For someone who has never observed the Sabbath, the ‘rest’ of the Seventh can seem overwhelmingly restricting. Besides for all agricultural labor that is outright prohibited, there are also restrictions that affect many other aspects in day-to-day life. For instance, one is not permitted to cook, write, dye, ignite a fire, carry any objects outside of their home, travel, prepare anything for Sunday, and tens more.
I was recently put to the test when a teenage girl who’s interested in keeping the Laws of Sabbath asked me why she can’t use her phone or cook on Sabbath. After all, the Bible prohibits labor and toil; and to be fair scrolling through Facebook posts on a sofa in an air-conditioned room is not exactly hard work.
A good and honest question deserves a good answer, so I’ll try my best.
Just for a minute, let’s travel back to Sinai when our ancestors stood at the foot of the mountain and received the blessing of Sabbath. This is what they heard God proclaim:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy… In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant…. (Exodus 20:9-10)
At that point in history, a slave was considered -culturally and legally- a mere piece of property. Slaves had no concept of rights. A slave can wake up in the morning and see his master sell one of his children without the need to notify the father. For in reality, the child doesn’t have a father. A slave is not an individual, he’s probably not human outside of biology; he’s merchandise. A slave has no time to think for himself, for he has no self; his mind, heart and soul belong to his master. His rights are no more than that of a chair or a piece of cutlery.
The Israelites were enslaved for hundreds of years, and now celebrated their freedom. They were following their great leader to a Promised Land of milk, honey, crops and vineyards. Their freedom meant, that they will finally eat the fruit of their labor; they will be the ones to harvest their accomplishments. And yes, it also meant that they will have slaves of their own.
And then came Sabbath. When God commanded Israel to take a day of rest in a civilization that was based on production, it probably came across as revolutionary. But when God granted that very same right to the slaved, it probably sounded preposterous, and even counterproductive. And that was the point.
Let’s now go back into our time machine and fast-forward a hundred years. It’s late Friday afternoon in the Galilee, and a fellow farmer is closing up shop in preparation for the Sabbath. He glances to the side and recognizes his slave drenched in sweat plowing the field, he looks to the other side and sees another slave picking some vegetables; he calls to them to stop working and they retreat to their cabins.
The Sabbath granted the slave a day of freedom; a day on which he can pursue his own passions, interest and dreams. On this day he is not subjected to the will of another man, he’s in charge of himself. The Sabbath granted the slaves with the gift of human identity, it gave them a ‘self.’ Consequently, the master started seeing his slave as human, too. While the slave still worked hard on Sunday, in back of his mind the master knew that this slave does have God granted freedom, he does have opinions and feelings. That was the revolution of Sabbath.
The economic system and technological advancement of our times, broke down the borders between man and his work. We live in a gold rush where we chase and never reach our goals. We work to make a living, but we’re too busy to live. We try to support our loved ones, but we don’t have time to love them. We are masters in charge of our own fate, yet we shackle our own hands to slavery and can’t escape. We eventually forget who we are, what we love, what our passions are. Until Sabbath arrives.
Texting on a phone might not be physical toil on your body, but it weighs heavier on your soul than labor can ever. It takes you out of your real life, it distances you from you own self. Travel, cooking and preparing for Sunday, are the antithesis of letting go, and in our times, that’s what freedom is all about.
On Sabbath we retain our humanity.