God mandated a day of rest for our good, says David Hoffbrand. Try it. You might be surprised by the many benefits it brings to you and your family
I grew up in a Jewish family where the Sabbath was celebrated with bagels, salt beef and all manner of Jewish delicacies. But it was only after I became a follower of Jesus that I started to explore and understand the full significance of this day of rest. I discovered that far from being a burden, the Sabbath is life-giving and life changing.
Sadly the Church has, too often, thrown out the baby of learning with the bathwater of legalism, and nowhere is this more apparent than with the Sabbath. But in today’s busy, information-saturated world, the practise of Sabbath rest is more vital than ever.
Following the principle laid down in Genesis 1:5 (“there was evening, and there was morning – the first day”), all Jewish days start at sunset. As Sabbath begins at nightfall on Friday, Jewish people will light candles and take wine and bread. These rituals help to usher in a different mindset, so we can experience oneg Shabbat – or Sabbath joy – following God’s instruction to “call the Sabbath a delight” (Isaiah 58:13). The late great Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, said that the aim of Sabbath is “creating menuha, a restfulness that is also a celebration”. The absence of work provides a space for something else.
A HOLY GIFT
Heschel points out that the first use of the word ‘holy’ in the Bible is not to describe a person or a place, but the Sabbath itself. And it is the only thing in the creation story to be described as such: “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy” (Genesis 2:3). It is, say the rabbis, the last thing that God created, in order to make everything complete.
Exodus 16:29 says: “the Lord has given you the Sabbath”. Jesus echoed this when he said the Sabbath was made “to meet the needs of people” (Mark 2:27, NLT). Jesus pushed back against the hypocritical approach of the Pharisees, but he was not advocating the abolition of the Sabbath, nor suggesting it was no longer relevant. Instead, he was reminding them of its true meaning and purpose as a gift from God. As such, we should not neglect it but, instead, unwrap it and find out how to use it the way he intended.
Celebrating the Sabbath is an act of faith. We do not stop because we have finished our work, but because we trust God. God specifically told the children of Israel to stop even during ploughing and harvest. For an agrarian society, this was a radical and seemingly illogical idea. It was one way the Israelites stood out as God’s people. There was nothing like it in the ancient world.
WHEN THE PROPHETS BROUGHT GOD’S JUDGEMENT AGAINST ISRAEL THEY SPOKE OF THREE ISSUES – IDOLATRY, A LACK OF JUSTICE, AND FAILURE TO OBSERVE THE SABBATH
Sabbath reminds us to walk in rhythm with God, not depend on the alignment of perfect circumstances. Its regularity encourages us to find God in the ordinary patterns of life. Like the Israelites, resting from work reminds us that our true source of prosperity is God himself. Each week, as we stop work and let go of the identities that define us there, we can return to our truest identity as the children of a loving God.
Without Sabbath, we can lose perspective. Work becomes an idol, instead of a means to partner with God’s purposes. The Sabbath corrects this imbalance and answers the call to a simpler life. In ceasing production and considering the values that we are embodying, the Sabbath remains as countercultural as ever, just as we are called to be.
God told the Israelites to observe the Sabbath rest because he also rested after creation. We are made in God’s image and designed with the Sabbath in mind. A weekly block of time to rest and recalibrate our emotions and thoughts is part of God’s antidote to stress and burnout. It is not a rule made for us to follow arbitrarily, but designed because God knows us – and our needs – intimately.
The Hebrew word sabat, from which the English word ‘Sabbath’ derives, conveys more than just ceasing activity; there is a sense of arriving at a destination. God stopped, say the rabbis, because he had found the object of his creation. On the Sabbath, he enjoyed it; it was a celebration. As Heschel said: “The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath!” It is the culmination and pinnacle of the week, just as it was of creation.
5 ways to Sabbath
1. Plan ahead
Treat it like a holiday and do what you can to create space to rest, such as doing chores and shopping in advance. This will mean you can rest better from your ordinary work.
2. Create expectation
Let it become part of the rhythm of life and a promise to those around you, including children and partners, if you have them. Mark the entry into the Sabbath with some kind of action. Jewish people use the bread and wine to focus on this idea of stepping into a different mindset.
3. Do what you find restful and fun
Buy some special food and drink, go for a walk, sleep in, read a book…there are no rules to enjoying Sabbath rest.
4. Invite others
Where are you going for Shabbat? is a question you often hear in Israel. There is an idea that no one should be left alone on the Sabbath. This gives us an opportunity to grow in compassion, purposefully love others and build genuine community.
5. Be mindful of yourself
Take a moment to let go of the week and assess your emotions, thoughts and sense of God’s love. Let yourself be found by him, wherever you are.
SABBATH AND FAMILY
God’s commandment to the Israelites on the Sabbath was that each person should “stay in [their] place” (Exodus 16:29, NLT). The work of the week often takes us away from our families, but the Sabbath is a time to tend to our relationships with those closest to us. We remember that we are not individuals living in the same space, but a unit brought together in covenant with God and one another. The Sabbath is both a form of family therapy and a promoter of family health. However busy the week, the Sabbath promises a window for us to be together.
In Israel, the Friday night Shabbat (Sabbath) meal is often multi generational, maintaining bonds that can be lost if left too long. In Jewish thinking, there is the idea that each home is to be a mikdash me’at – a little sanctuary. It is the primary locus of spiritual activity and celebration. This is where we fundamentally offer our lives to God and allow him to move.
Through the course of the pandemic, we have been forced to stay ‘in our place’, quite literally. One benefit of this is to shake some of our focus on events and institutions and remind us that the light must first shine from who and where we are.
SABBATH AND SOCIETY
While the Western view of the world is highly individualistic, the shared experience of Sabbath is intended to enhance a sense of community.
The command in Exodus 20 is for everyone in society, regardless of social status, income, gender or age. Even the livestock have the right to rest on the Sabbath. It is a key plank of God’s vision for a just society and reminds us that we are all children of God. It’s like a taste of eternity.
When God reminded the Israelites of his commands as they were about to enter the promised land, he added a new reason for observing the Sabbath: “Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out with his strong hand and powerful arm. That is why the Lord your God has commanded you to rest on the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15, NLT).
On the verge of building this new nation, God told them to remember each week that they had once been slaves, rescued only by his power and mercy. In doing so, God called them to carry his compassion and create a community that functioned differently to Egypt. The weekly Sabbath forms part of a larger Sabbath cycle. God told Israel that each seventh year, the land was to lay fallow and the poor were free to eat its produce. Each 50th year was called the Jubilee. Land was returned to its original owners and debts were forgiven. This Sabbath cycle speaks of how we treat one another, especially those less fortunate, and how we steward God’s creation.
When the prophets brought God’s judgement against Israel they often spoke of three related issues – the worship of idols, a lack of justice and compassion for the poor, and failure to observe the Sabbaths. These may seem unrelated, but in God’s kingdom it makes perfect sense for them to be linked: when we don’t stay connected to God, we begin to gravitate towards idols and self-reliance. When we forget where we came from and how God rescued us, we stop carrying God’s deep love for others in similar situations.
WANT TO PARTNER WITH GOD IN REPAIRING THE WORLD? OBSERVE THE SABBATH
What Sabbath means to me
Clive and Jane Urquhart
For us, Sabbath is the opportunity to stop, put everything else aside and spend time with God and one another around communion; eating together and understanding God’s heart and perspective on the rhythm and pace he wants us to live. It’s about entrusting everything into his hands so that we live in a place of rest and peace.
As believers, we pray every day but we encourage the families and households in our church to take time together each week to be around the table, pray for one another, break bread and invite his presence and Lordship into their homes. These have become life-giving times for us, which is God’s intention for the Sabbath.
I’m a task-driven person. I like to be as organised as possible, and probably verge on being a perfectionist. Taking a Sabbath day each week wasn’t necessarily a foreign idea to me but I soon realised I didn’t understand what it truly meant. I started actively embracing a weekly Sabbath and, although I’m still learning each week, I’ve been amazed at the difference it has made.
God created the Sabbath for us to be refreshed, renewed, restored, re envisioned and realigned with him. I didn’t realise how unhealthy I was before, emotionally, spiritually, mentally and physically. I am by no means ‘there’ yet, but I am incredibly grateful for this understanding of what the Sabbath truly means for us and the impact it can have in transforming our everyday lives.
I started reading 52 Sabbaths about 18 months ago, and as soon as I finished I signed up to receive them again. Not only have the words been jumping off the page and meeting me right where I am at, but I also found practical application for a healthier way of living – the way of life that God always intended us to live.
Sign up to 52 Sabbaths for free at sabbath.love to receive a weekly devotional email from David Hoffbrand on a different aspect of the Sabbath every Friday
OPENING THE GIFT
The Sabbath is a gift that we urgently need to revisit: for the sake of our physical, emotional and mental health, for the sake of our relationships and for the sake of our communities.
In Jewish thinking, there is a concept called tikkun olam, the idea that God calls us to partner with him in the process of ‘repairing the world’. And one way we can participate in repairing the world is to observe the Sabbath. As we learn to use the gift of Sabbath rest that God provides, we will experience more of the peace and joy that characterises his kingdom. We will learn to grow in relationships, and we will remember the kind of community that God has called us to build.