The Shabbat has undoubtedly come down the corridors of history to be the most important Jewish institution, even exceeding the significance of the synagogue. The Shabbat is the “Bride” or “Queen” of Judaism. Around the Shabbat is the religion of Moses, David, Isaiah, Nehemiah and Yeshua based. Everything in Judaism and certainly the entire Bible orbits the Shabbat.
Shah-BAHT (Hebrew), SHA-bas (Yiddish), or Sabbath (English) means “to cease working, to rest” or “to keep a Shabbat.” The Shabbat is found as early as the Genesis creation account where God Himself is seen as resting and finding refreshment. We secondly find Sabbath-keeping among the socially mandated Ten Commandments given at Sinai.
The first occasion would suggest a pattern for all the created order to follow, e.g., taking a day for spiritual refreshing after six days of labor. The second cause for Shabbat (Ex 20:8-11) was uniquely the heritage of the Chosen People. Those whose ancestry had been liberated by God from Egyptian slavery were privileged to forever commemorate that liberation from unrelenting bondage by honoring the rest day of freed men. This is one reason we find the Passover Exodus experience and the keeping of Shabbat so intertwined both in Scripture and Jewish liturgy.
The Shabbat as issued by God and honored by Israel was a sign of the perpetual Covenant relationship between God and His liberated Chosen People (Ex 31:12-17). By mandating Shabbat observance, God was sending a dual message: (1) He was concerned about every member of society, and (2) All Israel and all mankind should recall that God frees the slaves and stands ready to redeem the peoples of the earth (Deut 5:14-15). The neglect of honoring Shabbat greatly offended God who calls for the death penalty for violators. It seems Israel’s disregard for the Shabbat is viewed as contempt for the covenant-making God of Israel (Ex 31:14-15; Num 15:32-36).
The Hebrew prophets rehearsed the same twin themes for Shabbat-honoring: (1) God rested on Shabbat; (2) the importance to recall God’s liberation of Israel from slavery. But casualness toward Shabbat observance caused Ezekiel (22:8, 15-16) to cry out in holy protest, “You have…profaned My Sabbaths.” Jeremiah (17:21-25) likewise encourages Judah to counteract their forefathers who “did not listen or incline their ears.” A God-honoring Jewish nation should rather “keep the Sabbath day holy.”
Rabbinic customs associated with the Shabbat developed in ancient Israel, during the intertestamental period, in Yeshua’s own time and in the early centuries of Rabbinic Judaism alongside its chief competitor, Jewish-influenced Christianity. Yeshua took issue with rabbinic notions that actually violated the plain teaching of Torah. But Yeshua Himself honored the Shabbat and fully embraced its significance within faithful Jewish life experience and freely administered both instruction and healing within the Sabbath context. The early Messianic Jews and Christians long honored Yom Shabbat without qualm or dispute until the subsequent Christian philosophical resolve to first separate from and then divorce Israel.
The rabbis seized upon the few examples of Torah work prohibitions for Shabbat such as the gathering of manna (Ex 16:22-26), collecting sticks (Num 15:32-36), and lighting of fires (Ex 35:3). The rabbis carefully extended the field of restrictions to larger spheres. In time any thinking that could lead to work was improper as was the wearing of work clothes on Shabbat which suggested work. Shabbat became regarded as the only uncoupled day of the week and therefore eligible to be the Bride of Judaism.
With such emphases upon stripping even provocative thoughts of work from Shabbat, and the positive call for pure joys on Shabbat including conjugal practices, Yom Shabbat became the exalted day of every week—the day the balance of the week’s activities worked toward. Total refreshing in honor of God’s Covenant and gracious deeds became the mainstay of traditional Jewish life.
With the communal sounding (often the blast of the shofar), labor and commerce ended, housewives lit the Sabbath candles, and soon a luscious and peaceful meal, replete with blessings over the bread (challah) and wine, was served. During and after the meal happy Shabbat songs were interspersed with prayers and Psalms. Reading Scripture, singing Psalms, and communal prayers in the synagogue were carried home for family Shabbat celebration on Erev Shabbat (Friday evening) and then after each of the worship services on Saturday. All combined to foster a climate of restfulness to be enjoyed through sundown on Saturday.
In Israel today, the Shabbat is honored like a national holiday in spite of the lack of religious commitment of the majority of Israelis. Most will play, hike, go to the beach, or just lounge while the religious neighborhoods are more greatly impacted by the presence of the Bride of Judaism. Of course, apart from the Jewish religious neighborhoods, most American Jews and other internationals feel little constraint on Shabbat from engaging in all their weekly activities.
With all that, most Christians would do well to refuse to simply live like the pagans within our respective societies and rather make the deliberate effort to keep a refreshing day every week set aside for spiritual pursuits. Although only All Israel is expected to gratefully express their covenant faith in God and their gratitude for His mercies every Yom Shabbat, it is equally good for all of us to remember that even the Creator found refreshing on the seventh day.