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Vayikra/Leviticus 23:3 and on the seventh day, a shabbat of resting, a calling of holiness ... it is a shabbat for the L-rd in all your dwellings.
The whole of chapter 23 of the book of Vayikra - all of the fourth, fifth and sixth aliyot1 - is used to catalogue the festivals (literally, , the appointments or appointed times) ofHaShem. These are the sacred days around the year that HaShem has set apart in His diary to meet with the people of Israel. Here we find the spring festivals of Pesach and Matzah, the counting of the Omer and the festival of Shavuot, and the cluster of autumn festivals: Yom Teruah - the Day of Blowing - Yom Kippur and Sukkot. These are the "once a year" festivals; some are celebrated for just one day, others for a week. However, the chapter starts with something rather different and rather more domestic: the weekly shabbat, the one day in seven when "you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you" (Shemot 20:10, NASB).
The noun comes from the root , "to rest, cease, desist", and usually means a day of rest or ceasing. The verb is used to describe what happened at the end of the six days of creation: "By the seventh day G-d completed His work which He had done; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done" (B'resheet 2:2, NASB). Based on the last phase of the verses explaining why Israel to observe shabbat, "on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed" (Shemot 31:17, JPS), Baruch Levine comments that "Shabbat is a day that enables a person literally to 'catch his breath'". can be used to qualify a period of time or a purpose, so that is a shabbat of years, meaning the seventh or sabbatical year. The phrase , then, means a shabbat of complete resting and is only used for the weekly shabbat and for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Drazin and Wagner say this "stresses that the Sabbath must be observed with a greater abstinence from work than on the festivals; there are more work restrictions. It is possible that the Israelites were required to refrain from only some activities on the festivals to free them to celebrate the holidays, while on the Shabbat and Yom Kippur, the object is rest rather than celebration, 'the most restful cessation'". This is echoed by Levine, who confirms, "On seasonal festivals, one refrains from work primarily to be free to celebrate, whereas on the Shabbat, the very object is to rest."
The juxtapositioning of Shabbat and the other feasts in the same block of text is a cause for some questions.Rashi asks, "Why is the subject of Shabbat here, next to the festivals?" then answers his own question: "To teach you that whoever desecrates the festivals is considered as if he desecrates the shabbat days and whoever upholds the festivals is considered as if he upheld the shabbat days." Other commentators are concerned about the differences between Shabbat and the festivals. In a Talmudic discussion about the way that Israel sets the dates for the feasts by declaring the start of each month by the sighting of the new moon, Ravina2 points out: "Does then Israel sanctify the Sabbath? The Sabbath has already been sanctified [from the creation] and so continues!" (b. Beitza 17b), while Rabbi Giddal3 articulates a blessing for Shabbat that affirms its divine nature: "Blessed be He who gave Sabbaths for rest to His people Israel in love for a sign and a covenant, blessed is He who sanctifies the Sabbath!" (b. Berachot 49a). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that "Shabbat is not dependent on being proclaimed by Israel as a holy day; it is given, fixed by G-d, sanctified by G-d and it is just this fixed nature of its demands - free from all human choice - that make submission to it into an act of homage-offering to G-d." The prophet Isaiah carries this theme when he says, "If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot from doing your own pleasure on My holy day, and call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the L-RD honorable, and shall honor it, desisting from your own ways, from seeking your own pleasure, and speaking your own word, then you will take delight in the L-RD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the L-RD has spoken" (Isaiah 58:13-14, NASB). Shabbat is the L-rd's holy day.
The last phrase of our verse also merits some attention, David Stern translates it: "It is a Shabbat for Adonai, even in your homes" (CJB), while Richard Elliott Friedman's translation has: "It is a sabbath to YHVH in all your homes". OvadiahSforno points out that "'The One forming light and creating darkness' (Isaiah 45:7, NASB) determines them for all your dwelling places, even though the beginning of the day and the night changes in accordance with the time span in a particular geographic region." Ibn Ezra extends the phrase "in all your dwellings" to include "the Holy Land, the diaspora, your homes and away from home." Baruch Levine comments, "This stipulation emphasises the fact that the Shabbat is to be observed by the community of Israelites in their houses and is not solely a celebration to take place in the sanctuary." This follows the very first Shabbat instructions Moshe gave to the Israelites: "Let everyone remain where he is: let no one leave his place on the seventh day" (Shemot 16:29, ESV).
How does this affect us today? By Yeshua's time the Jewish people had worked out the concept of the shabbat day journey (Acts 1:12, the distance between the Mount of Olives and the city of Jerusalem); this basic rule - the distance you can travel on Shabbat - has endured into modern times and enshrines the principle that short journeys are acceptable, but that an hour or more in the car is simply too far and violates the spirit of Shabbat as a day of rest. Very few people, at least in the West, need to light fires for cooking or heating on any day of the week, but where that is necessary, fires can be kept in and fuel stocked in advance to avoid the time, effort and possibly dirt of lighting a fire on Shabbat. That too seems entirely within the spirit of the day. Shopping is something of which we can all do much less; not spending the day traipsing around the mall, trying on a dozen different outfits to find the one that looks least uncomfortable, seems entirely within the spirit and the letter of Shabbat.
But the real question is: are we serious about keeping Shabbat? On whatever day we keep it - and a plausible argument can be made that we can't be absolutely sure that the day we now call Saturday (or Samedi in the French-speaking parts of the world) is the same day as Shabbat observed by the Israelites in the wilderness, or that Sunday is the same day authorised by Constantine for church worship at the council of Nicea - are we intentional about setting one day in seven apart to and for the L-rd? Do we accept restrictions on where we go, what we do, whether we spend money (buying lunch out after services), whether we fix up with a fellow believer at church or synagogue who just happens to be a plumber to come round and fix the taps in the bath? Are we prepared to turn our technology off - be that cell-phone, tablet or larger behemoth for doing email and facebook - in order to clearly focus on the L-rd, our own family and uninterrupted fellowship with other believers or friends? All it seems to take is a little determination and a little thoughtful preparation. Shabbat would be much more restful for families whose cook didn't spend several hours peeling potatoes, slicing cabbage, roasting meat and making gravy; prepare a nice meal the day before to eat cold or keep warm. Leave the slow-cooker running overnight for a tasty stew or enjoy a nice salad. Oh, and leave the iPad in the cupboard.
Don't get the idea this is about legalism: a set of rules - you can do this, you can't do that. It isn't. Yeshua said that "Shabbat was made for mankind, not mankind for Shabbat" (Mark 2:27, CJB); G-d has given us the day to relax, to enjoy with Him and to do family and fun things together. It's nice to join others for worship and study, but perhaps not if you have to travel forty miles each way. We need to open our hearts and minds to hear G-d speaking to us about our Shabbat and how we can unwind from the frantic pace of our modern lives and give Him a moment to soothe our fevered brows and touch us by His Spirit.
1. - Each weekly parasha is divided into seven aliyot (singular aliyah), so that when the Torah is read in the synagogue on Shabbat, seven people may be called up to the bima to read and share the honour of reading (or saying the blessings before and after the formal reader reads) from the Torah.
2. - Ravina was a sixth generation Babylonian >amora, living around 380-430 CE.
3. - Rabbi Giddal was a second generation Babylonian amora, living around 230-280 CE.
Further Study: Shemot 23:12; D'varim 5:14; James 1:17-18
Application: Does Shabbat seem an almost unattainable luxury that is far beyond our reach? Or does the idea tug at your heart, if only you could let it? The good news is: you can! This week is a perfect opportunity for you to start observing Shabbat just a little and then let the habit gently grow. You won't regret it!
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