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Modern-Day Sabbath-Keeping: From COVID-19 Restrictions to Trail Angels

Modern-Day Sabbath-Keeping: From COVID-19 Restrictions to Trail Angels

There’s a story in the Gospel of Matthew about Jesus on the Sabbath: “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat” (12:1). However, the religious leaders complained that Jesus’ followers were violating the Sabbath in “preparing” a meal for themselves. It was one of the many instances that the Pharisees sought controversy with the Lord of the Sabbath over how to observe the Sabbath.

It’s important to note, however, that in none of the Sabbath controversies between Jesus and the religious leaders was the day itself ever an issue. It was always and only over how to keep the seventh day, not whether one should keep another day instead.

But there are also some things that haven’t changed. Just as in Jesus’ day, there is still controversy over how to keep the Sabbath.

Thirty-Nine Classes

The Bible clearly forbids work on Sabbath (Exodus 20:10; Deuteronomy 5:14), but it does not get into specifics about what is allowed and what is forbidden. Instead, it gives principles, which, if followed, make “the Sabbath a delight” (Isaiah 58:13).

The rabbis were the ones to come up with 39 different classes of work forbidden on the Sabbath. For instance, an article in Israel Today, a Jerusalem-based news agency, ran an opinion piece last year questioning a new Sabbath ruling by some Jerusalem rabbis post-COVID-19: “Rabbinic authorities from Jerusalem and Bnei Brak in a joint halachic order indicated that entering public places, including hospitals and hotels, where body temperature is measured at the entrance with infrared thermometers or other technical devices, violates the sanctity of Shabbat.”

Perhaps this begs the question: Does the “perfect” (Psalm 19:7), “good,” and “just” (Romans 7:12) law of God—which includes the Sabbath commandment—need addendums? Does it need improving upon by a human hand? After all, however well-meaning their intent, the rabbis’ measures will only ever be manmade.


Trail Angels

Then there is the recent “Shabbat initiative for young hikers on the Israel National Trail,” which facilitates “the opportunity to experience communal Shabbat meals and prayers.”

This innovation was started by Tzohar, a mostly Orthodox Jewish religious organization “founded in 1995 in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin” that seeks to help heal the “deep divisions within … society based upon differing perspectives on religious practice and identity.”

COVID-19 restrictions have not allowed most Israelis to travel abroad, thus leading many to more local excursions, like hiking the Israel National Trail, a 683-mile-long stretch that runs from Israel’s northern border near Lebanon, down the Mediterranean coast, juts inland toward Jerusalem, and finally ends at the Gulf of Aqaba at the southern tip of the country.

And those hundreds of miles of traveling mean lots of Sabbath days. One of the amazing things about the Sabbath is that, instead of people going to it, the Sabbath always comes to people, wherever they are. At one thousand miles an hour, the speed that the earth rotates on its axis, the Sabbath sweeps the globe each week, including the Israel National Trail.

And now, thanks to Tzohar’s volunteers, that Sabbath experience just got a little sweeter. These so-called “trail angels” bring prayer books, music, and Sabbath meals to those who want to celebrate the Sabbath while on their journey. The Shabbat programming takes place in tents set up in specific places on the trail. Hikers simply sign up online at Tzohar’s website to participate.

“Hikers who know they will be traveling along the trail over Shabbat will be encouraged to sign up in advance for one of Tzohar’s programs. There they will share community meals, Shabbat prayers, songs and intellectual discussions in a setting designed to bring together young Israelis from different walks of life.”


The Meaning of the Sabbath

Now, between the hospital restriction and this trail ministry are two very different interpretations of how to observe the Sabbath day. So what does it really mean to honor God’s holy day? What motivations are we to have for keeping it in the first place?

The best answer is given by Jesus Himself. To the Pharisees’ rebuke of His disciples, Jesus replied, “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:7, 8).

The Sabbath was made for man to know the Lord our God (Ezekiel 20:20). Through the Sabbath, we are able to further witness God’s character. We get to be reminded of His paramount love for us, as evidenced by Christ’s greatest act of mercy—dying upon the cross for our sins. The Sabbath is not an opportunity to hunt for imaginary faults but to share the gospel’s beautiful truths with others, from our loved ones to the “stranger who is within [our] gates” (Exodus 20:10).

Much too often, Sabbath observance devolves into a list of what you can and cannot do. But perhaps a better question to ask is: Is your Sabbath observance a reflection of the character of God? What if it weren’t just a ritual but a heart change? What if it weren’t just a formula; what if it were, instead, a privilege?

The only way to learn about God and His Sabbath is through His Word. Find out from the Bible how and why we worship God on the seventh day in our free presentation “Holiday or Holyday.” It might just change your life!

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