How to Observe a Biblical Sabbath

People with a Christian background usually believe that their only major obligation each Sunday is to attend a "church service"—usually about an hour long. The more diligent may also attend a Bible study and/or a second service, but few see Sunday as an entire day to be observed. When people from this background learn about the Sabbath day in the Bible, they have little experience in how to keep it.

At the opposite extreme are people from a Jewish background. They usually grow up keeping a Sabbath with many rules, blessings, traditions, and customs. Some of these practices are taken directly from the Bible. Others are well-thought out decisions based on biblical principles (a few of which are mentioned in the Bible, though they are not commanded). But most Jewish practices are man-made rules.

It would help both of these groups to step back and take a look at the answer to this question: "What does the Bible say about keeping the Sabbath?" You can use an exhaustive concordance to look at the approximately 150 verses that contain the words "Sabbath" or "Sabbaths." Also, a few other references to the Sabbath can be found by looking up "seventh day." Only a small fraction of these tell you how to observe the Sabbath—most of them are either telling us to observe the Sabbath or telling us about something that happened on a Sabbath.

The first reference we come to is:

And on the seventh day God ended 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 (Gen 2:2-3).

This scripture shows us that the Eternal rested from His work on this day. A common Orthodox Jewish interpretation of this verse places great emphasis on "not creating on the Sabbath"—they will not write at all, light a candle or turn on an electric light. This emphasis on non-creating over non-work is further exemplified by some Jews who believe they must walk a long distance to synagogue rather than drive (which creates a "fire" in the engine) or walk up 20 flights of stairs rather than push a button on an elevator (which creates a spark or a "fire" in completing an electrical circuit). The Eternal ceased from creating because creating was His work. All of the scriptures that tell us how to keep the Sabbath tell us to cease from our work. If this author were faced with two different ways to do a necessary thing on the Sabbath, he would choose the one that is the least work for the people involved—being less concerned about whether or not a machine is creating a fire.

This emphasis on people ceasing work on the Sabbath is foremost in the primary commandment that instructs us how to keep the Sabbath:

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 the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day (Deut 5:12-15).

These verses contain more details than the parallel passage in Exodus 20:8-11. Nevertheless, the major point of emphasis is that we, and those for whom we are responsible, should not work on the Sabbath. It is very clear that servants should be given a rest—not because it is too much work to supervise them, but because they need a rest, too. Why domesticated animals should not work is not specifically stated. Wild animals do not appear to rest on the Sabbath, but they never work harder than they want to, either. It is quite possible that animals "pushed" to work hard plowing and/or carrying for six days also need a day of rest. In either case, the Eternal also probably intended that people not have the burden of supervising working animals on the Sabbath. So even though an animal might be able to walk a circular path to grind grain, it seems clear that the above commandment says it should not be done on the Sabbath.

There is no comment here about machines working on the Sabbath. This writer’s opinion is this: The Eternal made men and animals and then told us that they need to rest on the Sabbath. Men made the machines and know that most of them do not need to rest on the Sabbath. Machines need to stop only when they need maintenance (a person to work on them). This should not be done on the Sabbath! I see no reason not to let machines serve us on the Sabbath as long as they do not require people to work, too. If the analogy can be made, the Eternal’s heavenly servants (angels, etc.) do not seem to rest on the Sabbath, but serve Him day and night (Rev 4:8). After all, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27).

Commands to avoid doing work on the Sabbath are found in numerous other places (Ex 31:13-16; Ex 35:2 Lev 23:3). Bearing burdens on the Sabbath—heavy work—seems to be particularly singled out as a sin (Jer 17:21-27). Elsewhere, we have specific details of work that is not to be done.

"…[T]reading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and loading donkeys with wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I warned them about the day on which they were selling provisions" (Neh 15:13-22).

All of the things listed above would be work that people would carry out to earn their daily living. Buying and selling what has previously been produced should certainly be included. Even during busy times of the year (planting and harvesting for a farmer), we are not to use the Sabbath to do regular work (Ex 34:21).

Work Exception Cases

However, there seems to be a number of exception cases where certain work is permitted. These fall into two major categories: (1) work that the Eternal specifies must be performed on the Sabbath, and (2) dealing with unplanned events. The Israelites marched around Jericho 7 days—one had to be a Sabbath (Josh 6:3-4). A priest was consecrated for seven days—one of which was a Sabbath (Ex 29:29-30; Lev 8:30-35). Our Savior agreed with the Jewish practice of circumcising a baby boy on the eighth day, even if it was the Sabbath (John 7:22-23). Also, Temple guards worked on the Sabbath (2Kngs 11:5-9, 2Chr 23:4-8)—they took control back from the evil Athaliah on that day. Priests work on Sabbath and are blameless (Matt 12:5). Not only could the priests work, but when the tabernacle was dedicated, the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel each presented an offering on twelve consecutive days (Num 7:10-83). One or two of these offerings must have been on a Sabbath.

The scripture recognizes a variety of emergency work, such as rescuing trapped animals on the Sabbath (Luke 14:5). Picking food to eat immediately and healing are acceptable on the Sabbath (Matt 12:1-12). Our Savior even made clay as a part of his healing of a blind man (John 9:14-17).

A specific example of a Sabbath exception was the man healed on the Sabbath (John 5:5-16). The leaders of his day told the man that it was unlawful to carry his bed on the Sabbath—they may have cited Old Testament scriptures forbidding "bearing burdens on the Sabbath." If another man was carrying the same bed on the same Sabbath for personal or profit reasons, he may well have been in violation. But this man took his bed home so as not to leave it as so much "litter" for others. He had no way to know he would be healed that Sabbath, and he may well never have carried a bed on the Sabbath again.

The general principle of doing good to others on the Sabbath is repeated twice (Mar 3:4, Luke 6:9). Yes, it is good for a man to work to feed his family, but the Bible never commends a man for doing this on the Sabbath. Certainly, some believers were slaves of others that were not believers. Paul does not instruct them to risk death and run away in order to be able to rest on the Sabbath (1Cor 7:21-22). However, he tells them that they should obtain their freedom if possible.

Similarly, today, it may not be wise for a poor person who has learned about the Sabbath to immediately quit his job and lose his wife or children for not supporting them. However, a person must be doing everything they can in order to be "free" from working on the Sabbath—their Savior will be their judge. This author believes that a person should do regular work on the Sabbath if the survival of his family is at stake. This does not mean that one should work on the Sabbath to maintain the quality of life they are used to (a standard of living higher than necessary). If not working on the Sabbath means moving to a little apartment and eating beans, that is what should be done. If a person learns about the Sabbath and has faith that the Eternal will take care of them and believes they should quit their present job immediately—then they should live according to that faith.

Emergency Work on the Sabbath

There are often other questions about how much Sabbath emergency or on-call work is acceptable. If a water pipe breaks in a person’s work place on the Sabbath, and the boss asks all of his workers to come in and help save the business from disaster, should a Sabbath-keeper refuse to help? This author advises the Sabbath-keeper to go help for free—it is like an ox in a ditch. I do not have difficulty with a person being "on call" for genuine, unpredictable emergencies—nor does he reject the idea that people in some vital fields such as medical, life-support, etc., be scheduled to work a few Sabbaths a year to maintain the lives of others. After all, sometimes, Sabbath-keepers have medical emergencies on the Sabbath—and they are glad to find others there to treat them.

In matters that are not specifically detailed in the scriptures, each person should make decisions according to their own faith (Rom 12:3; Jms 4:17)—and not make demands of others. Some of the above cases represent regular Sabbath duties, and some represent specific commands where people were told by the Eternal to do something on the Sabbath. We should be very slow to judge another’s method of keeping the Sabbath. If the Eternal has commanded certain people to march around cities or butcher animals on this day, it is possible that He is commanding certain people to do specific works.

When Are "Your Servants"
Working for You on the Sabbath?

One of the most sticky issues regarding Sabbath-keeping is the issue of when is someone a "servant" working for you on the Sabbath? Also, the issue of when (if ever) it is acceptable to spend money on the Sabbath is closely related.

In order to answer these questions, we must realize that we are now living in a world where most people are not Sabbath keepers. A person who becomes stranded, sick, injured, or hungry on the Sabbath will probably find it very difficult to get help in most countries unless he or she is willing to pay for it. For example, if a person is in an automobile crash on the way to Sabbath Services, it is very unlikely that he will be able to convince a doctor, auto repairman, restaurant, motel or passer-by to help him for free because it is the Sabbath. On the other hand, they would all probably gladly help him if he were willing to pay for the services. Obviously, in ancient Israel when everyone was commanded to help those in need, help would be forth-coming and no payment on the Sabbath would be understood. Even in the modern-day nation of Israel, a person in trouble on the Sabbath probably need only go as far as the nearest synagogue in order to receive a place to stay, a meal, and help with other difficulties.

Hopefully, most of our readers will probably see that in today’s society, if emergencies occur, they must be dealt with like the proverbial "ox in the ditch": the Eternal probably accepts our using money to solve emergencies on the Sabbath. The real question is: what is an emergency and what is simply convenient?

Let us give a brief example that is the opposite extreme. Suppose a large group of brethren go to a nice restaurant on the Sabbath for a leisurely meal. The manager sees that his waiters are quite busy when the reservation is made, so he calls up Jack, an "on call" waiter, to work two hours during the busy time. Jack is a Bible student and is learning about keeping the Sabbath. However, he realizes that he will not be called much in the future if he refuses to work when he is called. Jack is assigned to serve our Sabbath-keeping group, and during the course of serving them, he hears them talk about Sabbath keeping and their regular use of restaurants on the Sabbath. Jack asks them if it is all right for him to continue to regularly work on the Sabbath, since it is apparently all right for them to eat there on the Sabbath.

This is a dilemma! How can our group of Sabbath keepers tell Jack that it is not sin for them to eat there regularly, but it is sin for him to work there regularly? How can they tell Jack that they were not making their servant work on the Sabbath since, since they paid him the tip directly, and since he would have not been called to work at all if the Sabbath-keepers would have stayed home? A question for the readers: "What explanation would you give Jack in this case?"

Most situations where people use restaurants or other services on the Sabbath are not as difficult as the one described above. Most waiters do not care if their customers are Sabbath keepers and are quite happy to receive their money. Nevertheless, the basic question remains: how can it be a sin for people to be working on the Sabbath in service industries, but not be a sin for Sabbath-keepers to use those services?

Further questions can be raised about the difficulty of keeping the Sabbath in today’s world. In many families, one or both parents work right up to the Sabbath on Friday night, and have a very difficult time preparing Sabbath meals ahead of time. The easiest way to rest on the Sabbath is to go to a restaurant. Also, many people drive for over an hour to their Sabbath service, and are therefore quite hungry after it is over. They would like to fellowship with the other brethren for a couple more hours, but the only convenient way to do this is at a restaurant—there are no brethren who live close to the hall who can accommodate a large group in their home.

Other Services Received
on the Sabbath

Finally, we can ask questions about other services we receive on the Sabbath: Does the Eternal want us to pay a business for the use of their hall on the Sabbath? Is it acceptable for us to use electricity and other utilities on the Sabbath (since utility employees work that day) to serve us? Further, is it acceptable to live in a rented house or apartment where we are paying someone for every day that we live there—some of which days are Sabbaths? And finally, is it acceptable to mail a letter on Friday or buy fresh food on Sunday knowing that someone will probably work on the Sabbath to help serve our needs?

Do not panic! The commandment teaches that we are not to require our servants to work for us on the Sabbath. If we have an agreement to pay someone to provide a service for us, and that agreement does not specifically require people to work for us on the Sabbath, then we are not disobeying the commandment. Since we do not control how they provide the service, we are not responsible for them. For example, we would be perfectly happy if the Post Office handled our Friday-mailed letter on Sunday rather than the Sabbath; we would be happy if stores stocked their shelves on Friday, rather than Saturday so we can shop on Sunday. We would hope that our landlord does not do any work on the Sabbath, but if he decides to paint our building on Saturday, we have no control. We hope that our utility providers would automate their systems so that they need few or no people to work on the Sabbath—but we have no control over this. Our nations are not operating on the laws that the Eternal gave Israel.

If we rent a hall for Sabbath services, we should offer to do any necessary Sabbath work ourselves: provide water for the people, set up, clean up, etc. Doing such necessary work on the Sabbath seems to be similar to the work that the priests and others did to perform their offerings. There is no Bible example of "hiring out" such work. We should do as much as possible ahead of time, but the rest we can do on the Sabbath. Whenever possible, take care of paying for the hall on some day other than the Sabbath.

Ex 16:23 states that we should prepare food the day before the Sabbath. From this, was developed the concept of the "preparation day," which is mentioned five times in the New Testament (Matt 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:31,4). Whenever possible, we need to prepare our Sabbath meals before the Sabbath. But what do we do in cases where our plans do not work? We may have an emergency on Friday which eliminates our preparation time. Visitors may attend our Sabbath Service who desperately need to fellowship, but no food has been prepared for them. We simply do not have the Eternal’s intended society where we could simply eat with some other nearby person who had prepared ample Sabbath meals.

Purchase Food in Emergencies

Rather than make the Sabbath a burden—a time of hunger for our families, our conclusion is that we purchase food to handle emergency situations, but that we do it in a way that eliminates or minimizes other people serving us on the Sabbath. The ultimate way to do this is the "automat," a food-vending place that is completely automated (machines don’t sin by serving you on the Sabbath). However, this service exists in only a few places, and the food is often unheated and/or relatively poor quality. The next best thing is a buffet, where you simply serve yourself from food that has already been prepared—no one is specifically working for you. Also, fast food establishments minimize the amount of work that needs to be done for you on the Sabbath.

This author encourages the above practices to take care of emergencies, but not as a regular practice. I know of one fast-food establishment that hired extra staff to work each Sabbath to serve the large number of people who regularly came to eat after a nearby Sabbath service concluded. Those people, in a collective way, were hiring servants to work for them on the Sabbath. Most lived nearby and could easily have invited people into their homes on the Sabbath.

As in many situations, there are some issues that are clearly right according to scripture, and some that are clearly wrong. How we make decisions in some of the difficult areas defines who we are. It is important to keep in mind that the Eternal is watching us to see what we do in these situations. We need to be able to explain to Him what we have done and why.

Kindling a Fire on the Sabbath

One of the most controversial scriptures about the Sabbath is Exodus 35:3: "You shall kindle no fire throughout your dwellings on the Sabbath day." We have already touched on the Jewish interpretation that forbids the running of combustion engines, the turning on of electric circuits, and the lighting of stoves, heaters, lamps and candles on the Sabbath. Strictly observant Jews will either do without these conveniences or light them before the Sabbath. The Hebrew appears to be correctly translated in this verse—the word for "fire" is the common one often used for cooking fires. The word for "kindle" is also frequently translated "burn" elsewhere—the only other possible translation of this verse would forbid the burning of any fires on the Sabbath. This author has heard one historian speak of one Jewish group who forbade all fires on the Sabbath, but the entire group died during one cold winter. Somehow, we do not believe that this is what the Creator wanted us to do.

The meaning of Exodus 35:3 seems clearer when it is read in the context of the entire chapter. The Eternal is assigning the Israelites a massive building project—building the tabernacle of meeting. Verse 1 is the beginning of a major new section of Exodus; Moses gathers the people together to hear, then in verses 2 and 3 he tells them not to work on the Sabbath—they should not even start the fire that they would need to let burn for a few hours in order to do metal work. The rest of chapter 35 plus the next three chapters are the Eternal’s command to build the tabernacle. While there is nothing in chapter 35:3 that says "do not start a work fire," the entire context of the section is about work. The word "habitations" is found in the verse because that is where the people worked—they did not have factories or offices. If there is a general principle we can derive from this, it is that we are not to use the Sabbath to prepare for work after the Sabbath—such as defrosting the kitchen freezer (beginning to boil pots of water on the stove before the day ends). Such things may take little work on the Sabbath, but they clutter our Sabbath with other responsibilities that will distract us from the purpose of the day.

Numbers 15:33-36 relates the story of a man who was put to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. Although this scripture is often cited in relation to the above scripture, it does not appear to have a direct bearing. There is no mention of whether the man was gathering sticks to warm his family that day, to make a work fire, or simply to have a bigger supply of sticks for the future. Some historians have theorized that he must have been gathering for a "work fire" because women traditionally gathered the wood for cooking. In any case, he was clearly working in a way that the Eternal judged to be unnecessary on the Sabbath.

Sabbath Day’s Journey

Exodus 16:29 says:

…Let every man remain in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.

How far is "out of his place?" Obviously, some of the people went to the tabernacle (and later the temple) on the Sabbath. This was utterly required when some of the holy days fell on the Sabbath. The march around Jericho must have occurred on a Sabbath. The Rabbis set this distance at about 2000 cubits or a little over one half mile. We can be virtually certain that this definition was commonly known in the first century: "Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey" (Acts 1:12).

However, there is no place in scripture that specifically commands adherence to a maximum distance of travel on the Sabbath. It is clear that our Savior traveled to and from synagogues, and traveled through fields on the Sabbath (Mark 1:21; 2:23; 6:2; Luke 4:16; Luke 6:1,6). Exactly how far he traveled we do not know. Obviously, the Sabbath is not meant for us to do our own travel, just as it is not meant for us to do our own work. It should also be obvious that the old half-mile "Sabbath day’s journey" can be traveled in a few minutes with modern bicycles, and can be traveled in complete comfort in less than a minute with a car. When one attempts to balance the commands to assemble on the Sabbath, to not travel on the Sabbath, and to not work on the Sabbath—this writer sees little difficulty in driving an hour or more in an automobile to a Sabbath service. This driving helps fulfill the command to assemble, but creates little work for anyone and probably does not violate the command that a person not go out of "his place." The Hebrew word maqowm is a very general word for "place"—it does not specifically mean "house," but can even refer to a person’s country (Gen 29:26). If a person today is a member of a widely scattered congregation, surely, attending his congregation is not going out of "his place."

Candles, Blessings, & Other Traditions

To recap the beginning of this article, modern professing "Christians" have few customs that are useful in helping them keep the Sabbath since most of them do not observe a day, but just go to a service. On the other hand, Jews have numerous traditions and customs, some of incredible complexity. How many of these things are divinely inspired? How many are helpful? How many are harmful? Trying to answer these questions would take volumes of books, and there would always be disagreement on the right answers. It is amazing that some Jewish Sabbath traditions seem to point to Christ—it is very unlikely that they deliberately invented such things.

A typical Jewish family will begin the Sabbath with the wife (or another woman) lighting candles. Various songs praising the Eternal will be sung. Orthodox and conservative Jews will usually include the practice of Kiddush, a blessing said over a glass of wine shared by the whole family. This is usually followed by a ritual hand-washing, and then breaking and partaking of a piece of halla (challah—a special sweet, leavened bread). Some Jews believe this wine and bread to represent the "fruitfulness of the Earth," but others understand that they are looking forward to Messiah.

Some Jewish families will say a special blessing for their sons and daughters after the wine and bread. They will attend between one and four synagogue services. They will close the Sabbath with a special service called Havdalah, which also includes many lights (Acts 20:7-8 may be such a ceremony), a blessing over wine, spices to represent the diversity of the Eternal’s people, and a looking at one’s fingernails as a symbol of the resurrection (fingernails continue to grow even after a person dies).

There are many other Jewish traditions and much additional meaning that cannot be explained here. Some believers in Christ have found learning and/or practicing some of these traditions very helpful. They are not harmful as long as they do not become a burden or distract us from establishing a closer relationship with our Creator on that day. Since the Bible contains no large section describing exactly what we should do on each Sabbath day, we must conclude that much of it is left up to us. After all, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). Two sources of information on Jewish Sabbath traditions from teachers who also accept the New Testament are: Joseph Good of Hatikva Ministries, PO Box E, Nederland, Texas, 77627 and Dean Wheelock of Hebrew Roots newsletter, PO Box 98, Lakewood, Wisconsin, 54138. This writer does not agree with everything they teach, but information can be found in their teachings that is hard to find elsewhere.

If You Believe It, Do It!

Some readers will have opinions on how to keep the Sabbath that are different from this article. Servants’ News respects those views—none of us have learned all there is to know from the scripture. We would, however, like to emphasize that if you do have a different view of how to keep the Sabbath, spend most of your energy doing it!

Do not make the mistake of spending most of your energy writing about it, talking to others about it, asking people in your fellowship to preach about it, and judging others who don’t do it. "Who are you to judge another's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand" (Rom 14:4).

It may seem unfair to children if one family "gets to eat out" on the Sabbath and the other does not. How does one explain it to their children? How do you answer when children ask "which way is right?" This is an excellent time to teach children the importance of individual commitment to scripture, not commitment to following a group.

Children may then ask, "if my friend’s parents think that the Bible says it is alright to ‘eat out’ on the Sabbath, then I think that is what the Bible says, too. So why can’t I do it?" This is an excellent time to teach the value of knowing the scriptures. Ask the child if he or she knows any of the verses that talk about the Sabbath. If the child does not, then ask him or her not to "bother you" about the question until he or she can explain the subject from the Bible. This will be good learning practice for everyone.

Good Things To Do on the Sabbath

While most people’s questions are about things that should not be done on the Sabbath, this article would not be complete if it did not include the positive things that are commanded (and that many people do) on the Sabbath. An assembly or "holy convocation" was commanded (Lev 23:3). This practice of assembly continued in the New Testament (Heb 10:25). Our Savior used the Sabbath to read scripture and to teach others (Luke 4:16,31). Paul continued the practices with both Jews and Gentiles (Acts 13:14,27,42,44; 15:21; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4). In addition to this teaching, Psalm 92 shows that the Sabbath is a time to sing praises to our Creator.

The Bible specified the time of the Sabbath from evening to evening, though a study of the Hebrew word for evening (erev) shows that it has a very broad or multiple meanings. Many people keep the Sabbath from sunset to sunset. A common Jewish method is to light the candles 15 to 20 minutes before sunset and continue until the next day at dark. This writer believes that the proper understanding of Leviticus 23:32 is from dark to dark, but I also believe that if this were a critical point with the Eternal, that He would have given more detailed instruction. There are numerous condemnations in the scripture for those who do not keep the Sabbath, but nothing is said about those who are keeping it a little "too early" or "too late." Whenever we believe the Sabbath begins, we should endeavor to be ready for it before this time.

Rather than focusing on things that we cannot do on the Sabbath, we should look forward to it as a time with our Creator, His family, and our physical family (if we have one). If that does not interest or excite us, then we really need to stop and take a close look at our life.

If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, From doing your pleasure on My holy day, And call the Sabbath a delight, The holy day of the Lord honorable, And shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, Nor finding your own pleasure, Nor speaking your own words, Then you shall delight yourself in the Lord; And I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, And feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. The mouth of the Lord has spoken (Is 58:12-13).

—Norman S. Edwards


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