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Unmasking Sabbath Misconceptions in a Time of Crisis

Unmasking Sabbath Misconceptions in a Time of Crisis

Although the powerful February earthquake in Turkey and Syria has faded from the North American news cycle, relief efforts continue 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Interestingly, the crisis reignited questions in Israel about what a Sabbath-keeper should and should not do on the Sabbath day. 

In this case, the nation of Israel sent search-and-rescue teams to help in Turkey’s increasingly dire humanitarian crisis. But because many of the Israeli workers were observant Jews, the question arose: Could they continue their relief work on the Sabbath day? After all, the commandment explicitly 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” (Exodus 20: 9–11, emphasis added).

Note what the commandment doesn’t say: You shall do no work unless there is an emergency. In the commandment, it says only that one “shall not do work.”

An Unexpected Ruling?

Consider this scenario: On a late Friday afternoon, Israeli workers come across someone trapped under rubble, dying, and in desperate need of assistance. The team urgently begins mobilizing to render aid—but just as soon as the sun sets on Friday, when the Sabbath begins, the workers drop their tools and walk away, leaving the victim right where he is.

Of course, such a thing never happened. But why?

When the question of Sabbath observance for relief workers arose, one of Israel’s chief rabbis, David Lau, issued this ruling: “Wherever there is any chance of saving lives and finding survivors, the engineering team must continue its activities.” That is, not only were the workers cleared of wrongdoing had they kept working—they were expected to keep working, even on the Sabbath!

As observed in a recent article in Deseret News, written by a D.C.-based Jewish writer, “This may be surprising to some outside of the faith, who mistakenly believe that Jewish Sabbath observance stops at nothing, even when lives are on the line.”

However, the pronouncement by Lau fits with longstanding Jewish law and tradition. Based on Leviticus 16:19, which is loosely translated as, “Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is threatened” (NLT), it would be deemed wrong for rescuers not to continue working on Shabbat.

Jesus and Sunday

We also find this provision in the New Testament, specifically when conflict about Sabbath observance arose between Jesus and some of the Jewish leadership. 

Unfortunately, through the centuries, Sunday-keeping Christians, arguing that the seventh-day Sabbath has been abolished or superseded by Sunday, would use these conflicts as evidence that Jesus was turning people away from the seventh-day Sabbath in anticipation of keeping Sunday, which they mistakenly call “the Lord’s Day.” However, in none of these incidents does the ongoing requirement of Sabbath observance on the seventh day ever come up.

Indeed, in each case, Jesus was seeking to uplift and affirm the seventh-day Sabbath, the day sanctified in Eden (Genesis 2:1–3), a day that had been perverted and twisted by manmade rules that made it a burden instead of a delight to the Jewish people. “If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight” (Isaiah 58:13).

Instead, Jesus clearly revealed that, contrary to false conceptions, His people are to do good on the Sabbath. He said rhetorically, “I will ask you one thing: Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy?” (Luke 6:9). What could be a better good than saving a life?

Jesus and the Sabbath

Each of the four Gospels depicts one or more Sabbath confrontations between Jesus and the religious leaders. In most cases, this pattern reoccurs: 

1. Jesus or His disciples do an activity on the Sabbath—healing, picking grain in a field, etc.

2. The religious leaders criticize the behavior as being unlawful.

3. Jesus defends the activity, often citing Scripture in His response.

Almost any example in the Gospels would do, but because the crisis in Turkey deals with life and the quality of life, let’s examine a confrontation in which this question comes into play. In Luke 13, Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on Sabbath; when He saw a woman who had been suffering from an “infirmity [for] eighteen years” (v. 11), one that had significantly disabled her, He laid hands on her and, immediately, she was healed.

The ruler of the synagogue was indignant that Jesus had healed—done work—on the Sabbath, saying, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day” (v. 14).

Jesus responded, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound—think of it—for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?” (vv. 15, 16).

If Jesus healed on the Sabbath even when the woman’s life was not in immediate danger, how much more so would working on the Sabbath be allowed—even required—when a life hangs in the balance? The answer is unmistakable.

Unfortunately, the question of doing good on the seventh-day Sabbath is not the only misconception about the Sabbath. No other commandment in the Bible is more misunderstood and misconstrued than the fourth commandment. To learn more about it, including what should be done and should not be done on the seventh day, visit our Frequently Asked Questions section. 

This article contributed by Clifford Goldstein
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