Sabbath - rest or recreation?

The principle of a ‘weekend’ is an entirely biblical one, says David Instone-Brewer. How will you use yours?

The ‘weekend’ is, perhaps, the greatest revolution in human lifestyle since the abolition of slaves and serfs. It offers relief for the tired, or opportunity for the creative and energetic. And God invented it – well, half of it, anyway – by establishing the principle of the Sabbath.

It was a revolutionary law. Many nations had festival days, as Israel did, but these days were occupied in worship of their god(s). In contrast, the Sabbath law in Israel did not mention worship or any other duties – only relief from work. The priests had a few additional tasks: they offered two extra lambs and feasted on the showbread. But ordinary people had no holy duties on the Sabbath except, perhaps, to meet together (Leviticus 23:3). And this rest from work applied also to those who didn’t attend temple worship, such as women, children, slaves, foreigners and farm animals (Exodus 20:10). Clearly this was not just a religious law; it was intended to transform society.

Defining ‘labour’

Although ‘labour’ on the Sabbath was forbidden to the Israelites, this didn’t mean they had to sit with their arms crossed all day. Jews in Jesus’ day defined ‘labour’ as activities such as sowing, ploughing, reaping and other tasks involved in agriculture – cooking, making clothing, cleaning and building. These were recognisably laborious work rather than simple everyday activities. For example, harvesting a handful of food as a snack was specifically allowed by some rabbis (Tosephta Bétzah 1.20). They also avoided any appearance of work (even to the extent of not wearing a brooch because it looked like a needle), though they recognised that this went beyond the written law. 

In later generations, rabbis interpreted the word ‘labour’ in ever more stricter ways. For example, ‘making a fire’ had always been outlawed (based on Exodus 35:3) because it involved considerable labour. Even if you had already collected the wood, you still had to clean out old ashes, arrange the kindling and larger logs, then nurture the flame till it burned unaided. However, these later rabbis extended the law to prohibit even setting light to a previously prepared lamp, and today strict Jews forbid pressing all electric switches. (You need great patience if you use a Sabbath lift in a Jewish hotel; it automatically stops at every floor, to save people the ‘labour’ of pressing any buttons.)

Weekend benefits

The invention of the ‘weekend’ has been traced to a New England cotton mill in 1908. Although it had mainly Jewish workers, the owners realised that they’d risk offending the Christian townsfolk by shutting on Saturday instead of Sunday, so they decided to close on both days. Henry Ford adopted the practice in his factories for a different reason – he realised that increased recreation meant that more people would want to buy a car. Humans now have the task of buying and enjoying the many things made by millions of industrial robots, and the weekend helps to make our consumer economy thrive. 

Charities have benefited too. They used to depend on the ‘idle rich’, but now many more people have spare time and can donate a few hours of help. Entrepreneurship also thrives when weekends are spent on hobbies which grow into profitable sidelines, and sometimes into new businesses. Google recognised this when they instructed their employees to spend 20% of their work time on personal projects. Some significant products – such as Gmail – have resulted. But best of all, families and society benefit from people spending time together.

Which day?

The Bible doesn’t tell us to spend all of Sunday on worship. Services at the synagogue on the Sabbath were invented during Israel’s exile, and although this was undoubtedly good, it wasn’t mandated in the Bible. Likewise, the New Testament encourages Christians to meet together (eg Hebrews 10:25), but doesn’t say when this should happen. The early Christians regularly met on a Sabbath (Acts 13:42,44; 16:13), and are mentioned once as meeting on a Sunday evening (Acts 20:7) – though this was actually Saturday evening because Saturday sunset is the start of Sunday for Jews.

We don’t know how the transition for Christians to meet on Sunday occurred – perhaps it was because Christian slaves could only attend late meetings like this one, or perhaps it was related to the resurrection. But the point is that the actual day didn’t matter. The New Testament doesn’t say which day to meet, and Paul’s only comment is that no one should judge a fellow believer with regard to Sabbath observance (Colossians 2:16).

Positive attitude

Many Jews in Jesus’ time had a refreshingly positive attitude to the Sabbath. Rabbi Shammai would look out all week for special food to enjoy on that day, and villages ensured that even tramps had three proper meals on a Sabbath (Mishnah Peah 8.6). They recognised the Sabbath as a gift from God for enjoyment and relaxation – certainly not as a religious restriction or burden. I imagine the Israelites in the wilderness spending the Sabbath listening to a storyteller, or making a wooden toy for their children. 

What is work for some is recreation for others – a principle that is behind both God’s Sabbath and the secular weekend. So while carving wood might be labour for a carpenter, it could be relaxing for an accountant. Even the ancient rabbis assented to this, because they allowed a tool to be used for the ‘wrong’ purpose on a Sabbath. For example, you could use an axe to cut down some figs to eat because real harvesting wasn’t done with an axe (Mishnah Shabbat 17.2).

Keep Sunday special

With the weekend, Western society has finally implemented part of God’s design for us and has proven the wisdom of his law. There are a host of benefits in people doing what they want for a day (or two) each week: time for physical and mental refreshment – perhaps through pursuing hobbies or education; time for participation in social events and helping others; time to think and pray.

A few people may feel constrained to reserve one day for nothing but ‘holy’ tasks, but this is not biblical teaching. The Bible’s model for observing the Sabbath is summed up well by the former campaign slogan ‘Keep Sunday Special’, which recognised that Sunday can be special by choosing recreation rather than rest. My favourite kind of weekend is one where I create something – doing what some might regard as work – and this refreshes me for the week ahead. What project will make your next weekend a special one? 



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