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Vayikra/Leviticus 23:35 On the first day, a holy convocation; you shall do no work of service.
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Sefer HaChinuch identifies two commands in this text (when it first appears for the first day of Pesach in Vayikra 23:7): a positive commandment to rest on the holy day; and a negative commandment not to work on the holy day. The positive command is derived from the instruction to have a holy convocation, to sanctify the day. One does this by resting, the purpose being "that we should ponder the theme of the holy season, the miracle that was wrought for us on it; and so we should praise and extol in our thoughts the One who commanded us about it and wrought miracles for us at that time."
When talking about the negative command, the Sefer refers toHaShem's instructions for the first and last days of unleavened bread - "no work at all shall be done on them; only what every person is to eat, that alone may be prepared for you" (Shemot 12:16, NJPS) - and concludes that "work of service" means "work which is not for the need to prepare human food", quoting the verse "in all kinds of work in the field" (1:14, ESV). Noting that "Cain became a tiller of the soil" (B'resheet 4:2) and Qohelet's comments about "when the king makes himself a servant to the land" (Ecclesiastes 5:8, CJB), the Sefer agrees that "he who tills his land shall have food in plenty" (Proverbs 12:11, NJPS), before concluding that "work that is for preparing human food, such as cooking, and so forth, is a labour of enjoyment, and not laborious work."
Saadiah Gaon, Rashi and Sifra see the work that must not be done being financially related. The G'aon says that "work of service" is "work from which a person has a financial loss", while Rashi explains that it is "that kind of work that you consider important because refraining from it might cause you to suffer loss." This supported by the NJPS translation which renders the command as "You shall not work at your occupations." The Ramban gives an encycolpeadic summary: "the phrase used here refers to all work other than that of food preparation."
Dropping into the Hebrew text to see that that can tell us, the two words form a construct: two adjacent nouns that have a "A of B" relationship. is a fs noun from the unused root ; Davidson suggests two sets of meanings: "work, business, labour"; and "acquisition, wealth, property." David Clines adds a more nuanced option of "handiwork or craft"1 that addresses much work that people do that falls between labour and pleasure. The second word, , a fs noun from the root , which has an strongly overlapping set of meanings: work, labour, tillage, agriculture, employment, business, It also has the additional idea of service, in particular religious service. The priests and the Levites 'work' in the Tabernacle, serving God and enabling worship both by themselves and by others. There is an important sense here that - in the right context and occasion - working for G-d is an acceptable form of worship of G-d.
Closer examination of the text for the whole chapter Vayikra 23 reveals that this command "you shall do no work of service" is used for all of the festivals except Shabbat (v. 3) and Yom Kippur (v. 28). In those two cases, the text offers a blunt , "you shall do no work." Gunther Plaut asks what this presumably lighter provision is supposed to mean, commenting that "it hardly means that heavy labour is prohibited and light work allowed; buying and selling are surely not permitted. The NJPS rendering is likewise not altogether satisfactory; a person would hardly be allowed to labour at something other than one's regular job." In particular, how do we balance our text - which is talking in the context the festival of Sukkot - against the insistence for "a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day" (Vayikra 23:39, NJPS) just a few verses later still very much in the same context? That uses the same Hebrew word that is translated as "a sabbath of complete rest" (vv. 3 and 32, NJPS) for the weekly Shabbat and Yom Kippur.
Keeping the day of shabbat is given as one of the criteria for foreigners - that is, non-Jews - to be counted as part of the people of G-d. Isaiah speaks of "all who keep the sabbath and do not profane it, and who hold fast to My covenant" (Isaiah 56:6, NJPS), voicing HaShem's promise: "I will bring them to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices shall be welcome on My altar; for My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples" (v. 57, NJPS). Conversely, Jeremiah warns the Israelites "Guard yourselves for your own sake against carrying burdens on the sabbath day, and bringing them through the gates of Jerusalem" (Jeremiah 17:21, NJPS), because "if you do not obey My command to hallow the sabbath day and to carry in no burdens through the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day, then I will set fire to its gates; it shall consume the fortresses of Jerusalem and it shall not be extinguished" (v. 27, NJPS). The prophet Amos records the people complaining about the way shabbat interfered with their trading activities - "If only the new moon were over, so that we could sell grain; the sabbath, so that we could offer wheat for sale, using an ephah that is too small, and a shekel that is too big, tilting a dishonest scale, and selling grain refuse as grain!" (Amos 8:5-6, NJPS), showing how the failure to keep shabbat quickly degenerates into other forms of sin and disobedience.
What did Yeshua say about shabbat? How did He and His disciples keep shabbat? The starting position has to be that it was Yeshua's custom or habit to attend synagogue on shabbat: "on shabbat he went to the synagogue as usual" (Luke 4:16, CJB). This was completely consistent with His assertion, "Don't think that I have come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete. Yes indeed! I tell you that until heaven and earth pass away, not so much as a yud or a stroke will pass from the Torah (Matthew 5:17-18, CJB). Luke tells us that this was Rav Sha'ul's constant starting point - "Sha'ul also began carrying on discussions every shabbat in the synagogue, where he tried to convince both Jews and Greeks" (Acts 18:4, CJB) - as long as he was allowed.
All the synoptic gospels record other instances of Yeshua attending synagogue on shabbat; it seemed that if they wanted pick a fight with Him, the Pharisees or other Jewish leaders would always know where to find Him! While we have multiple reports of Yeshua healing people, casting out demons and teaching people on shabbat, at the start of His ministry in Capernaum, Luke records that "when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to Him, and He laid His hands on every one of them and healed them" (Luke 4:40, ESV); He waited until after shabbat to heal those whose needs were not life-threatening.
On one particular shabbat, Yeshua and the disciples were "passing through some wheat fields; and as they went along, His talmidim began picking heads of grain" (Mark 2:23, CJB). An argument sprang up with some Pharisees who accused the disciples of violating the shabbat traditions by doing field-work - harvesting, threshing, winnowing, grinding - on shabbat in order to eat. Yeshua quoted Scripture for them, showing that human need could over-ride arbitrary human interpretation of shabbat, culminating in the well-known affirmation that "Shabbat was made for mankind, not mankind for shabbat; So the Son of Man is Lord even of shabbat" (vv. 27-28, CJB). Was Yeshua abrogating shabbat and teaching His disciples to do likewise, or was this a practical recognition that sometimes, stuff needs to happen. Yeshua wasn't destroying or removing shabbat, He was demonstrating that while respecting and honouring shabbat is important, the purpose of the day is to bless mankind, not to make their lives miserable with restrictions.
What should we do on the festivals? Given that the Torah makes allowance for food preparation, telling us that we are rejoice on these days and Yeshua's positioning of shabbat as a day to bless mankind, we should find ways to enjoy the day and enhance our time of resting from our mundane and routine week-day work. We should turn off our electronic devices and read aloud or play games; we should save one or two special items of food or drink for the day. We should spend some time with other followers of Yeshua, singing and learning together, not in a class-room 'taught' way, but sharing together in homes and families. We should try to laugh together, being joyful with the joy we have together in the L-rd, and we should definitely take time to rest: get up late, have a nap after lunch, enjoy a mid-morning snack - de-stress and disconnect from the affairs of the week. Taking off our shoes because we are on holy ground - or in holy time - really shouldn't be either stuffy or boring!
Now stop and think. What can you do to make shabbat more fun and more of a blessing for yourself, your family and your fellowship group, particularly youngsters? How can you make yourself more available and more approachable, to draw people in to enjoying and relaxing on the special days that the L-rd has given us that we might rejoice before Him? An old saying tells us that, "you'll catch more flies with honey than vinegar." In these days of gathering exile, we need to show the world that G-d is good and that He is good to His people every day!
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 222.
Further Study: Isaiah 52:7-9; Colossians 2:16
Application: Have shabbat and the festivals become a bit ho-hum for you? Are you always busy rushing around to services and never at home so that you don't actually rest - simply doing shabbat-work rather than week-day work? It's time to change and find rest and peace in Yeshua and on His shabbat!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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