This past weekend I had the privilege of spending the Sabbath with a group of Christian tourists visiting Israel. This is hardly the first time I have done so. My home is always open to anyone who wants to experience an authentic Shabbat, and I hope to share many more Sabbaths in the future. However, it was on this particular Shabbat that it hit me: Shabbat is really popular, with a universal appeal to Jews and non-Jews alike that I have never seen before.
Let me put this into context. Growing up, the Sabbath could seem like a drag to us kids before we learned to appreciate the deep spiritual meaning behind it. And I’m sure it also seemed unappealing to many Gentiles who learned how us Jews observed the Sabbath. We could not use electricity. Oh, how I longed to watch those Saturday morning cartoons. But no – no TV, no movies, not even turning the lights on and off. We did not drive, so no shopping, no going to the roller rink, no bowling. The Sabbath seemed like a series of “nos.” When my own kids were little, I was concerned that they might have the same perception of the Sabbath. So I was mindful to create some special “yeses” that we only did on Shabbat, like giving them special treats I would never consider on any other day.
Without going into all the details, the main reason why we don’t do certain things on Shabbat is found in Exodus. We are to work for six days, but refrain from all work on the seventh, “ For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:11). In short, we refrain from any creative work on the seventh day in order to remember and demonstrate that God is the ultimate Creator. (In Jewish law, there are 39 categories of creative work which ultimately create the boundaries we observe today). We can work and create all week long, but on the seventh day we stop. We remember that God rested on the seventh day after creating the world in six, and by His commandment we rest, as well.
However, the Bible gives another reason to keep the Sabbath. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15). By observing the Sabbath, we take a day to remember that we were once slaves, but God set us free. And it is this aspect of the Sabbath that I think is resonating deeply with our generation. We are a generation who all too often become slaves – slaves to our phones, to our work, to entertainment, to doing things instead of just being still. We cannot stop.
Yet, come sundown each Friday, the Bible directs us to stop. Pause. Relax. Rethink. Reset.
It’s always the young parents that get most excited when I tell them about the Sabbath. In this world where our children (and ourselves) have become so glued to electronics, the idea of unplugging for 24 hours is extremely appealing. When I tell people that on the Sabbath, our family shares three meals together, that we bless our children on Friday night, and that, because we don’t drive or use electronics, we spend most of the time together as a family, it’s like a light bulb goes off in their minds that says, “This is exactly what families need today!” Kids need to be blessed by their parents. Parents need to carve out time just to be with their children without any distractions. Families need to come together as a unit, to talk, to laugh, to just be.
But it’s not just families that crave the Sabbath. Everyone needs to unplug – and once a week is a very good idea. We all need time to focus on what matters in life and not just go to synagogue or church for a few hours, but be with God intimately for 24 hours. In our fast-paced society, how nice is it to slow down, to not go anywhere, to not “accomplish” anything? It restores our humanity.
Here in Israel, we experience the Sabbath even more deeply. For centuries, Jews have wished one another a “Shabbat shalom” – a “peaceful Sabbath.” Where I live in Israel, nearly the entire city observes the Sabbath. Do you know how peaceful it feels when there is barely a car on the road and the only sounds you hear outside are the sounds of children laughing and playing? When no one is rushing anywhere, the entire neighborhood is together, many sharing Shabbat meals with friends and neighbors. People go on peaceful walks or sit in the parks. We get to know one another. We slow down to a more peaceful tempo of living.
There is an amazing quote from Rabbi Abraham Heschel that I think says it best. Explaining the Sabbath, he wrote these powerful words: “To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature – is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?”
Perhaps it is time to reclaim this ancient tradition, each in our own way, as there has never been a generation more in need of the Sabbath than our own.