The Sabbath is a day of rest. It is practiced by Jews from Friday evening to Saturday evening, and it is practiced by Christians on Sundays. But where did the concept come from? Why do we still practice Sabbath today?
There has been debate over the exact origin of the word “Sabbath” for a long time. Here are a few things that many agree on:
- The word “Sabbath” is related to the Hebrew word “seba,” which means seven. According to Genesis, God rested on the seventh day.
- The Hebrew word “Shabbat” is Hebrew for “Sabbath,” and it means “he rested.”
- The word “Sabbath” is related to “sabbatical,” which is commonly used in academia. It is a temporary leave or break that somebody takes, typically for one year every seven years. This leave is typically for academics to devote themselves to research or publishing.
- The “Sabbath” or “sabbatical” comes from a Jewish practice known as “smita,” which means “release.” The Jews in Israel have to take a year long break every seven years from working in the fields. This is important because it kept the soil from becoming depleted from the flooding from rivers like the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile.
Generally, the Sabbath is a time to rest, take a break, or be released. But what are we resting, breaking, and being released from?
The Sabbath can be traced back to Jewish tradition. The Hebrew people were slaves in Egypt. When they were freed, the Sabbath was a reminder that they were not slaves to anybody. They were not forced to work. Many people continue to practice Sabbath today (though sometimes this is simply called “the weekend”) to remind us that we, too, are not slaves. Ancient wisdom, biblical texts, and religious traditions continue to practice varying versions of the Sabbath as a reminder that we are not slaves.
Abraham Joshua Heschel says it best: “He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man.”
We rest regularly to remind ourselves that creation does not need our labor to flourish and expand. No amount of work or ladder-climbing will save us. Sabbath is a day that we do not need to go places, make things, buy things, or fix things. Sabbath reminds us that we are not slaves to our careers, the economy, our addictions, or our schedules.
We are allowed and encouraged to simply rest and enjoy the good world. Practicing Sabbath incorporates a posture towards life that includes time. Making Shabbat (sometimes said keeping Shabbos) means “making sacred time.” This sacred time includes low-key activities, like picnics, conversations with family and friends, reading, napping, or walking around the neighborhood. Regularly incorporating this time of rest and enjoyment into the rhythm of our lives brings an overall sense of connection and wholeness. In Hebrew, this wholeness is called “shalom.”
Ancient wisdom took this wholeness and rest one step further. The Sabbath was celebrated one out of the seven days a week. Every seven times seven years, they celebrated something called the year of Jubilee. Slaves were freed; lost land and excessive debt was forgiven. Ancient wisdom promoted hope. Restoration was systematic, and forgiveness was always right around the corner.
If you find yourself in the Christian tradition, you follow the teachings of a man named Jesus, who lived about 2,000 years ago. Jesus began his mission on the Sabbath day. This may seem like he was abolishing the Sabbath day, but instead he was launching an ongoing Sabbath and the ultimate Jubilee. He insisted that all slaves be liberated and that all debts be forgiven right now. For good.
Now, if you do not find yourself in the Jewish or Christian tradition, practicing the Sabbath is still relevant. Take the COVID-19 pandemic for example. In 2020, most of the U.S. is on quarantine. The economy is struggling. What are some of the immediate steps the nation takes in response to this global crisis? We tell most people to stay at home, to be released from many of their labors. We halt evictions. We cancel standardized tests. We stop the interest on student loan debts.
It is a healing and human reaction to free people and to forgive people of their debts. Ancient wisdom knew this at some deep and mysterious level. Along the way, we forgot to include the Sabbath into the rhythm of our lives. And it shows.