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Commandments of the Sabbath

Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made. Genesis 2:1-3

Part of the creation story is the establishment of sabbath. It was God who counted six days of creating the universe and then ceased from creating to set apart the sabbath day from the other days. sabbath is as basic as mankind, the heavens and the earth. Whatever is taught about the sabbath is from this foundation.

Therefore, it is logical to believe that sabbath was basic and essential to the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. While the Scripture does not elaborate, the testimony recorded by Moses given in Genesis seems to originate all the way back to Noah and his descendants. Thus, Abraham would have known the same creation account that Noah knew. sabbath predates the giving of the Torah through Moses. I mention this because Moses seems to speak to a “common knowledge” of sabbath when he first spoke to the children of Israel concerning the gathering of manna.

Then he [Moses] said to them, “This is what the Lord meant: Tomorrow is a sabbath observance, a holy sabbath to the Lord. Bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.” So they put it aside until morning, as Moses had ordered, and it did not become foul, nor was there any worm in it. Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the sabbath, there will be none.” It came about on the seventh day that some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. Then the Lord said to Moses, “How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My instructions?” [Then Moses said to the people] “See, the Lord has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” Exodus 16:23-29

Just like the creation, God offered manna for six days and did not provide it on the seventh day. Instead, he provided a double amount on the sixth day sufficient to meet the need for food for both the sixth day and the seventh day—sabbath. Did the children of Israel understand the instruction properly and keep the sabbath appropriately? Apparently not all. There were some who were still expecting manna to be delivered on the seventh day.

Did they not hear the instruction? Were they being defiant? Or, does it take a little longer for some people to learn it? We don’t know the exact answer to these questions because we still have our own questions of what to do and what not to do in keeping the sabbath.

As a Messianic teacher for the past 30+ years, I have fielded the question of how to observe sabbath repeatedly, and I have for the most part given the standard answer: cease from your labors, don’t make your servants or animals labor, don’t kindle a fire (whatever that means), avoid travel, don’t seek a bargain (buying and selling), and rest (spend time with your family). Quite honestly, I have avoided going any deeper with it in trying to avoid the mistakes of the Pharisees and Rabbinical Judaism. Judaism’s approach to sabbath is an extensive list of dos and don’ts. It is clear that the Messiah did not agree with their interpretation of it. There were numerous instances where the Pharisees charged Yeshua with breaking the sabbath. Yeshua kept the sabbath, but the Pharisees had a distorted view of sabbath and how it should be kept. They charged Yeshua of violating their precepts of sabbath, whereas Yeshua referred directly to the commandments of sabbath.

Recently, someone asked me about sabbath and wanted the exact reference to not seeking a bargain on the sabbath. In a cavalier manner, I blurted out that it was in the Torah somewhere. Well, I went looking to confirm the answer, and guess what? It’s not in the Torah, it is in Nehemiah. This set me to questioning myself and how well did I know the commandments of sabbath as opposed to the precepts about sabbath as taught by religious men. What are the exact commandments of sabbath and where are they in Scripture?

This article will endeavor to clarify this issue. Let us find the exact instructions concerning sabbath. Let us not fall prey to the precepts of men as a substitute for the commandments. Then we will try to understand the proper application of the commandments.

Let’s start with what God said with His own voice at Mount Sinai.

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy. Exodus 20:8-11

Of all the ten commandments, God gave the most instruction concerning idolatry and keeping the sabbath. The first instruction of keeping the sabbath is to remember. We are to remember something that already exists. sabbath was not a new instruction to the children of Israel. They knew about it from their ancestors before God spoke from the mountain. Therefore, the proper understanding of sabbath begins with the creation story. God confirmed this by concluding the commandment with a review of the creation – For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth.

The second thing we can glean from God’s instruction is that the sabbath is to be kept holy. This is where it starts to get a little tricky for us. What exactly does it mean to keep it “holy?” I have grown up with and have taught others that the ceremony of “Kiddush” (which means holy) is a way of doing exactly that – keeping sabbath holy.

At the beginning of sabbath, the mother or wife lights the candles (the final work of the sixth day). She then bows her head in prayer and waves for the sabbath to come into her home or presence. This is the moment that the sabbath begins, when the home welcomes the sabbath. The father then lifts a Kiddush cup with wine. This cup is special (used only for the sabbath and other festivals of the Lord). He then blesses the Lord. He drinks from the cup and offers the cup to his wife and family. He then lifts and breaks a loaf of challah bread. Generally, two loaves are present representing the double portion given on the sixth day. The bread is also special. The loaf is formed from three pieces of dough that are braided together and sprinkled with sesame or poppy seeds on top depicting manna scattered on the hills on each loaf. The father thanks God for the daily provision of bread (food) and offers some to his family as he did the cup earlier. Then the father blesses his wife, then his sons and daughters. With joy, the family then begins the sabbath, usually with a nice supper.

I have watched new Messianic believers struggle with this simple Kiddush ceremony. Many of them don’t have a Kiddush cup, don’t know how to make challah, don’t have a candelabra (menorah), aren’t sure how many candles to light, can’t remember the words for the blessings, and have never blessed their wives and children in such a demonstrative way. It is not simple for them; it is strange at first.

Is this ceremony what holy is? Actually, holy means “separate.” God Himself made the sabbath holy when He separated it from the days of creation. Holy is something that God is and does. We don’t do anything to make it holy; it already is. We have been instructed to “keep it holy,” which means we are not to make it “common” or to “profane” it by making it the same as the other days. Man does not make anything holy; man is instructed to simply recognize something as holy and not “mess it up.”

So what about that little Kiddush ceremony? Does God expect us to do that? It is not commanded, but it is still a good idea because it helps you and your family recognize the beginning of sabbath and teach your children about sabbath. We are commanded to do that in the word “remember.” It is only proper that you welcome sabbath and invite the Lord into your home. It is a standard ceremony that permits all who keep the sabbath to join in, whether hosting or being a guest in another’s home. Sabbath is for sharing.

You are expecting the Messiah to invite you to His home (the Kingdom). It is only right that you are friendly to Him and invite Him into your home. It is part of your relationship with Him.  Maybe this is one of the interpretations of why Yeshua is standing at the door knocking, wishing to come in.

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me. Revelation 3:20

If you can picture Yeshua being invited to your home on the eve of sabbath, you won’t need to read the rest of this article. The Spirit of God will show you how to keep the rest of sabbath. It is also most appropriate that the first blessings offered on sabbath should be directed to God Himself. He is worthy of our ultimate and preferential respect. Blessing God first also calibrates our faith by doing things “decently and in order” as Paul explained for all worship. It is also most appropriate that the father bless his wife before their children. It sets the atmosphere in the home. It is not just a house anymore; it is a place of love and honor for all of the family. Children feel secure and know they are safe in such a home. The blessing upon children then establishes the very basis of all instruction given to them. It is all intended for their good and they know it. Homes that do Kiddush are homes that know peace within. The results are profound.

I encourage new Messianic believers to learn and observe Kiddush. The benefits are far greater than the ritual itself. This illustrates an important point about sabbath. You are free to express yourself on sabbath. Yeshua said it is not sin to do good on the sabbath (see Matthew 12:12).

Yeshua went even further with this freedom. Yeshua taught that the sabbath was made for us, not us for the sabbath (Mark 2:27). This has profound implications affecting the religiosity of keeping the sabbath. The prophet Isaiah, for example, in Isaiah 58:13-14, tells us that if we make the sabbath a delight, then the Lord promises blessings such as riding on the heights of the earth, and enjoying the heritage of Jacob. These are joyous things!

The third instruction given by God concerning sabbath was to “cease” from the work of the previous six days, to not cause your household to continue the work of the previous six days. Your household includes your children, your employees (servants), your animals (or working equipment), or a lodger who lives with you (sojourner). You will note that I used the verb cease as opposed to rest. Rest is a natural result of “ceasing.” The command of sabbath is not that you sleep in or take a nap (rest). The command is to cease (Exodus 23:12). You may then sleep more or take a nap. It is not that you can’t do anything on sabbath, it is that you are not to do what you do on the previous six days called work.

Farmers are most concerned about this specific instruction. When it is planting time or harvest time, they must work diligently because their work is subject to the weather. But God says that the work of six days must be stopped when the sabbath comes.

There is an exception to ceasing from your work: if there is an emergency. Dealing with an emergency is considered doing good on the sabbath. The Biblical example is called the “ox in a ditch” (it is actually a sheep in a pit – see Matt 12:11). If an animal or any other living thing is trapped, then all efforts to save them become the greater commandment than the sabbath itself. This is why those who serve in the military, law enforcement, security personnel, and all medical personnel are considered exempt from ceasing from their work on sabbath. The reason is simple. All of the commandments are given for our good and benefit. Moses instructed us that we shall “live” by these commandments (Deut 30:6, 16); therefore, life is the goal of all commandments. At no time is sabbath to “cease” life.

There are other exceptions where sabbath is set aside for a specific function: circumcision of a son on the eighth day and of those who are rabbis or ministers, such as the priests.

In Leviticus 23:3 the Lord gives us further instruction about what should happen on the sabbath. He tells us “For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation. You shall not do any work; it is a sabbath to the Lord in all your dwellings.

This goes along with the first instruction in keeping the sabbath holy, as I mentioned earlier. A good way to separate the sabbath from the other days of the week is to have a convocation – a family or an assembly of believers – to usher in the sabbath with special prayers and blessings to the Lord for His help through the week and giving us this special day apart. Kiddush is always a part of this convocation, because its structure helps us to “remember” the sabbath, whether done in your home or in a congregational setting.

Let’s step back and summarize what God has said about sabbath so far. First, sabbath is a commandment to remember how God created the heavens and the earth. The proper application of the commandment originated in God’s work of creation and cessation from creating. Second, the sabbath is holy (made holy by God) and we are to keep it holy. Third, we are to cease from what was called work on the previous six days. Lastly, we are to have a holy convocation on the sabbath day.

That is straightforward and simple. Now let’s look at it from the other side. Let’s look at what God said we are NOT to do on sabbath.

Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death. So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.' Exodus 31:14-16

The key prohibition here is to NOT profane the sabbath. Profaning is the deliberate act of making something unholy. It is not a misunderstanding or an accident; it is intentional. We have a specific example given in the Torah where a man profaned the sabbath and was punished as the Scripture says.

Now while the sons of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering wood on the sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron, and to all the congregation; and they put him in custody because it had not been declared what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” So all the congregation brought him outside the camp, and stoned him to death with stones, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. Numbers 15:32-36

It wasn’t that this man needed more wood for a fire and was justified to go get some. This man willfully and deliberately decided to go against the Lord. This is after he agreed with the rest of Israel prior to the Ten Commandments and said, “Whatsoever the Lord says, we will do. Furthermore, he decided to put his will against God and all of Israel on public display for everyone to see. This is an example of “profaning” the sabbath.

Moses had given the commandment of sabbath to Israel way back in Exodus and seems to allude to the man gathering wood on sabbath.

For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy day, a sabbath of complete rest to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall not kindle a fire in any of your dwellings on the sabbath day." Exodus 35:2-3

There are two points here that require further attention. First, what does Moses mean when he says a sabbath of complete rest to the Lord? Second is the prohibition to not kindle a fire in any of your dwellings on the sabbath day.

Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday evening and extends until sundown on Saturday evening. It is not rounded off to 6:00 pm to 6:00 pm. A complete sabbath consists of all of the sabbath day that God has defined. Further, the cessation of work on sabbath is to be complete. You are not to use the sabbath to “clean up from previous work” or to “prepare for the work that will follow” after sabbath. Give it a rest!

Let’s talk more about kindling a fire. In the wilderness with Moses, the act of making a fire was arduous work. Fire making was a concerted effort of gathering tinder, preparing the fuel, preparing the fire location, and then actually kindling the fire. To kindle a fire, a flint would have to be struck to cause a spark or two sticks would have to be rubbed together vigorously to produce at least 800+ degrees to reach the combustion point of the tinder.

I know of men in survival training who have started campfires in this way. They told me it was the most strenuous activity of camping or survival. They said that a fire starter is one of the most important items in their survival equipment inventory.  Survival is about energy management. Starting a fire without aid is a very strenuous energy-burning activity. It is also the opposite of what we are commanded to do on sabbath.

Judaism has a rather interesting spin on this instruction of not kindling a fire. They say it has more to do with the physics of converting matter into energy or changing the states of the matter. They even apply this commandment to pushing different buttons in an elevator or driving a vehicle. They even take issue with tearing off the sections of a roll of toilet paper. This is why you find a sabbath elevator in Jerusalem hotels that goes up and down stopping at every floor without you having to push any button at all. Public restrooms will have stacks of toilet paper instead of rolls.

Judaism also has a primary labor list of what they define as work. They prohibit any of these primary labors. Here is a partial list: sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, bleaching, hackling, dyeing, spinning, stretching threads, the making of two meshes, weaving two threads, dividing two threads, tying (such as knotting) and untying, sewing two stitches, tearing in order to sew two stitches, hunting or fishing, slaughtering an animal, skinning, flaying, or salting it, curing its hide, scraping, butchering, writing or erasing, building, pulling down, extinguishing, kindling, striking with a hammer, or carrying anything out from one domain to another. This includes having a pen in your pocket and transporting it somewhere other than in your home. But then what would you do with it? You are not permitted to write anything.

Yeshua took direct issue with this list when He and his disciples decided to PLUCK some heads of grain in a field on sabbath, RUBBING them together to remove the chaff, and then eating them.

At that time Yeshua went through the grainfields on the sabbath, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Behold, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a sabbath.” But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did, when he became hungry, he and his companions; how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those with him, but for the priests alone? Or have you not read in the Law, that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath, and are innocent?” Matthew 12:1-5

According to the Pharisees, Yeshua and His disciples violated Judaism’s list of primary labors. Yeshua’s defense was that King David and the priests also violated their list of primary behaviors. If King David and the priests are not charged with violating the sabbath, then why is He and His disciples being accused? It is a very good question. Obviously, the list of primary labors is not correct nor is it what God intended in His commandment. So what is incorrect about it? The answer is given when Moses repeats the commandment of sabbath given in the Ten Commandments. If you remember, the Exodus 20 account of the Ten Commandments is based on God’s creation in six days and then resting. However, Moses uses a different rationale when repeating the commandment of sabbath in Deuteronomy.

Observe the sabbath day to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day. Deuteronomy 5:12-15

Exodus 20 referred to creation as the reason for sabbath; Deuteronomy 5 refers to being set free from enslavement in Egypt as the reason for sabbath. Therefore, keeping sabbath is also about NOT being enslaved to sabbath. It is about what you can do, not about what you cannot do. Normally, a work day prohibits you from doing a lot of things. sabbath gives you the freedom to do other things and enjoy your life.

Does that mean that sabbath is for your personal pleasure? No. The freedom referred to here is the true freedom God grants. Personal pleasures can be just as enslaving as work can be. Consider the prophet Isaiah’s instruction of how to balance the freedom of sabbath with personal pleasures.

 How blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who takes hold of it; who keeps from profaning the sabbath, and keeps his hand from doing any evil. Isaiah 56:2

 If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot from doing your own pleasure on My holy day, and call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable, and honor it, desisting from your own ways, from seeking your own pleasure, and speaking your own word, then you will take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. Isaiah 58 13-14

As I mentioned earlier, sabbath begins with the invitation by the wife or mother immediately after lighting the sabbath candles in the Kiddush ceremony. Inviting the Spirit of the Lord to you home on sabbath is honoring the sabbath. It also serves as a common sense guide for other activities. If you had a guest in your home, what would you do for activities? Now consider that your guest is Messiah Yeshua.

Would you make the bed? Probably. Would you fix a meal? Yes. Would you vacuum the floors? Probably not. Would you do the laundry? No. Would you wash the dishes (by hand or with the dishwasher)? Maybe. Would you watch the football game? Does Yeshua like football? What about kids’ activities such as a recital or soccer? Would Yeshua like to see your child’s activities and be a part of your family events? I don’t know. You would have to ask Him that directly, which brings us to a very important instruction about sabbath and the festivals.

You are not to allow others to determine how you keep the sabbath. It is a judgment and decision you must make before the Lord. The Apostle Sha’ul (Paul) said it this way.

Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath day... Colossians 2:16

The commandments of the Lord are not the commandments of men; therefore, you should not allow a man to usurp the position of the Lord in determining how to keep His commandments. This is particularly true when it comes to keeping the sabbath. You should keep it to the Lord, not to men for them to see (and approve or disapprove). Maybe this is why Yeshua made the statement He made concerning Himself and the sabbath.

For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath. Matthew 12:8

Let’s go back to the original question I was asked about the reference to not seek a bargain (buying and selling) on the sabbath. It is not in Torah; it is in Nehemiah. Nehemiah was the man who returned from Babylon and helped rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He was an important leader who obeyed the Lord and taught his brethren to do likewise.

In those days I [Nehemiah] saw in Judah some who were treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sacks of grain and loading them on donkeys, as well as wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of loads, and they brought them into Jerusalem on the sabbath day. So I admonished them on the day they sold food. Also men of Tyre were living there who imported fish and all kinds of merchandise, and sold them to the sons of Judah on the sabbath, even in Jerusalem. Then I reprimanded the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing you are doing, by profaning the sabbath day?” Nehemiah 13:15-17

Doing business on sabbath, including buying and selling, as is done on the other work days is not keeping the sabbath. It is profaning the sabbath. Despite what others may do on the sabbath, we are not to participate with them.

There is another activity that can be considered profaning the sabbath. It is traveling on the sabbath day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day. At first blush, this phrase was given as part of the instructions of not looking for manna on the sabbath. But the prohibition of travel on the sabbath is part of the instruction. In the days of Yeshua there was an accepted limit that was standard for travel. It was called a sabbath day’s journey. Apparently, it was approximately 3/5 of a mile.

Then they [the disciples] returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day's journey away. Acts 1:12

Everything in and around Jerusalem is either up or down, and in those days everyone walked. The average person begins to perspire after walking this distance in and around Jerusalem. This is more of a custom that a direct commandment. It has traditionally been interpreted that to remain every man in his place you need to stay in your immediate neighborhood. With the advent of modern transportation such planes, trains, and automobiles, no animals are being burdened so some have modified the custom. One such custom is to eat at least two of the three meals in a single place (your place) on the sabbath but you can move about to another if the third meal is eaten there. Let me give you example: Let’s say you get eat breakfast at you house, catch a plane flight to another city and eat lunch and dinner there. You did travel but you remained in your place. I am not going to say that any particular custom is the commandment. Again, you must decide.

If you are on a cross-country trip that tires you out, you cannot say that you are keeping the sabbath holy even though it is a different activity from the other six days.

So, let’s review the commandments of sabbath:

1. Remember that God created the heavens and earth in six days, He ceased from His work of the previous six days, He made the sabbath holy (separate from the other days), and blessed it. Therefore, you should remember the sabbath as well, cease from your labors, and keep it holy.

2. Observe the sabbath by making it honorable and a delight, ceasing from your pleasures, enjoying the freedom to keep the sabbath because of God’s redemption. Use it as a day to bless and do good.

3. Do not profane the sabbath by being willful and defiant against God in anything. Do not profane it by laboring, causing others to labor, or doing business as you would on the other days of the week.

4. Do not judge others as to how they keep the sabbath and don’t let others judge you. The Messiah is the Lord of the sabbath. Let Him be the standard of what is proper for you to do or not to do.

5. Learn the customs of sabbath and teach others how to keep the sabbath so all will be able to assemble together (a holy convocation) on the sabbath.

6. There are exceptions to keeping the sabbath – an emergency (the ox in a ditch), those who protect us, those who aid us in an emergency, and those who are the Lord’s ministers on the sabbath day.

7. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that the sabbath is not the seventh day or it is no more (Hebrews 4:9). Hold fast to God’s instructions on the sabbath by keeping it.

If you do these things, then you will do well and display the sign between God and His people.

God created the sabbath long before religious practice began to answer the question, “How do we keep the sabbath?” Even the Torah commands us to “remember to keep the sabbath.” The sabbath existed before the Torah was given by Moses. The sabbath predates all religious doctrine and instruction. Therefore, when we keep the sabbath we are obeying the Creator GOD, not the Jewish or the Christian God. The Lord understands this very well. Maybe that is why He speaks of the commandment of sabbath transcending all generations of mankind.

You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you [makes you holy]. Exodus 31:13b


Tags: messianic, hebrew roots, sabbath, commandments

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