, not God, should be the ones to adapt. The Sabbath exhorts us to abstain from doing our own will: “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, . . . if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, . . . .”23 The Sabbath also becomes an act which confronts the reality of life and not a disembodied “spiritual” truth. The believer who observes the Sabbath engages in an experience which obliges him or her to meet with God. In this encounter the believer silhouettes self against an indifferent world occupied elsewhere.
The human encounter with God does not, however, exclude encounter with others. On the contrary, human communion with God is fulfilled only through oneʼs communion with others. The social dimension of the Sabbath is already implied in the story of Creation. It is even more explicit in the Decalogue, where all family members, the slave, and the stranger are invited to enjoy in this day the same privileges of liberty and rest as the Israelites. The Sabbath is the day when we remember that “the other” is an equal and deserves our respect. It is also the day when within the family gathering, the arts of listening and dialoguing can be cultivated.
The way the Sabbath is situated in the literary structure of the Decalogue confirms its emphasis on both God and mankind. The text of the Sabbath is located at the center of the Decalogue, geometrically and thematically speaking.24 The fourth commandment is comprised of 55 words (in Hebrew) and is situated between 67 words (first three commandments) and 41 words (last six commandments). The commandment of the Sabbath comprises approximately half the words of the whole Decalogue (55/108) and occupies its center. Thematically, the first three commandments are concerned with the relationship between God and man, whereas the last six commandments involve the relationship between humans. The Sabbath functions, then, as a bridge between the two groups of commandments and is concerned with relations between God and humans, as well as, between humans.
Sign of Godʼs love for us, but also sign of our love for Him, the Sabbath suggests that the vertical relationship does not exclude the horizontal but that they are interdependent.
A Sign of Life
The Sabbath celebrates Creation and thus implies a positive appreciation of life. The senses, food, and beauty are well received and fully enjoyed. In the second century, the Gnostic Marcion, who despised the human body and creation, rejected the Old Testament and its God YHWH, the God of Creation. He claimed that YHWH had been replaced by the God of the New Testament, the God of salvation. The spiritual domain has since been placed over the physical one, the “despicable flesh.” This dualism has affected Christian anthropology. The soul, the spirit, has been separated from the body. Along the lines of Platonism, salvation has then been understood as a deliverance from the body. Since Marcion, many Christian theologians have favored salvation over Creation. One of the most interesting symptoms of this dualistic mentality is detected in the Christian shift from the Sabbath memorial of creation to the Sunday memorial of salvation. Sabbath keeping expresses, then, a religious philosophy that says yes to Creation and involves the body in the “spiritual” process of salvation, affirming the unity of the human person.
Sign of the past and the future, the Sabbath tears us from our present reality to rekindle our memories and set our hopes ablaze. Sign of the absolute and of love, the Sabbath teaches us to open ourselves to others—to man and to God.
Perhaps one reason humans have lost the meaning of the Sabbath is because they have lost their roots and perspectives. Today, the Sabbath is no longer a sign of the glorious event of Creation, or the extraordinary hope of a recreation. People are comfortably settled in their Sabbath, which has shriveled into a mere “weekend,” or an obscure ritual.
If humans have lost the sense of the Sabbath, it is because they are unable to open up to others. It must be noticed that the three monotheisms that issued from the Bible—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all observe a different Sabbath, as though to avoid any possible encounter with each other—perhaps also to avoid stumbling upon God.
From the depths of the ages to our time, the Sabbath is a sign for Jews and Christian alike. Even more, Sabbath is the sign that comes between the Jew and the Christian. The Sabbath is one of the first elements which determined and even maintained the open wound of their separation.
Separated by time, Jews and Christians have lost sight of each other. What better way for them to meet than to worship at the same time as indicated by the God of Abraham, Israel, and also Paul.
The Sabbath would then become the sign of a miracle – that we remember, that God is more than a tradition – a sign of life and hope in something else, like a tree in the wilderness.
1 Jacques Doukhan, “Like a Tree in the Wilderness,” Shabbat Shalom, August 1996, 19-23. 2 Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath: It’s Meaning for Modern Men (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951/1995), p. 111.
24 This median position of the Sabbath in the Decalogue takes on a particular meaning in the light of the ancient Middle Eastern documents. The seal which engaged the partners of the alliance was in fact apposed at the center itself of the tablet (see Meredith G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King, The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy: Studies and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1963), pp. 18, 19.
* Unless otherwise noted, all scripture references are taken from the New International Readerʼs Version of the Bible, Copyright 1998, by the Zondervan Corporation.