There’s no doubt in my mind that everyone needs a sabbath. There’s no doubt in my heart that’s the reason it’s one of the Ten Commandments. Like the rest of them, it wouldn’t be there if it weren’t an important part of life. To me, that’s why it’s important: it’s life-giving.
That’s the nature of the day of rest part of sabbath. Everyone needs a rest. Not just a break from working or a day off, but a time that refreshes, restores, re-energizes and inspires us to engage life. There’s a lot of ways to do that, including doing “nothing.” Except, of course, that we’re not doing “nothing” - any form of relaxing that’s restorative, including sleep, is doing something. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be, well, alive.
So there’s an important criteria for being sabbath: it’s rest. And that’s not just for us, it’s for how we engage the world. It’s like that moment on the plane when they do the pre-flight instructions: should the oxygen masks deploy in the event of depressurization, put your own on first before helping others.
It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been on a plane, they’re still going to remind you. We need to be reminded. We need to be told. The Hebrews did, too, that’s why it’s a commandment. And that’s where context becomes another part of the nature of sabbath.
When Moses received the Ten Commandments, the sabbath command says that “in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day” (Ex. 20:11). So the sabbath is the seventh day. That seems pretty clear to me. And it is for Jews and some christian traditions.
But for many others, Sunday, the first day of the week, supplanted Saturday as the day of rest. Especially after Constantine - he was the Roman emperor who made christianity the religion of the state - declared Sunday to be the day of rest in 321. But even before that, the earliest followers of Jesus (who were good Jews, just like Jesus) would go to synagogue on Saturday and celebrate there own gathering the next day on the first day of the week, the day of resurrection. There are other factors and it’s way more complicated than there’s room to discuss here, but the point is that Sunday became sabbath for lots of people.
So, with the day of rest, the criteria for sabbath also has the meaning of when the community gathered to worship God and share in the community’s rituals.
The Commandments don’t just appear in Exodus, though, when they’re received by the newly freed people who have just begun their desert wanderings. They’re restated in Deuteronomy to the new generation of people about to enter “the promised land.” That second time, the sabbath command isn’t framed with the creation story, it’s framed with the Exodus one. In other words, sabbath is the day to remember that God brought not just creation, but the freedom to live in it.
All of this brings me to the very essence of sabbath. Even in the words of the commandment, it comes before all the practical instruction: “remember the sabbath and keep it holy.” Keep it holy. That speaks to me of a connectedness with God, of a time set apart to reflect, pray and engage the sacredness that is in all things.
That’s the most important part. Holiness isn’t something set apart from you, it’s in the connectedness of you with God. What makes a place, a thing or a person holy isn’t just the presence of God, it’s us experiencing it, being in tune with it and knowing that we are a part of it. It’s that feeling of “oneness” with all things that can come in gathering as a community to worship, in personal prayer or meditation, a moment of true peace and quiet, in a church, in the woods, in a valley or on a mountain top, on a trail, in a comfortable chair or on a bike, a hike or a swim or just take a breath - it’s the moment that we are holy and whole, a time of completeness that renews our energy and our life. We find it in many ways and there should be no shortage of sabbath moments.
When Jesus was challenged by the religious authorities that he and his disciples did not properly observe the sabbath to the letter of the law, he reminds them that the sabbath was made for the people, not people for the sabbath (Mark 2:27). And yet, we make the sabbath by making those moments when rest and ritual are freely wound together to make a holy time with God. Are you making time for that?