“If you refrain from the trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord. . . .” Isaiah 58:13-14
One of the joys of being a chaplain at Harvard was that I worked alongside more than thirty other chaplains, representing most of the world’s major religious traditions. And while I collaborated most often with my fellow Christian chaplains, I also had a close relationship with my Jewish colleagues at Harvard Hillel. Occasionally, I would join the rabbis and their students for Shabbat dinner on Friday evenings; and, when I did, I was always eager to learn something new about the ancient Jewish practice of shabbat.
“Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God,” says the Book of Exodus. For Jews, the Sabbath begins on Friday evening at sunset and ends on Saturday night, because, according to Genesis, God rested on the seventh day after the six days of Creation. On day seven, the world is complete and whole and beautiful – God’s creative labor has ended – and so God invites his creatures to enjoy and take delight in what He has done.
The word ‘shabbat’ in Hebrew literally means ‘rest,’ and Jews will greet one another on the sabbath with the words ‘shabbat shalom,’ or ‘may you have a peaceful rest.’ And yet ‘shabbat’ is more than just taking a break from the busy-ness of a long work week: it is to enter into a holy time, marked off from the ordinariness of every other day. To enter into shabbat is metaphorically to enter into Eden, a time of peace, of liberation from the tyranny of toil and worry, of deep connection.
The many rituals and requirements of shabbat imposed by Jewish law are intended not to be burdens, but rather they are carefully designed to set apart this sacred time and to ground Jews in the ancient story of their covenantal relationship with God.
Minutes before sundown on Friday, the woman of the house lights the shabbat candles on the dinner table. The table is set with the family’s finest linens, dishware and silver. A special kiddush cup is set out for the wine, symbolizing the joy of the occasion. Two loaves of challah bread are placed on the table, in remembrance of the manna that God provided in the wilderness.
Before the shabbat meal is enjoyed, the man of the house says the kiddush, or sanctifying prayers, which includes a reading from the creation story in Genesis, prayers of thanksgiving, and a blessing over the meal. Those gathered are also often invited to sing the Shalom Aleichem, a beautiful song welcoming the angels of peace to join those gathered for the shabbat dinner.
At the outset of the meal, many Jewish families will also practice a mitzvah of tzedakah. While tzedakah is often translated as “a charitable act,” it is literally based on the Hebrew root meaning “righteousness” or “justice.” The mitzvah of tzedakah places on every Jew the obligation to right the injustices of the world; and so, many Jewish families will say a prayer for the poor before the shabbat meal, and set aside a donation to meet their needs.
If you listened closely to our reading from Isaiah, you no doubt discerned the biblical basis for this practice. In the lesson, immediately before Isaiah urges the Hebrew people to remember and delight in the sabbath, he admonishes them first to “offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.” Loving God and loving neighbor are always closely intertwined, in both theory and practice.
At the heart of the shabbat meal, though, is the celebration of God’s gift of family and friends over food, amidst laughter, storytelling, and song, in a time and space freed from the distractions of the outside world.
If the Friday Shabbat dinner is centered around family, Saturday is for community and God, as the family heads for temple services in the morning, joining their brothers and sisters in the community for the ancient patterns of Hebrew prayer, Torah reading, and hearing reflections from the rabbi, not unlike what we do here on Sundays.
For practicing Jews, though, Saturday is not just about temple worship, important as that is. It is also about disconnecting completely from the demands, diversions, and distractions of the world. No work, no chores, no shopping. No computers, no smartphones, no television. And depending upon how orthodox the family may be, the restrictions can be even more elaborate.
While such prohibitions may sound suffocating to some ears, when done purposefully, they are in fact life-giving. For the point of shabbat practice is to return to the natural rhythms of human life: conversation, walking, playing, reading; delighting in nature, and art, and music; rekindling friendships; renewing one’s body, mind and spirit; remembering and honoring God, loving neighbor.
As Abraham Heschel puts it: “Sabbath is the realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong,” Heschel continues, “when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern. . . . Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is the day on which we are called upon to live within the eternal.”
To seriously practice sabbath is thus to leave human time, and to enter into God’s time. It is to step out of this fallen world, and be invited by God back into the world as He intended it to be, an earthly proxy for Paradise.
The Christian tradition, of course, inherited observance of sabbath from our Jewish friends, although we moved the day from Saturday to Sunday in recognition of Christ’s Resurrection, which took place on the first day of the week. And yet, while most Christians honor the Sabbath by attending church, very few of us practice sabbath in the fuller sense of the word.
Fear not, I am not advocating the return of the infamous Sunday blue laws of our Puritan ancestors, whose reputation for humorlessness was well-deserved. Three hundred years ago in Massachusetts, there were laws closing all businesses on Sundays, forbidding travel, gossiping, dancing, and public touching of any kind, even between a husband and wife. The Puritans’ approach to sabbath-keeping was as lifelessly legalistic as the Pharisees’ misguided insistence that Jesus not heal the ailing woman in today’s gospel lesson.
It’s not more rules that we need on Sundays, but rather a genuine desire to keep the sabbath, to honor God’s time, by adopting practices that re-connect us to the sacred, and disconnect us from the profane.
This isn’t easy, I know; it’s challenging to extricate ourselves from the clutches of modern life. The competition of the marketplace, the intrusion of technology, the over-scheduling of family time, instantaneous access to all forms of entertainment, the incessant noise of the world; all these things overwhelm us and seem to make genuine sabbath impossible.
My fellow Episcopal priest and writer, Barbara Brown Taylor, offers some simple, if poetic advice: “At least one day in every seven,” she writes, “pull off the road and park the car in the garage. Close the door to the toolshed and turn off the computer. Stay home, not because you are sick but because you are well. Talk someone you love into being well with you. Take a nap, a walk, an hour for lunch. Test the premise that you are worth more than you can produce – that even if you spent one whole day being ‘good for nothing’ you would still be precious in God’s sight. Sabbath teaches us that our worth has already been established, even when we are not working. The purpose of the commandment is to get us to believe this, to know that we are loved for who we are, and not for what we do or do not do.”
Sabbath, you see, is all about becoming fully and wholly human. The reason Jesus heals the woman with a bent back, and insists that healing is always appropriate on the Sabbath, is because human health and flourishing is the whole point of Sabbath. To straighten the back of the crooked human self, so that we can walk upright again, is indeed the very aim of God’s wish for this day.
So, if you’re looking for a place to start: Try giving up your smartphones on Sundays, if not for the whole day, then at least until noon; be disciplined about having a real family meal on Sundays, whether it be after church, in the evening, or whenever works for you; try practicing one hour of complete silence on Sundays so that you can listen for God’s voice in the stillness of the day; attend to the beautiful, whether by visiting a museum, or listening to music, or picking a flower, or just walking on the beach. These are just a few ideas to start. But whatever you do, make sure to set aside some time this day to cherish those you love -- your God, your family, your friends – and pray, too, that your soul may be awakened to the goodness of all God’s creatures, including those you do not presently love, but should. Amen.