Four Thousand Years After Sabbath, and We’re Finally Taking a Rest

A Pre-Script: I had the idea to write this piece on March 10, which now seems like a year ago, and by the time I put it on paper, things had already shifted significantly. Please note that this was before nationwide layoffs, before food insecurity spiked, before children were sent home, before toilet paper disappeared, and before we experienced death up close. This was simply my initial response, when I realized I had less work to do, fewer demands and a perceived opportunity to do the things I always neglect. 

I knew something was wrong with my internal wirings when my first reaction to the coronavirus was relief. I work as a programs and publications coordinator, so half of my job is designing and distributing event flyers; the posters I had been stressed about creating were suddenly no longer needed. Social gatherings and meetings that filled the rest of my schedule were also cancelled, and even though I enjoy them, I felt like I had a valid excuse to “sit this one out.” Before I could feel worried about the virus’s implications, or think about the welfare of the world, I simply felt the freedom to relax. 

I once heard the phrase, “If you don’t take the Sabbath, the Sabbath will take you.” I think it came from Wayne Muller’s book, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives. It wasn’t meant as a threat, as in “The Lord will smite you with pain and death,” but rather a truth that our bodies, minds, and souls will break down if they are not allowed to rest. We will become ill or injured, forcing us into periods of prolonged (of often reluctant) rest.

So, what is the Sabbath, exactly? I’ve heard mixed responses, ranging from “something Jewish people do” to “Christian Sunday mass.” Is it on a Saturday or a Sunday? Is it limited to one religion? I’d like to take a few minutes to describe the origins of Sabbath because I think it’s relevant to the moment we’re living in, and the intention behind it is actually really beautiful.

Sabbath originates from the Hebrew word, “Shabbat,” which literally means to stop. It stems from the creation story shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims that tells us God created everything over the course of six days. But on the seventh day, God rests. Specifically, it says in Genesis 2:2-3:

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

There are a few interesting word choices here. The first is that God blessed the Sabbath. In the first chapter of Genesis, the word “bless” is used in two other places, after God creates animals and after God creates humans. God blesses them and says, “Be fruitful and increase in number.” What does it mean, then, to bless a day? Why would God do that?

The second interesting word choice is holy. I learned that “holy” means set apart, but I find it intriguing that the first time the word “holy” is used in Scripture is not for God, or a place; it is used for a 24-hour period of rest. 

More than 2,000 years passed before Sabbath was instituted as a commandment, one of the Ten Commandments, ranking in at number four. This means it precedes, “Thou shalt not murder,” “Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery” and all of the other “thou shalt not” commands, which we — as Judeo-Christian believers and a society — still recognize and take pretty seriously. A.J. Swoboda, author of Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World, says, “I don’t think we believe in the Ten Commandments. I think we believe in Nine Commandments and One Strong Suggestion.”

I can attest to this. I grew up in a Christian household, born into a Jewish family line, and the practice of Sabbath was foreign to me — it’s something people did “in the old days,” but was no longer needed. It wasn’t until I moved to Rhode Island and a friend went on and on about the Sabbath, and how it revolutionized her life, that I decided to try it. 

In the last few years, I’ve attempted to stop working one day per week. The problem is I have no idea what constitutes work. Is it my job job? Is it writing? Is it checking emails and being on social media? Perhaps it’s no wonder that of all the commandments, the one about honoring the Sabbath gets the longest explanation. 

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping 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, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

I just want to point out that the commandment opens with the word, “Remember.” Swoboda says, “Perhaps God knew it was the commandment we were most likely to forget.”

And the command is not just for you, or me, it is for everyone: the marginalized, the refugees, those without power or influence, even animals. In fact, later in the Torah, there’s an entire section devoted to giving the land rest.

I believe we have forgotten how to rest. It is so ingrained in our beings to “be productive,” that we don’t even realize how over-busy we are. I thought I had been honoring the Sabbath, but now with the elimination everything, I realize just how little I was truly resting. I don’t know how to be unhurried, how to not be productive, to just be. AND I think it’s important for those of us who are privileged, especially with time, resources and good health to consider how we can give others rest. Even Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath, and I think that’s a good example to follow.

I don’t know what a post-COVID-19 future will look like, but I hope we experience a paradigm shift from the work-work-work mentality to the gift of rest — for all people, and for the earth itself — that clear waters in Venice won’t be a surprise, that blue skies in China will be the new normal and that we, who run ourselves ragged, will allow one other a time of rest.