The Hebrew Shabbat
For those of us who were not raised in Jewish communities, or with close Jewish friends, we have a vague idea of the celebrations of our Jewish brethren, but the vast majority are very much cloaked in mystery. The Shabbat, for instance. Although it is a weekly Jewish celebration, many of us know nothing more than the association of words like “kosher,” and rules about not mixing certain foods or certain utensils with one another.
I must confess, until I attended my first Shabbat, I knew nothing more than it being the Jewish equivalent to my “Christian” Sunday. I knew that like Sunday, it commemorated the day of rest, instituted by God. And, that’s really about all I knew.
What I found out, is that Shabbat (the Hebrew word for Sabbath, meaning “rest” or “ceasing from work“) is the most important Jewish ritual observance, as it is the only one instituted in the Ten Commandments.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
According to the Commandments given in Exodus, Shabbat both remembers (zakhor) and observes (shamor) the day of rest, instituted by the Lord.
Remember the Sabbath
This “remembrance” is not the same as one remembering to take out the trash. No! The meaning goes much deeper, and is two-fold. The Sabbath is a sign of the covenant with him and his chosen people. God is commanding the Jewish people to remember creation. Remember our origin, in Him, and how he sanctified a day of rest from work, according to his own example.
For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.
Freedom! The second remembrance is to remember that you are free.
You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lordyour God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
By the Lord freeing the Jewish people from their servitude in Egypt, he has made them slaves no more. They are not only afforded a day without work, enjoyed solely by upper classes, but more importantly, they are commanded to recognize this day as a holy day of rest. Therefore, it is dedicated to the Lord; their freer.
Observe the Sabbath
Shabbat begins at sundown on Friday, and therefore preparations must be made Friday afternoon. The start of Shabbat is commemorated by the lighting of two candles, which represent the two commandments of zakhor (remember) and shamor (observe). After a brief religious service, the family gathers around the table for a meal. A traditional prayer (Kiddush) over the wine and two loves of challah bread sanctify the Shabbat. Grace is also said after the meal (birkat ha-mazon), and the family spends time together or studies the Torah.
Shabbat celebrations continue Saturday, with services from 9:00 am to noon, followed by another meal, and then leisurely activities for the rest of the afternoon. A third, light meal is usually enjoyed before nightfall. Concluding rituals (Havdalah) officially end the Shabbat.
A Tradition of Rich Beauty
The Shabbat is a holy celebration, which unites the family in a weekly observance of thankfulness to their creator, and the recognition of their historical origin in God. There is a rich beauty in the way that the family prepares for the Shabbat: grooming, dressing, and preparing the house, as if welcoming an important guest. Songs are sung to welcome the holy day of the Lord, which is greeted as a bride, and addressed as “beloved.”
The Jewish liturgical song Lekha Dodi, or “Come, my beloved,” is recited on Friday at dusk, in welcoming the Shabbat bride. You can image my surprise, as a guest at my first Shabbat, when the congregation stood and turned in unison toward the open door, as the song came to a close. Suddenly, I had a very clear (and awkward) understanding of how non-Catholics feel at Mass! I learned that turning toward the open door was a gesture to welcome “Queen Shabbat” as she arrives.
Jesus Violated the Sabbath Law
This is the history of Jesus, who was a Jew. But did Jesus always faithfully observe the Sabbath according to the law? In fact, he did not. Jesus told the Pharisees that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” when he was accused of doing what was not lawful on the Sabbath, as he and his disciples plucked grain from the field. This was not the only time that Jesus was accused of violating the Sabbath law instituted in Exodus 31.
Jesus healed a man who was sick for 38 years on the Sabbath (Jn 5), rebuked an unclean spirit to come out of a man in the synagogue (Mk 1:21-26), healed Simon’s mother-in-law and many others (Mk 1:29-34), all on the sabbath. Jesus is angered at the reaction of the Pharisees, when he heals the man with the withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath (Mk 3:1-6). This is because of their “hardness of heart.” Jesus says to them,
Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?
I believe we can all conclude what answer Jesus was leading us toward here.
The Lord’s Day
At this point you may be asking, then why do Christians recognize the Lord’s Day on Sunday? Well, it’s like this: The most significant of all acts that Jesus performed, was done after the sabbath, on “the first day of the week” (Mt 28:1). This of course, is his resurrection!
This is the day Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb of Christ. This day is Sunday; the first of all days, the Lord’s Day! It is the ushering in of a new creation and a new resurrection. The old law has been fulfilled. Christ himself has fulfilled the sabbath. Christians should not forget however, that their obligation is also two-fold.
The primary remembrance of the Christian is Christ himself. The communal celebration of the paschal mystery and reception of the Body and Blood of Christ, which he instituted, is our most fundamental obligation.
The celebration of Sunday observes the moral commandment inscribed by nature in the human heart to render to God an outward, visible, public, and regular worship
God instituted a day of rest within our very creation. This was not only done for our mortal benefit, but specifically made holy and set aside, as a day to commune with him, through worship.
The Lord’s Day is truly medicinal to our soul, in cultivating a day for faith community, family communion, acts of mercy, bodily rest, and spiritual reflection. The “rest” of the Lord’s Day is recognized as refraining from “work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God.”
Now, there are certainly jobs that require work on Sunday, or other unavoidable tasks. The point however, is not to allow unnecessary work to steal you away from your time of communion with God. He is your life and your sustenance, your Creator, liberator, and in him you will have your final end. All this is to say: You Owe Him One Day!
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. ~1 Cor 10:16-17
If you’d like to learn more about Jesus and the Sabbath, I recommend this book: Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist.
Copyright 2016 Kimberly Cook