Tel-World Ministries




The Sabbath - Everything You Ever Wanted To Know



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Bluethread Discussion:


If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
From pursuing your affairs on My holy day;
If you call the sabbath "delight,"
The Lord's holy day "honored;"
And if you honor it and go not your ways
Nor look to your affairs, nor strike bargains-

Then you can seek the favor of the Lord. (Isaiah 58:13-14)

There are two ways to explore the meaning of the sabbath.  The first, the positive way, is to discover how to create a "palace in time," Isaiah's "delight," the special restful atmosphere and mindset that is the heart of the day.  The second, by far the more difficult and less travelled path, is to understand what not to do, learn to "go not your ways," the ways of work. Bluethread invites you to read how this question is approached by different Jewish sources and to share your own perspective.

How does the Torah define work?

On the whole, the Torah frequently repeats the mitzvah not to work (Bluethread has identified eight separate passages), but it does not really define it.  It leaves a great deal of room for interpretation. However, there are specific examples of work mentioned in the Torah:

In Exodus 18:21-30 the Israelites are told not to bother gathering manna on the sabbath because "there will be none."  This passage could  imply that it is work when one wastes one's time gathering more than one needs. The command that one's servants, animals and guests should also rest is frequently repeated.

What Do the Prophets Say About Work?

There are several examples from the prophets that illustrate how work was interpreted in their days.  They include:

However, notice that in Nehemiah, the Levites were to stand at the gates and guard the sabbath; their scope of work was noticeably different.

How was the concept of work interpreted in Jewish tradition?

The early rabbis attempted to define work, based on the description of the building of the tent of meeting. The Mishnah created thirty nine categories: sowing, plowing, reaping, sheaving, threshing, winnowing, cleansing crops, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing, blanching, carding, dyeing, spinning, weaving, making a minimum of two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying, untying, sewing a minimum of two stitches, ripping out stitches in order to replace them, hunting a gazelle, slaughtering it, flaying it, salting it, curing, scraping its hide, slicing its hide, writing a minimum of two characters, erasing in order to write them, building, wreaking, extinguishing, kindling, hammering, transporting.

Modern Commentary on Work

Aryeh Carmell describes shabbat as the control rod in the atomic pile of our genius:

How does man show his domination over the earth? By fashioning all the things in his environment to suit his own purposes-the earth for his habitation, plants and animals for his food and clothing, metals and plastics for his industry, coal and oil and the atom itself for his energy. With his science and his technology he can transform everything into an instrument for his own service.

How wonderful this is! What tremendous power resides in the mind of man! But wherever we see a great concentration of power, we must ask: how is this power regulated? Uncontrolled power leads to disaster....[The] control envisaged by the Torah is a self-imposed control. It consists in replacing selfish, materialist goals by unselfish, spiritual goals, revealed to us by the world's Creator. This ensures that the way we administer the world will be beneficent rather than disastrous.

It is our task as Jews to keep this option open. We do it by maintaining the symbol of the Sabbath. On this day, at the behest of the Torah, we are to refrain from all productive activity. For this one day we relinquish our domination over the world and its resources. (p. 169)

What Does Work Mean to You?

Bluethread invites you to join in an ongoing discussion of the meaning that the concept of work has in your personal life and how you apply it to your observance of Shabbat.  We feel the Tanakh is not clear and the interpretations of the Rabbis that lead to the creation of modern Orthodox observance, while appropriate for what they wish to accomplish, is not a helpful guide to Reform Jews.  Rather than creating an alternative set of rules, Bluethread wants to encourage a thoughtful, evolving approach to modern observance of Shabbat.


© 1997, Rosemarie E. Falanga, Cy H. Silver

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