Recently, British Airways found itself in a legal battle over the Jewish Sabbath. The Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday evening and ends at sundown on Saturday evening. This day of rest is the only ritual observance instituted in the Ten Commandments. In fact, the longest and most detailed of all the commandments emphasizes the importance of “keeping holy the Sabbath” (Ex 20:8-11). It is Judaism’s precious gift from God himself.
When Daniel Rosenthal began working for British Airways three years ago as in customer service, the company accommodated his schedule so that he could observe the Sabbath rest. But the company changed its stance and required him to work on Saturdays. Earlier this year, the same airline had refused to allow a check-in worker to wear a cross to work. The company later reversed that decision.
The Sabbath observance is grounded in faith. It calls to mind two very important truths of biblical revelation. First, God is the Creator of the world. The fourth commandment reminds us “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; that is why the Lord has blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Ex 20:11). The custom of refraining from work on the Sabbath acknowledges the transcendent activity of God. The world depends on God, not on us.
Second, the Sabbath observance recalls the formative event of God’s Chosen People: the Exodus from Egypt. In his second discourse in Deuteronomy, Moses reiterates the Ten Commandments. He links the joy of the Sabbath observance to the joy of liberation from slavery. He tells the people, "Remember that you were once a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and outstretched arm; this is why the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day" (Dt 5:15). The Sabbath frees the individual. It releases the person from the bondage to work and schedules, from routine and monotony. The Sabbath celebrates the freedom of the children of God.
In Jewish tradition, rabbis have given extensive guidelines on the proper way to observe the Sabbath rest. In the Talmud (a 5th century A.D. record of discussions on laws, customs, legends and stories that expand on the earlier writings and form the basis of Jewish observance), there are listed 39 categories of work that cannot be performed on the Sabbath. These include sowing, plowing, cooking, washing clothes, writing two or more letters, erasing two or more letters, building, demolishing, extinguishing a fire, kindling a fire.
To the modern individual who has become so casual about setting aside any special day completely to the Lord, these categories of prohibited activities need some explanation. They are not whimsically forbidden. Rather, these activities are exegetically related to the kinds of work done to construct the Tabernacle, i.e. God’s dwelling place that the Hebrews made at the time of the Exodus before entering the Promised Land.
All the prohibited activities are, in some way, “creative.” They are activities that exercise human control over the environment. They express man’s dominion over the world. Refraining from them is a visible expression that God alone is Lord.
Far from being a day of not doing, the Sabbath is a joy-filled resting in the Lord. In his love, God has set a limit to work. Sabbath is God's merciful appointment for the common benefit of all. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
God has compassionately placed his merciful hand over our propensity to think everything depends on us. Rightly understood, the observance of the Sabbath rest is not a burden, but a blessing. It is not a tedious law meant to limit our activity. Rather, it is a mercy given to open us up to the Presence of God.
In Jewish tradition, the Sabbath is described as a bride or queen. The 20th century Russian Zionist Ahad Ha’am best expresses the inherent value of the Sabbath observance when he said, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”
The first followers of Jesus were Jews. Like Jesus himself, they kept the Sabbath. They were loyal to the religious observances of their ancestral faith. They worshiped in the Temple at Jerusalem (Acts 2:46; 5:42). They frequented services in the synagogue (Acts 9:20; 13:14; 14:1; 17:1, 2, 10; 18:4). But they also kept Sunday as the Lord’s Day. Acts 20:7 states that “on the first day of the week the disciples came together to break bread.”
Eventually, the first day of the week completely replaced any Sabbath observance. Why did this happen? What does the change mean theologically? And how is Sunday to be observed today in accord with biblical tradition?
This is the first in a series of four articles on ‘Reclaiming the Lord’s Day as Sacred.’