Sabbath: The special day of self care

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Self care. It’s the feel-good slogan of the international Instagram influencers that conjures images of bubble baths and scented candles, but the self-care movement is more than just a hashtag. Originally catching on as a medical treatment encouraged by doctors as early as the 1950s, self care saw its resurgence in the aftermath of the 2016 US elections, with Google searches increasing four-fold in the past five years. Academics in the early part of the 2000s coined the term when they began looking for ways that employees in emotionally taxing professions—counsellors, social workers, ambulance and emergency department staff etc—could combat some of the emotional stress brought on by their job.

In literal terms, self care is taking an active role in protecting one’s own wellbeing and happiness, particularly during periods of stress. Regardless of how you view the self-care movement, effective strategies for managing stress are becoming increasingly important as our world has grown more unpredictable with political unrest, pandemics, natural disasters and economic uncertainty. While self-care can take many different forms, rest is arguably one of the most effective strategies for relieving stress. A period of rest and worship is a common practice in many faith traditions, most notably in the practice of a Sabbath rest.

What is Sabbath rest?

Recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, the idea of a 24-hour rest period dates back to the origin story of both Christians and Jews. During the creation account recorded in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, God pulls together the masterpiece that we call earth within a matter of hours. Day by day, each element comes into being until we reach the pinnacle of creation on the sixth day with the introduction of humanity in the form of man and woman. Then on the seventh day God does something unprecedented that doesn’t follow the pattern of the previous six days. The Genesis account records that “On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work” (Genesis 2:2 NLT). The Hebrew word used here for rested is shabbat which simply means to cease from working. This makes sense, as the account records that God had spent the six days working and then stopped.

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Later in the Bible we read about Moses bringing the Israelite people out of their slavery in Egypt. As they journey through the wilderness God gives them instructions commonly known as the Ten Commandments. Here we find the term shabbat again, included as a command to remember to pause, “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8 NLT). This particular command goes on to describe the reason for Sabbath observance is because of the original example set by God Himself at creation. Exodus 20:11 describes how “in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested”. The term used here for rested is the Hebrew word nuakh. Many times throughout the rest of the Bible’s Old Testament shabbat and nuakh are used together. Nuakh means to “dwell” or “settle”. While shabbat refers to a literal ceasing of work, like you’d finish a 12-hour shift, nuakh is a different type of rest. This is the type of rest experienced after a long road trip to stay with your grandparents for the holidays or snuggling under a warm blanket with a loved one while the rain pours down outside. Together they describe a ceasing of activity as well as an entering into relationship; a peace or a comfort that comes from winding down, settling the heart and mind and spending 24 hours in community and shabbat.

When my husband and I were travelling across Europe we spent a few days in the middle of winter in the beautiful city of Copenhagen, Denmark. As we pulled in on the train and saw the snow softly fall on the cobblestone streets, we knew this was going to be one of our favourite cities. With a Eurail pass in hand, a list of must-see cities and some decent jackets and boots, our first port of call in any city was the free walking tour. Often lasting about 90 minutes, these tours were always a great way to orient ourselves in a city, get some interesting history and pick out a few spots we wanted to revisit in depth. As the mercury plummeted into the minuses, we stood in the main square of Copenhagen and listened to our guide wax eloquently about the Danish philosophy of hygge.

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This concept encompasses a feeling of cosiness, contentment and wellbeing through enjoying the simple things in life. If you’ve ever enjoyed snuggling up in front of a fire with a good book or a warm hot chocolate while the snow falls outside, you’ve experienced hygge without even knowing it.

Hygge is such an important part of being Danish that it is considered “a defining feature of our cultural identity and an integral part of the national DNA”, according to Meik Wiking, the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. This is what comes to mind when I read the translation of shabbath and nuakh to describe a Sabbath rest. Not only is it a pause in time but it’s a feeling, a comfort, a spiritual as well as physical experience.

Earth care

While the gurus of self care might be on to something with this proliferation of pause and taking “time for me”, I think they’ve missed a crucial point. To pause simply to care for your own physical and emotional needs—to pause in isolation—is a limiting experience.

The Sabbath rest is not limited to one person or one philosophy. This weekly day of rest is as much about self care as it is about others care—neighbour care, community care, world care, earth care—the list is endless. Psychologists have long recognised a time of pause and reflection as not only beneficial for individuals but communities. In the Sabbath command mentioned earlier as one of the Ten Commandments, the instruction to rest extends beyond just the home of the believer but to those within their household: “on that day no-one in your household may do any work” including “any foreigners living among you” (Exodus 20:9, NLT). For the people of Israel, the original hearers of the command, this made practical sense. Most families operated within a large familial group of extended relatives, servants and livestock. Hospitality was an important part of their culture—hosting those from other parts of Ancient Mesopotamia would have been a common occurrence. In the original command God makes sure to include the whole societal and all family members in the encouragement to rest—not just the individual. For this to work, preparations for meals and sleeping arrangements for animals and livestock would have needed to be coordinated in advance. Thought and care were necessary to ensure that not just the individual, but the community could have shabbat.

Fast forward nearly 4000 years and the world looks vastly different in 2021 but the principle is the same—and is being upheld in both the idea of the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Sabbath. For Sabbath rest to be fully enjoyed, the burden of work should be alleviated not only for the individual but the whole community. Many who follow the biblical commandment to observe this rest day will deliberately avoid going to shopping centres, cafes, regular sport or other entertainment or events as a personal expression of alleviating the burden of service from someone else. Why should I get to rest on Sabbath while someone serves me?

Beyond this expansion of rest to include the surrounding community, some will take it as an opportunity to serve the community; to use the Sabbath rest as a time to give back by inviting people over for a meal, visiting those who are living alone or doing something simple for someone else. As we see from the original command, it’s not simply about what you do or don’t do, but rather how we express and enjoy Sabbath rest as a member of the broader community. In this way, sharing a happy Sabbath rest with those around us can be an expression of God’s love, which he has for us all.

Now more than ever we need to practice a weekly Sabbath rest. In a world of conflict, tension, relationship and community challenges, the Sabbath rest is a beacon of hope and peace at the end of the week. Sabbath rest was not just for the ancient Israelites but is for you and me. It’s not only about relationship with each other but with God. We have to shabbat (cease) in order to nuakh (dwell)—to stop working and rest in relationship with God. When we practice an intentional stop by observing this holy day, we open up room for God to dwell in our lives, in our communities, in our relationships.

Curious about some of the other key beliefs of Christianity? Check out the other articles in our Fundamentals series to see if you can find the answers you need. Want something more? Get in touch with our help team with your questions or requests and we’ll do our best to help you.

Lyndelle Peterson is an Adventist pastor and church leader in Melbourne, Australia, where she lives with her young and growing family.

All Bible texts quoted in this article are from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois, 60188. All rights reserved.

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