God commanded the Israelites, “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 to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and 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).
God forbade the Israelites from working and kindling a fire on the Sabbath. While the Old Testament does not specify the parameters of “work,” Jewish tradition sought to define what constituted work, and therefore, what one must avoid on the Sabbath. Observance of the Sabbath distinguished Jews from other people within the ancient world. The Romans viewed the Jewish practice of Sabbath observance as a sign of Jewish laziness.
The Jewish Sabbath begins Friday night at sundown and continues until an hour after sundown on Saturday night. Although religious Jews go to the synagogue on the Sabbath, the home functions as the primary place for Sabbath observance. Families walk to the synagogue on Friday to pray the evening prayers within the congregation. Returning home, they eat a large meal which was prepared prior to the start of the Sabbath. No telephones, computers, or televisions interrupt Friday night Shabbat dinner.
The family sits around the table, young and old, talks, recites the benedictions and blessings, and enjoys one another’s company. Saturday morning some of the family, usually the men, walk back to the synagogue for morning prayers, and return home. During the day Saturday, they rest. Some will read, but nothing for work. Phones are shut off, as are televisions and computers. Food, which has been simmering since before the Sabbath began, is consumed, but no one is permitted to light a stove or turn on an oven.
Judaism views the Sabbath as one of God’s greatest gifts to Israel. The other commandments seek to remind Jews of their relationship to God, so they can sanctify Him by obeying Him in their daily lives. The Sabbath sanctifies God in time. It was not only a day of rest for the master of the house, animals and servants also were given a Sabbath’s rest by God. By forcing people to cease from their work, they bring their worship of God into time, not just space.
The home functions as the center of this. The celebration of Sabbath does not focus on the synagogue or the larger community; it focuses on the family. The family becomes the keeper and transmitter of the commandments and traditions God entrusted to Israel. Sabbath enabled Judaism to survive without a land and a Temple.
Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.