Sabbath is a weekly one-day religious observance of prayer and rest for the Jews. It starts from sunset on Friday until the emergence of three stars in the sky on the next day night. The Jews observe it by lighting candles shortly before sunset on Friday.
The reasons for observing the Sabbath are based on the creation account where God observed a day of rest and on the commandment of God to practice it. After completing the creation in six days, God “rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation” (Gen 2:2-3). Before giving the two stone tablets of the covenant inscribed by God’s own finger at Mount Sinai, God said: “Six days there are for doing work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD” (Ex 31:15a). Thus, God presented the Sabbath as a day of rest and holiness.
The commandment and practice of Sabbath observance could be more understood and valued when we look at the ancient situation of slaves, servants, and laborers who would have to work daily. Without this commandment from God, their family and personal life would have been miserable. “But the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God. You shall not do any work, either you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or donkey or any work animal, or the resident alien within your gates, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do” (Deut 5:14). God reminded the Israelites that they were slaves in Egypt and God liberated them. God wanted them to show a similar act of mercy to the slaves and animals by giving them weekly rest (Deut 5:15).
God considered the Sabbath as the sign of an everlasting covenant between Him and the Israelites. “So shall the Israelites observe the sabbath, keeping it throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant. Between me and the Israelites it is to be an everlasting sign” (Ex 31:16-17a).
Anyone breaking the Sabbath had to face severe punishment. Since Sabbath was holiness for the people, “whoever desecrates it shall be put to death. If anyone does work on that day, that person must be cut off from the people” (Ex 31:14).
Hence, the Sabbath observance is based on:
1. God himself observed the Sabbath after creation.
2. He wants people to observe it.
3. Slaves and animals get a day of rest once a week.
4. It is a sign of God’s covenant with the Israelites.
5. Israelites have to observe it throughout their generations.
6. It is a day of holiness.
7. Violation of the Sabbath is punishable by ex-communication or death.
SABBATH OBSERVANCE AT HOME AND SYNAGOGUE
The Jews observe the Sabbath at home and in the synagogue. The sabbath starts at sundown Friday and ends at sundown Saturday with an overlapping of 18 minutes at the beginning and 40 minutes at the end.
Sabbath observance is a day of joy and a family get-together. It includes more daily prayers and leisurely eating. The preparations included special bread (challah), wine and candles placed on a table. Woman of the house lit two candles on Friday before sunset representing two commandments on Sabbath: (zakhor) remembrance (Ex 20:8) and (shamor) observance (Ex 31:16). Remembrance is of God’s creation (Mt 20:11) and deliverance of the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt (Deut 5:15). On the weekdays, people are slaves of their work for others or working for the sustenance of themselves. Whereas, on sabbath they are free from such botherations which remind them of their freedom from the slavery of Egyptians.
Sabbath observance at home involves candle lighting and recitation of a blessing no later than eighteen minutes before sunset by the woman of the house marking the beginning of the sabbath. The family then does an evening service of 45 minutes. The head of the household recites Kiddush, a sanctification prayer over the wine and prayer over the challah (a sweet, eggy, braid shaped bread). Then the family eats a festive and leisurely dinner. After dinner, they recite a grace in a leisurely manner. The family then study or talks on the Torah before going to bed. On the next day also, the family will have a leisurely meal along with prayers and study of Torah in the afternoon followed by leisurely activities. Sabbath ends at nightfall when three stars are visible around 40 minutes after sunset. So sabbath observance involves approximately 25 hours. Thus, sabbath is a day of joy, leisure, family union, spiritual nourishment by reading and reflecting on Torah.
AT THE SYNAGOGUE
Common observance of sabbath takes place at the synagogue. After Friday evening service, there will be a ceremony welcoming the sabbath. The services have a relaxed pace with more music than the weekday liturgy. After the evening service, there can be a communal meal at the synagogue or people might return to their homes for dinner. The Saturday service in the synagogue involved public recitation from the Torah, and a reading (Haftarah) from one of the prophetic books. So, recitation and study of the Law and Prophets, and prayer are the major components of sabbath observance in the synagogue. Anyone who has knowledge of the Scriptures can do the reading and commentary (Acts 13:14-15). If a person had a religious message to communicate to the Jews, synagogue was the best place to address that.
If there were 10 or more Jewish families in a locality, they used to have a synagogue. There are daily prayer services, and with more prayers on the sabbath. The ruler of the synagogue was the administrator. He also oversaw collections taken daily in cash or in kind. They distributed the food, thus collected, to the poor. So, the sick and poor also used to come to the synagogue seeking help. That gave the opportunity for them to get healing from Jesus at the synagogue on the Sabbath day.
Another staff of the synagogue was the minister (Chazzan) who oversaw taking care and storing away the rolls of Sacred Scripture kept in the synagogue. He was also in charge of keeping the synagogue clean, blowing the trumpet announcing Sabbath, and responsible for the primary education of the children. However, the synagogue had no permanent preacher. The ruler of the synagogue used to invite any competent person to preach based on the scripture. That was how Jesus and apostles like Paul had the chance to preach in the synagogues. Since Jesus was a famous rabbi, he got opportunities to preach in the synagogues.
JESUS AND SABBATH
Jesus noticed that the genuine spirit of Sabbath observance had drained out throughout the centuries. The Jewish leaders made unnecessary rules about the Sabbath, making the Sabbath observance burdensome for the people. Regulations like how far people could walk or what knots they could tie were all decided by the Rabbis. The Pharisees measured the actions of Jesus based on their yardstick of religious practices.
Considering the seriousness of the commandment, the Jewish leaders questioned Jesus for his “laxity” in his Sabbath observance and that of his disciples. For Jesus, holiness was inclusive of helping others on the Sabbath day, even if it is a work. When the Pharisees questioned Jesus, when his disciples made a path while picking the heads of grain on a Sabbath (Mk 2:23), he reminded that how David did an unlawful act of eating the bread of offering that only priests could eat. So, exceptions are possible for essential needs (Mk 2: 25-26). The priests did more work on the Sabbath than other days (Mt 12:5). The conclusion of Jesus was “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath (Mk 2:27) and he is the lord of the Sabbath (Mk 2:28).
PRIESTS WORKING ON SABBATH
The priests must work double on a Sabbath in the Temple to make sure the sacrifices take place according to the prescriptions of the Law. “On the sabbath day: two unblemished yearling lambs, with a grain offering of two tenths of an ephah of bran flour mixed with oil, and its libation. This is the sabbath burnt offering each sabbath, in addition to the regular burnt offering and its libation” (Num 28:9). This involved work by priests like cleaning of sacrificial animals, lighting of fires, slaughter of animals, lifting of them on to the altar, and other related works. In addition, the priests also had to change the showbread on every sabbath. Such works would become a violation of the Sabbath for ordinary people (Lev 24:8).
Sabbath is not merely a day to rest from work. God established the Sabbath to remind the Israelites of their covenant with God, to have time to worship of God, to give rest to the slaves and animals, and to do acts of mercy to the less fortunate. The same applies to the Christians for Sunday observance.