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Sabbath Works

Sabbath Works

From the moment that Champlain Towers South collapsed in the early morning of June 24, the world has seen the outpouring of support amassed in the small beach town of Surfside, Florida. As the worst accidental building collapse in American history, the condominium fiasco, just north of Miami Beach, switched to recovery operations on July 7 with a heavy heart and a silent moment of prayer. Media outlets showed a long line of rescue workers and first responders, with heads respectfully bowed.

Because many of the area’s residents are Jewish—“about a third of Surfside residents,” according to The Washington Post—including many victims of the collapse, Jews from all over, even from as far as Israel, are involved in the operations.

But how do Orthodox Jewish practices, especially those regarding the seventh-day Sabbath, coincide with an emergency situation such as this?

Orthodox Jews “abstain from work and technology from sundown Friday to after dark on Saturday” in observance of the Sabbath; “they avoid activities including handling money, preparing food, using electrical switches and driving.” They base this off of the fourth commandment, which states: “You shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates” (Exodus 20:10).

The town of Surfside itself, in accordance with its religious demographic, “is built to accommodate those practices,” replete with automated elevators and special “Shabbat meals” provided by restaurants. As University of Miami geography professor Ira Sheskin put it, “There’s the Orthodox infrastructure.”

Yet during these past few weeks—and hence, several Sabbaths—of rescue and recovery, these Orthodox Jews; whether professional, like Chesed Shel Emes, a multibranch Orthodox nonprofit dedicated to aiding and providing Jewish burial services, or in the community, like the neighborhood synagogue Shul of Bal Harbour; never slowed down. Their helping hands were at the ready nearly 24-7, “[continuing] their services ‘round the clock’ to the community through the traditional day of rest,” with volunteers “sleeping only a couple of hours a night.”

But how can this be?

Watching over a Soul

There is a concept in Jewish theology called pikuach nefesh,“watching over a soul.” The gist of pikuach nefesh is that when it comes to saving human life, Sabbath rest cannot get in the way. Not only can you work on the Sabbath in order to save a life, but you are absolutely commanded to work on the Sabbath in order to save a life. While it might seem contradictory, a person actually commits sin when, acting out of supposed “piety,” he endangers life in the process.

According to one Orthodox Jewish website: “When treating on Shabbat a patient who is critically ill, or when dealing with an individual whose life is in danger—known in Hebrew as pikuach nefesh—one is commanded to ‘violate’ the Shabbat. This applies even if there’s a doubt whether it is—or could evolve into—a life threatening situation. Even if retroactively, it becomes clear that the act was unnecessary, or didn’t accomplish its goal, it is not considered a desecration of the Shabbat, and the individual who acted receives reward for attempting to save a life.”

In fact, if the person involved has any doubt at all about whether it might be a matter of life and death, the person is to err on the side of life.

An Ox in a Ditch 

One wonders how this concept of “watching over a soul” might have been applied in the days of Jesus, who Himself did many Sabbath healings. For instance, a man had been unable to walk for 38 years when Jesus healed him, saying, “Rise, take up your bed and walk” (John 5:8).

John describes what happened next: “And that day was the Sabbath. The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, ‘It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed’” (vv. 9, 10).

This wasn’t the only time Jesus had done a Sabbath healing. After healing a man with dropsy, Jesus confronted the Jewish leaders: “Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 14:5). Confounded, the leaders were left speechless (v. 6).

“Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy?” (6:9), Jesus asked time and again.

His healings were not matters of life and death, yet the Son of God professed it “lawful” to alleviate all suffering He encountered on the Sabbath day. If we apply His understanding of the Sabbath, then the seventh day isn’t just about work versus rest or taken from the perspective of “can’ts” and “don’ts.” In Christ’s understanding, the fourth commandment isn’t “violated” when helping a sick or hurting person at all. Rather, it could be described as being observed. And who knows better than Jesus Himself, “Lord of the Sabbath” (v. 5)?

For a thorough understanding of what the Sabbath is—and isn’t—watch our free, online presentation by Pastor Doug Batchelor entitled “Holiday or Holyday.” 

The Sabbath is meant to be a day to worship the Lord, not to do “your own pleasure” (Isaiah 58:13) but the Lord’s pleasure. What is the Lord’s pleasure but to seek and save the lost? (Luke 9:56).

Do you know what happened to those whom Jesus healed on the Sabbath? On that very day, they got to realize that the Man who regenerated them physically was the same who could revive their very soul. Starting this Sabbath, why not meet your personal Savior?

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