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The History of Jewish Sabbath-Keeping

The History of Jewish Sabbath-Keeping

Even before a written version of God’s law was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, violating the fourth commandment had been a problem among the Hebrews.

The Sabbath command states: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it 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. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:8–11).

In providing instruction about manna, food which God provided during the Israelites’ sojourn in the wilderness, the Lord said, “‘Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will be none.’ Now it happened that some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather, but they found none” (16:26, 27). In response, God asked, “How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My laws?” (v. 28).

After the Jews had been long settled in the Promised Land, their transgressions persisted. Returning to their land after the Babylonian exile, God’s people were observed to be making wine, loading provisions on donkeys, and selling goods on the Sabbath. “What evil thing is this that you do, by which you profane the Sabbath day?” (Nehemiah 13:17) their leader, Nehemiah, remonstrated. “Did not your fathers do thus, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Yet you bring added wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath” (v. 18).

As the centuries passed, Jewish leaders created a host of manmade rules for keeping the Sabbath holy. In some cases, these regulations bordered on absurdity, such as being forbidden to carry a handkerchief on the Sabbath unless one end of the cloth were sewn to the person’s garment. Tragically, these “commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9) resulted in shrouding God’s holy day in a pall that has lasted to today.

Tablet on the Tablets

Influential online Jewish magazine Tablet ended 2021 with an article that walked through a portrait of Jewish Sabbath-keeping in America. “In 1880, for instance, only an estimated 1,500 New York Jews out of a population of 75,000 ‘observed it as it should be,’ sorrowfully related the Jewish Messenger,” the article shared concerning the seventh-day Sabbath.

To combat this rampant disregard, Jewish leaders through the years formed various “anti-desecration” organizations, like the Sabbath Association, the Sabbath Observance Association, and the Jewish Sabbath Alliance, all with the same basic goal: to get Jews to keep the Sabbath.

Among their endeavors were a push to “[institute] a five-day work week”; a promotion of the day’s benefits, like “the special dishes” and “the more than usual cleanliness of the home”; and most brazenly, an appeal to “[shift] Shabbos [Sabbath] from Saturday to Sunday.” Those adhering to this line of thought reasoned, “God probably did not care if his mandated day of rest fell on a Saturday or a Sunday[;] and for another, … having all Americans, Jews and Christians, worship on the same day lessened the Jews’ marginality and situated them more comfortably within the civic square.”

But other than “a brief spell in the early 1950s,” when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s popular book The Sabbath was published, these ideas met with little success among the Jewish community.

A Day for Man with God

What was glaringly absent from this jaunt through history was One who should have been the main focus: God, who made the Sabbath in the first place. It seems the one concept that wasn’t tried by these Sabbatarian groups is the one actually advocated in Scripture: “If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable, and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words, then you shall delight yourself in the LORD; and I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father” (Isaiah 58:13, 14).

What does it mean to “delight yourself in the LORD”? The Bible explains it this way: “Delight yourself also in the LORD, and He shall give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass” (Psalm 37:4, 5). Keeping the Sabbath is an outward expression of your commitment to the Almighty Creator.

The Sabbath isn’t about the things you do or don’t do. It’s not something that needs to be made to fit the trends of the day. It’s not just another way of saying “the weekend.” The Sabbath is about who you worship.

Perhaps the reason Sabbath observance has so largely failed is because many do not understand the purpose for keeping the Sabbath. They make the Sabbath about man rather than about man’s relationship with God. Yes, “the Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27, emphasis added). Though Tablet’s article was written from a Jewish viewpoint, in actuality, the Sabbath command—in fact, the entire Ten Commandments—applies to the whole human race.

Are you interested in learning more about this most special of days? Then check out the five-part series The Seventh Day, hosted by the late Hal Holbrook. Find out why you personally need the Sabbath in your life!

This article contributed by Clifford Goldstein
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