Aviva Bass grew up a secular Jew in Florida. When I met her, she was the assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Israel in Melbourne.
Female rabbis are a recent phenomenon in Judaism, with the first accepted about a century ago. There are now some 300 around the globe. You soon discover her habit of talking faster when she becomes excited about something.
When she talked about the Sabbath, she talked fast.
She told me of the roots of the Sabbath in the Genesis and the Creation story, with God resting on the seventh day. She then pointed to the Torah— the five books of Moses—and how the Ten Commandments are presented twice, with different emphases on the fourth command. The Sabbath is to be remembered in Exodus but observed in Deuteronomy.
“So what the [Jewish] tradition has done,” she said, “is teach that both these things are important. The memory of Shabbat and the observance of Shabbat are both integral to a Shabbat experience.”
These two aspects—the memory and the observance—is a neat way of considering the Sabbath.
the memory of Sabbath
The Sabbath is a gift—a gift of grace unasked for. God put it in place. Creation was completed and “God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy” (Genesis 2:3). God had stepped into time. He had created time—day and night—and now, He gives time as a gift to His creation. The first holy object in the history of the world was not a mountain, an altar or a temple— it was time. It was holy time, which simply means “set apart” time.
The problem is, time never stops. It doesn’t matter what you do—or don’t do. Time keeps ticking away or, more likely, silently passes. Titus Maccius Plautus (245–184 BC) complained, “God confound the man who first found out how to distinguish hours.
Confound him, too, who in this place set up a sundial, to cut and hack my days so wretchedly into small portions.”
We’ve been slicing and dicing time ever since. In laboratories, transistors can switch faster than a picosecond— a billionth of a second. How slow is that when, in 2007, a laser-strobe light emitted pulses lasting 110 attoseconds— 110 billionths of a billionth of a second.
The problem is the more we divide time, it seems the less we have.
Lewis Mumford suggests that, from the 14th century, the clock made us into timekeepers, then timesavers and now timeservers. “The clock,” he writes, “is a piece of power machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes.”1 He says that a world made up of minutes and seconds has taught us “irreverence” toward the sun and the seasons, because the authority of nature has been superseded. In fact, with the invention of the clock, eternity has ceased to serve as the measure and focus of human events.
Neil Postman adds “The inexorable ticking of the clock may have had more to do with the weakening of God’s supremacy than all the treatises produced by the philosophers of the Enlightenment.”
The clock, he adds, has introduced a new form of conversation between God and humans in which God has been the loser. “Perhaps Moses should have included another commandment,” he writes: “Thou shalt not make mechanical representations of time.”2 But it’s within the commandments that we find a counter to this problem, in the Sabbath command. This holy time is a reminder of eternity, a reminder of God and a reminder of how time began at Creation. And the Sabbath is measured not by marking it off with a human-made instrument but by a feat of God’s creation: sunsets.
God is the creator of time: every attosecond of it. Unfortunately, time marked out in any measurement has become linked to human productivity and performance—to the workplace, deadlines and appointments.
God says, “Stop. Stop this nonsense.”
God says, “Remember.” God says, “I am Lord of the Sabbath, I rested; you do the same.” And God says, “This is time for us.”
Remember the Sabbath day—use it as holy, set-apart time. Use it as a celebration of time, suggests Abraham Heschel in his classic work, The Sabbath: “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of the things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”3
To see the Sabbath as a gift from God makes this day a high point and a weekly reminder of God. It’s a gift that helps bring time under control. One day a week, the Sabbath, a gift of time, is the right gift for any age. It’s the perfect gift for our age.
observance of Sabbath
“Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul”4 It’s in relationship building with God that the seed of eternity is especially cared for.
The Sabbath gives time to do this.
Here is time to reflect, time for the Word, time for prayer, time for fellowship, time for worship and time for service.
It’s as if God is saying to us, “I know you’re going to be pressed for time for these things during the week, so let me help you out. Here’s time. It’s a gift. I know you’re busy but let’s keep this as an appointment together, so we can get to know each other better.”
The heavenly Father made an appointment with His children. He blocked out a whole day—for us.
In His gift of the Sabbath, God is saying, “Let’s spend some quality time together, regularly.” He wants us to build a relationship with Him and He’s given the time for it to happen.
The Sabbath, though, is more than time for relationship building with God—it allows time for families and friends. Time to nurture relationships with each other. To do the things we know are important for ourselves and others but never seem to have enough time during the week to do.
There are several things we can do to gain the best from the Sabbath.
Preparing for the Sabbath indicates that this day is going to be special— is special. That it’s an appointment we value. When people come to visit our homes, we prepare. Any business is finalised so it will not interrupt our time together. The house is prepared so there’s no need to do it while they are there. The food is planned. In preparing for the Sabbath, we make it a welcome visitor in our lives.
block out business and commerce
To block commerce out of our minds can be difficult, particularly for those who run their own business. It requires discipline and, again, preparation in the sense of finalising what can be finalised before the end of the week.
God says, “Keep the Sabbath day holy. Don’t pursue your own interests on that day, but enjoy the Sabbath and speak of it with delight as the Lord’s holy day. Honour the Sabbath in everything you do on that day, and don’t follow your own desires or talk idly” (Isaiah 58:13, NLT). This is better read as “don’t pursue your own business interests” and to avoid idle business talk. Sabbath is time to reflect on the ways of God.
block out the secular
The world will survive without us and we will survive better without it for 24 hours. When the football team I follow plays its games on the Sabbath, I can wait until later to find out how poorly they did (at the moment but just wait until next season).
The Sabbath is intended for rest and celebration—not the normal or the everyday. It’s a day for refreshing the spirit. Everything else is an intruder.
build on relationships
This is the central purpose of the Sabbath, to build a stronger relationship with God, family and friends, and community.
God says to families, “I give you the Sabbath, set-apart, holy time. Observe it and you will discover the time you’re looking for.”
remember the Redeemer
Worship is central to the Sabbath.
Jesus is central to our worship, for He is our redeemer and Lord. The Israelites were instructed to observe the Sabbath as a reminder that they “were once slaves in Egypt and that the Lord [their] God brought [them] out with amazing power and mighty deeds” (Deuteronomy 5:15). The Sabbath is a reminder of their salvation.
The Sabbath is also a reminder of salvation through the person of Jesus. through Him, we’re no longer slaves.
Our Saviour is Lord and master of the Sabbath (see Mark 2:28). The Sabbath only finds its ultimate meaning in Jesus, the Creator, Lord over time, Lord of the Sabbath, Redeemer and Risen One. In Him alone is salvation.
Jesus was God focused in His teaching and fellowship. He read Scripture and preached it. Yet He was people focused in His application of Sabbath observance. For Jesus, the core of the Sabbath came back to relationships: the relationship with God and the relationship with those around Him. Jesus brought the gift of grace, called the Sabbath, back to its original purpose.
When we last shifted house to move interstate, our neighbours gave us a gift—a plate to put dip and biscuits on.
Nothing dramatic. A small gift. Yet it has incredible value because of what it stands for. We were saying our farewells when our neighbour’s wife pulled out the gift, gave my wife a hug and said, “You’re the best neighbours we’ve ever had.” This gave the gift its value.
God has given us a gift in the Sabbath.
What we do with it is up to us.
We can feel a warm glow about it but if we don’t unwrap it and use it, there is little value in it for us.
learning from the rabbi
Rabbi Aviva mentioned two words— memory and observance. As she talked, two other words came to mind: anticipation and reluctance. She taught me about anticipation for the Sabbath and reluctance to let it go.
The anticipation was highlighted as she spoke about the preparation for the Sabbath and the festive, family nature of the Sabbath. For the practising Jew, it’s the highlight of the week, often beginning with a worship experience in the synagogue, then a family meal together on Friday evening.
Sabbath rituals are involved—lighting candles, washing hands and various blessings at the Friday evening meal— but these are done with a festive air.
There’s a warm family atmosphere with the expectation of guests, lots of talking, prayer and then singing that often goes long into the night.
The Sabbath is a day of celebration.
For the Jewish Sabbath, you’re expected to have three festive meals. Families or groups take the time to go for walks, sit and talk or drive to a park. They may simply spend time with their family or play games with children.
Rabbi Aviva surprised me when she spoke of the Sabbath as a 25-hour experience.
She then described the reluctance to let the Sabbath go, so the Sabbath is finished when the third star rises in the sky. It’s dark. It’s about an hour after sunset. The havdalah ritual completes the Sabbath. “Havdalah means ‘to separate’,” she explained. “This is very sensory, a beautiful ceremony with spices and wine and candles. It’s a sweet ending of Shabbat.”
The perfume from the spices is an attempt to spread the essence of the Sabbath into the new week by “infusing it with the calm of the Shabbat.”
None of this is to suggest that Christian Sabbathkeepers should be Jewish in how they observe the Sabbath. While we can learn from what they do, Jesus must be central in our Sabbath celebration.
We can learn to develop a stronger sense of anticipation of its arrival and stronger reluctance to let it go.
How else should we treat this gift from God?
1. Cited in Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourses in the Age of Show Business, Penguin Books, New York, 1988, page 11.
2. ibid, pages 11, 12.
3. Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Life, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2000, page 10.
4. ibid, page 13.