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Vayikra/Leviticus 23:25 You shall not do any work of labour and you shall bring a fire-offering to the L-rd.
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These words are part of the instructions for celebrating Yom Teruah, the Day of Blowing the Shofar. It uses the phrase , here translated "work of labour", but what does that means? How do you define ordinary work? How does this level of work compare with the instructions for Yom Kippur, where the text says "any kind of work" (Vayikra 23:28)? It seems that there are two phrases used in Vayikra chapter 23: the first which occurs in verse 3 (Shabbat) and verses 28 and 31 (Yom Kippur), translated "you shall do no work", meaning "no work at all of any kind"; and the second which occurs in verses 7 and 8 (Pesach, first and last days), verse 21 (Shavuot), above (Yom Teruah), verse 35 (Sukkot first day) and verse 36 (Shemini Atzeret). The latter can be translated "no work of labour", but the NJPS translation says, "you shall not work at your occupations", implying routine work or employment. Baruch Levine connects the first to Isaiah's words: "If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your affairs on My holy day; if you call the sabbath 'delight', the L-RD's holy day 'honoured'; and if you honour it and go not your ways nor look to your affairs, nor strike bargains - then you can seek the favour of the L-RD" (Isaiah 58:13-14, NJPS), offering a clear work/commerce definition.
Davidson parses as the construct form of , a feminine singular noun from the unused root ; he suggests the meanings, "work, business, labour; or acquisition, wealth". He also parses as a feminine singular noun; this from the root , "to work, labour; to serve, work for another". He gives quite a wide range of meanings for the noun, reflecting the many ways the word is used in the Hebrew Scriptures: work or labour; tillage or agriculture; work, employment or service; service in the context of religious service; service, use or benefit.Targum Onkelos translates into Aramaic as , from the roots and - which Jastrow gives as: to do, labour, make, act; and to work for or serve respectively. These are both used for lower level mundane or routine work or employment.
Rashi takes a hard-line position, qualifying "work of labour" to mean "even tasks which are considered labour and necessity by you (to distinguish between necessary labour and - even more so - optional labour) which have financial loss in abstaining from them, such as 'a matter which is lost' (ie a situation in which financial loss will occur if action is not taken immediately)." By this definition, any work of any kind is disallowed even on the days which are not Shabbat or Yom Kippur. But that seems to make the Torah's use of the two different phrases redundant.
TheRamban simply says that "Rashi is completely wrong. The phrase here refers to all work other than that of food preparation, which is neither 'servile' work, nor one's 'occupation', but is work that is done to provide for one's enjoyment." He quotes from the original Pesach instructions - "You shall celebrate a sacred occasion on the first day, and a sacred occasion on the seventh day; 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, JPS), which explicitly allow food preparation - to make his point and goes on: "It seems to me that the Sages understand 'work' to refer to toilsome labour that one does for someone else. It might therefore be that light work that one does for one's own pleasure would be permitted whether or not it involves food preparation, and that excessive food preparation - of the kind that a servant would do for a master - would be forbidden. The bottom line is that the prohibition of work 'at your occupations' means that food preparation is nonetheless permitted." He is supported by the Rashbam who says, "On the other festival days, though ordinary work is prohibited, work that involves preparation of food for the festival is permitted. But on the Day of Atonement, a day of affliction, all work is prohibited, just as it is on the Sabbath."
Hirsch, whose own translation is "service work", agrees with the Ramban as well. His comment is that "our productive activity was ordered to halt so that in its place we can come to reflection and to rearrange our activities wherever they have been displeasing to G-d." We are not to be productive - producing output, generating product, earning money - but instead are to be committed to reflection and alignment with G-d on this day. Since, by explicit contrast with Yom Kippur we are not to afflict our souls, food preparation and other activities that enhance the joy and celebration of the day are permitted.
As modern Jews and followers of Messiah Yeshua, it is appropriate to ask: do we enjoy Shabbat and the festivals, reveling in the freedom they bring from the wold of work, or do we groan and grimace under Shabbat restrictions, seeing them as some kind of necessary evil? The Jewish essayist Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg, more widely known by his pen-name Ahad Ha'am, wrote, "More than the Jewish people have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews." Do we need to increase our observance and polish up our attention to the rules of Shabbat and the other festivals, to keep alive Hebrew and Jewish culture in our lives and our communities? Or should we just relax and allow the spirit of Shabbat to have its way and keep our Jewishness alive?
Yeshua was an outspoken critic of the way that Shabbat was kept by the religious figure of His day. Although all the gospels show us examples of Yeshua in conflict with the authorities over the observance of Shabbat regulations, Mark's gospel gives us the clearest wording: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27, ESV). It is important, of course, to qualify that by noting that Yeshua nowhere made comments deprecating the observance of Shabbat, downgrading its general importance, or moving it to another day. That was not His point at all. On the other hand, He did call for a re-evaluation of priorities around what Shabbat is all about and how we should and can use the day.
The basic keeping of Shabbat for Jewish people is given here: "The people of Isra'el are to keep the Shabbat, to observe Shabbat through all their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the people of Isra'el forever; for in six days ADONAI made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He stopped working and rested" (Shemot 31:16-17, CJB). This makes it clear that Shabbat is a specifically Jewish observance, that it is a covenant sign between G-d and the Jewish people, and that it is binding upon all generations - past, present and future. It is a sign, or commemoration of creation; its observance is a witness - as part of Israel's ongoing witness as a whole nation or people group - to the nations of the world, that there is a Creator G-d and that He wants to be involved in the affairs of men. The observance of Shabbat - not Resurrection Day - is repeated in all three sets of the Ten Commandments (Shemot 20:8-11, Vayikra 19:3, D'varim 5:12-15) and is surely part of His witness to the world, "Yet He did not leave Himself without witness, for He did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness" (Acts 14:17, ESV).
On the other hand, Yeshua recognises that the Jewish authorities have formally elevated the command to circumcise a male child on the eighth day over the non-performance of work on Shabbat (John 7:23). He allows personal food gathering and eating on Shabbat (Matthew 12:1) and, citing the presumably common and widespread but informal practice of saving the life of animals on Shabbat, performs acts of healing (Matthew 12:9-14; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11) and casts out demons (Mark 1:21-28; Luke 4:31-37, 13:10-17, 14:1-6). In Jerusalem He heals the man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2-9) and makes clay to give sight to the man born blind (John 9:1-14). He says that Shabbat is a day for doing good and for setting people free; He says, "My Father has been working until now, and I too am working" (John 5:17, CJB). Although G-d stopped originating new creation at the end of the sixth day (B'resheet 2:2), He continues to be involved in the every day ongoing maintenance of His creation; Rav Sha'ul confirms that Yeshua too is involved in this process: "He existed before all things, and He holds everything together" (Colossians 1:17, CJB).
As followers of Yeshua, then, provided that we continue to observe the overall holiness of the day and its sign and witness character, we have freedom on Shabbat both to do what is necessary for the kingdom of G-d - praying, healing, teaching, preaching, showing compassion and doing acts of goodness and mercy - and doing personal non-work activities to enjoy the day.
Further Study: Jeremiah 17:21-27; Ezekiel 20:11-12; Romans 1:18-23
Application: How could you make Shabbat and the festivals more enjoyable for yourself and your family while preserving its holiness and its value as a sign to those around you? Why not ask the Lord of Shabbat for His ideas?
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