In the course of my work, I frequently conduct Bible studies in Christian churches and seminaries. One of my main goals in these teachings is to sensitize my audience to the precise meaning of the text. Anyone who has heard me teach will be familiar with my constant refrain, “Read the Bible carefully.”
It’s true that most Christians are not able to read the Bible in the original Hebrew. This shortcoming inevitably hinders their ability to pick up on many of the textual subtleties and anomalies that are worthy of study. That said, by simply reading carefully and asking critical questions, there are many insights that we can gain. And when we ask a question, even if we don’t find the answers, we are serving God by exploring His word and seeking the truths within.
One of my favorite examples of the value of reading the Bible carefully is found in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, in the Ten Commandments.
Remember the Sabbath day, to make it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. And the seventh day is Sabbath for the Lord your God: Do not do any work; you and your son and your daughter, your servant and your maidservant and your livestock, and the foreigner within your gates. – Exodus 20:7-9
A number of questions emerge from a careful reading of this text.
First, we are commanded to “remember the Sabbath day, to make it holy.” How is this done? If you were told to make a day holy, what would you do? What exactly is God commanding us to do? We should note that many translations render this phrase: “to keep it holy.” This is incorrect. There’s no other way to say it. The word le’kadesho is clear and simple to translate. It means “to make it holy” or “to sanctify it.” The reason these translators opt for “to keep it holy,” has nothing to do with actual translation. Rather, they are sensitive to the fact that way back in Genesis 2, we read that “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy,” (Gen. 2:3). If God already made the seventh day holy, how can we be commanded to make it holy again? But these translators are missing the point, as I will explain.
A second textual issue relates to the second verse in our passage, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.” What is this verse telling us? Is it a commandment to work for six days? From context, we understand that it is setting up the Sabbath. Essentially, it says that, as opposed to the other six days of the week, the Sabbath is a day when we don’t work. Still, the plain meaning of the words that seem to command us to work for six days is strange. But a bigger problem with this verse is the second phrase, “and do all your work.” This phrase does not appear to add anything of value. If the point of the verse is to tell me that after six days of work, we are to observe the Sabbath, a day when work is forbidden, the verse should have simply said, “Six days you shall labor. And the seventh day is a Sabbath…” What would be missing from our understanding of the commandment to observe the Sabbath if it were written this way? What do the words, “and do all your work” add?
Furthermore, within this apparently superfluous phrase, what purpose does the word “all” serve? Why didn’t the verse say, “Six days you shall labor and do your work,” without the word “all”?
One good rule of thumb when reading the Bible carefully is that if there are words or phrases that appear to be superfluous or redundant, it is precisely those words or phrases that we ought to pay greatest attention to. These are the words that require greater study. More often than not, it is these seemingly “extra” words that contain the Bible’s deepest teachings.
Let’s start with the last question we raised. The verse says, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.” What does this even mean? When was the last time you ended a week with “all” your work done? Unless you happened to retire on a Friday, this is impossible. The Jewish sages of 2000 years ago were sensitive to this strange word and commented as follows:
“Is it possible for a person to complete all his work in six days? Rather, [the intent of the verse is] ‘Rest on the Sabbath as though all your work is complete.’” – (Midrash, Mekhilta, Ex. 9:1:1)
“Rest on the Sabbath as though all your work is complete.” In other words, the word “all” teaches us that we are to enter the Sabbath with the frame of mind that “all” our work is done. The Bible is telling us that it is not enough for us to not work on the Sabbath. That would be fine if the sole purpose of the Sabbath was merely to give us a break with a day off. But the Sabbath is meant to be a sanctified day, a day for God. To achieve this, we must put work out of our minds completely.
And in fact, this is exactly what Jews do to this day. Not only is it forbidden to work on the Sabbath, Jewish law forbids us from even discussing work or commerce of any kind. Our financial lives are simply irrelevant. To put a more contemporary spin on this, we shut off our phones, we don’t drive our cars, we don’t watch TV or use our computers. Once the Sabbath begins, our work is done.
Now we can understand the meaning of the entire passage. The first verse states that we must “Remember the Sabbat day to make it holy.” We asked how we are supposed to do this? How can people make a day holy? Well, what is holiness? A good definition of holiness is “set aside for God’s purposes.”
The way we make the Sabbath day holy is spelled out in the verse that follows, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.” In other words, the way we infuse the day with holiness, the way we ensure that it is truly set aside for God, is by disengaging from our material, financial lives and concerns. This is accomplished by “entering into the Sabbath as though all your work is complete.”
As for the question of how we are commanded to make the Sabbath holy when God already made it holy, the answer is clear and powerful. God, indeed, set aside the seventh day for a higher purpose. He made it holy. But God also created a partnership with Man. Without our cooperation, the Sabbath can lose its holiness. It can be profaned. We are responsible to declare the holiness of the Sabbath every week. In this way, we align ourselves with His will as Creator.
Although the Sabbath is a commandment to the Jewish people, the nation of Israel, it is also part of the organic makeup of the world. It is part of the created system. To truly experience the holiness of God’s day, one day a week, we must disengage from worldly affairs and from our financial, material identities.
Older Christian readers will attest to the fact that in previous generations, Sunday was much more of a Sabbath. Work and commerce were largely absent from the Christian life. Sadly, this is mostly lost. What’s more, due to the ubiquitous technology that dominates our lives, the need to disengage from worldly affairs to properly honor God is needed more than ever before.
As any Shabbat observant Jew will tell you, it is the disengagement from media and work through shutting off our phones, not driving anywhere, and not engaging in commerce, that leads to increased engagement with family and community. With nobody going anywhere, nobody on their phones, and nobody focused on work, families and communities spend time together, worshiping, studying, and simply enjoying real relationships. Now more than ever, we need the Sabbath in our lives.