Sabbath (Heb. Shabbat)
Despite the mistaken belief by many Christians that Sunday is the Sabbath, it is actually the seventh day of the week, Saturday. And since Jewish days begin and end with the sunset, the Sabbath begins on Friday evening at sunset, and concludes on Saturday evening at sunset.
The origins of the Sabbath are found in Genesis 1 when God rested on the seventh day after creating the world and all that is on it. Similarly, the primary purpose of the Sabbath was for people to take a day of rest from their work. The fourth commandment in Exodus 20:6-11 states that no work is to be performed on the Sabbath.
The difficulty, of course, lies in knowing what constitutes “work.” The commandment in Exodus 20 does not provide specifics, and the rest of Scripture is somewhat vague as well (cf. Exod 16:29; 34:21; 35:3; Jer 17:22; Amos 8:5; Neh 13:15-22). The written Hebrew Scriptures provide very little specific instructions on what it means not to work on the Sabbath. As a result, there was a lot of room for various opinions and interpretations. In one instance, a group of Jews held to such a strict observance of the Sabbath, that when they were attacked by some enemies on the Sabbath day, none of the Jews defended themselves, or even ran away from the attacking army, because to do so would have been work, and in their minds, they would have violated the Sabbath (1 Macc 2:29-38; Jub 50:12). And so they were slaughtered.
Eventually, some Rabbis recorded a set of guidelines for what could and could not be done on the Sabbath. They wrote down 39 prohibited activities: plowing earth, sowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, washing wool, beating wool, dyeing wool, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying, untying, sewing stitches, tearing, trapping, slaughtering, flaying, tanning, scraping hide, marking hides, cutting hide to shape, writing two or more letters, erasing two or more letters, building, demolishing, extinguishing a fire, kindling a fire, and transporting an object between the private domain and the public domain, or for a distance of four cubits within the public domain (ISBE IV:251).
It was also taught that this list did not originate with the Jewish teachers, but was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. It is part of the Mishnah, or the Oral Torah, the teaching of God through Moses which was not written down, but which was passed down from generation to generation. It was finally written down in the third century AD because the Jewish Rabbis feared the tradition would be lost and forgotten if it was not recorded.
In addition, there are other prohibited acts which are not stated in the list of 39. For example, Exodus 16:29 states that a person should not go out of their place on the Sabbath. Clearly, people needed to leave their homes on the Sabbath, and so the question arose about how far a person could walk before they violated the Sabbath. Using Joshua 3:4-5 as a guide (even though the verse has nothing to do with the Sabbath), it was determined that a person could not walk more than 2000 cubits (about 3000 feet) on the Sabbath. This became known as a “Sabbath’s Day journey.”
But even this required further clarification. Was this 2000 total for the day, or 2000 at a time? Was it 2000 cubits in a straight line, or could the distance be stretched if the route meandered? And over time, the Rabbi’s answered these questions. First, they decided it was not 2000 cubits total, but 2000 cubits at a time. If you stopped for a meal, you could then travel another 2000 cubits home. So the tradition developed that if you planned ahead, you could travel larger distances by pre-arranging a meal at the end of 2000 cubits.
If you were traveling only within a city, the 2000 cubit distance did not apply. Any distance could be traveled within the city, as long as you are within the populated area of the city. You only have to start watching how far you walk once you leave the city. In today’s cities, this means you could theoretically walk hundreds of miles, as long as the whole way is populated.
Clarification on the 39 prohibited acts was also provided. For example, the Rabbis felt the need to explain what counted as plowing and what did not. As a result, spitting became illegal on the Sabbath, for the spittle might dislocate some dirt, making a little indentation in the ground, which could be considered digging a hole, or plowing.
This is how the Sabbath day laws developed over time. What began as a law to do not work on the Sabbath was further defined and clarified over time to prohibit all sorts of things that few would consider “work.” The Jewish people recognized that they had exponentially multiplied the rules and regulations in an effort to obey the laws of God, but they were so intent on keeping the law, they felt it was necessary to “build a fence around the law” to make sure they kept the actual law (Pirkei Avot 1:1). They had a saying which said, “the rules about the Sabbath…are as mountains hanging by a hair, for Scripture is scanty and the rules many” (Bock 1996:171).
One Jewish scholar by the name of Yehoshua Neuwirth wrote a multi-volume work called A Guide to the Practical Observance of the Sabbath. It was written to explain how modern Jews could observe the Sabbath laws. Here are some of his instructions:
Cooking in most forms (boiling, roasting, baking, frying, etc.) is forbidden on the Sabbath, especially when the temperature is raised above 115 degrees.
If the hot water tap is accidentally left on, it cannot be turned off on the Sabbath.
Escaping gas may be turned off, but not in the normal way. One must turn off the tap of a gas burner with the back of the hand or the elbow.
One cannot squeeze a lemon into a glass of ice tea, but you can squeeze a lemon onto a piece of fish.
Since Exodus 34:3 teaches that one cannot light a fire on the Sabbath, it is also wrong to turn on electric lights. If you need to turn on the lights, you can get an automatic timer which will do the job for you.
So too, an air conditioner cannot be turned on by a Jew on the Sabbath, although a Gentile can turn it on as long as a Jew does not explicitly ask him to turn it on.
You cannot bathe with a bar of soap on the Sabbath, but you can use liquid soap.
If someone is walking on the Sabbath, and discovers that they are carrying something in their pocket that they forgot was in there, they have to stop carrying it immediately. But at the same time, since Jews are not allowed to lift anything on the Sabbath, a person is not allowed to simply take the item out of their pocket.
In order to get it out, he has to reverse his pocket so the item falls out. And then he must leave it there.
If the item is valuable, and he does not wish to leave it on the ground, he can ask a Gentile to watch it for him.
Or, if you must take the item with you, you can carry it, but not in the usual way. You can put it in your shoe, or tie it to your leg—as long as you do not tie a knot—or somehow suspend it between your clothing and your body.
Though some of these laws by Rabbi Neuwirth are a result of trying to apply Sabbath principles to modern technology, many similar laws were in place during the lifetime of Jesus. It is these rules and regulations that Jesus frequently confronted in the Gospel accounts and show that although He kept the Sabbath, there were certain man-made elements of the Sabbath tradition which He did not follow.