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Shemot/Exodus 34:21 Six days you shall work and on the seventh day you shall rest; in the ploughing and in the harvest you shall rest.
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HaShem's command to observe Shabbat - the one rest day after six working days making up a seven day week - is found in three out of the five books of the Torah: Shemot, Vayikra and D'varim. Formally part of the Ten Words according to both versions: "Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the L-rd your G-d: you shall not do any work -- you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements" (Shemot 20:8-10, JPS) and "Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the L-rd your G-d; you shall not do any work -- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do" (D'varim 5:13-14, JPS), it also comes in the priestly command set: "On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion. You shall do no work; it shall be a sabbath of the L-rd throughout your settlements" (Vayikra 23:3, JPS).
The command is also given twice more in the book of Shemot: "Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labour" (Shemot 23:12, JPS) and "Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to HaShem; whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death" (31:15, JPS). However, it is noticeable that in none of these other places is the qualifying phrase given as in our text above: "in the ploughing and in the harvest you shall rest". Or, as the JPS translation offers: "you shall cease from labour even at plowing time and harvest time".
TheRashbam starts with the word 'work', , the 2ms Qal prefix of the root , to work or serve. He explains that "'work' with no other qualifier refers to agricultural work, as we know from the use of the word in 'If you work the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you' (B'resheet 4:12) and 'He who works his land shall have food in plenty' (Proverbs 12:11)." Targum Onkelos changes the word , ploughing, to , sowing, perhaps to be more inclusive. Drazin and Wagner suggest this matches the same change in Yosef's words to his brothers, "there are five more years in which there will be neither ploughing nor harvest" (B'resheet 45:6, NRSV) where Onkelos is trying to be more inclusive of agricultural function. The Sforno links the resting to prospering in work, "You shall succeed in your six days of work when you rest on the seventh" and goes on to ally this to the sabbatical year: "Also when you will rest once every seven years from ploughing and harvest, then you will be successful in your ploughing and harvest (the other six years) as it says, 'Six years you shall sow your field ... and gather its produce' (Vayikra 25:3)." While only a few people are full employed in agricultural work these days, the principle applies to our main means of employment - what we do to earn money and keep a roof over our heads.
The Rashbam then moves on to the second phrase, insisting that rest must be taken even during ploughing and harvest, "which is the most important and necessary work that people do. It goes without saying that one must cease from all other labour on the Sabbath." If rest is commanded when there is pressure not to do so, then how much more so at all other times when there is not so much pressure.Ibn Ezra comments on inserting the word 'even' in the translation before "ploughing and harvest"; he says this is added correctly, for "for these are times when human life may hang in the balance. The earth might be moist on the Sabbath but, if not sown then, dry by the next day. And of course crops that are left unharvested may be stricken." The Ramban adds that "The straightforward interpretation is that ploughing and harvest are mentioned here because they are the basis of human life."
There seems then to be a choice as to when and how we observe the commandments. As Nahum Sarna explains, "The busiest times of the agricultural year must give way to the overriding imperative to observe sacred time. This sacrifice becomes a true test of faith." Do we just obey them when it is convenient, comfortable and cost-effective, or are we committed to honouring G-d even when it costs us? RabbiHirsch has his answer: "This G-d-acknowledging Sabbath - laying yourself and your work at the feet of G-d - you are to keep even when the question of your very livelihood is dependent on your labour."
Let's explore the question of choice, however, a little more. We have assumed so far that there has always been a choice as to whether agricultural work is done on Shabbat. After all, there is no command in the Torah prescribing ploughing or harvesting on Shabbat. The sages of the Talmud have a debate about voluntary and obligatory ploughing and conclude that the instruction in our text above applies to voluntary agricultural work: "Some introduce the discussion in connection with the text: 'in ploughing time and in harvest you shall rest'. Says Rabbi Akiva: This text is not needed as a provision against ploughing or harvesting in the Sabbatical year itself, for that is explicitly dealt with elsewhere: 'Neither shall you sow your field nor prune your vineyard, etc.' (Vayikra 25:4); but it is a provision to restrict ploughing even in the pre-Sabbatical year, where its effect extends into the Sabbatical period; and to restrict the harvesting of what grows in the Sabbatical period, which is reaped in the post-Sabbatical year. Says Rabbi Ishmael: What is the characteristic of ploughing? It is an optional act; so too is the harvesting debarred only when it is an optional act. Not included, therefore, is the harvesting [of the first barley] for the omer which is prescribed." (b. Makkot 8b).
So the proscription of ploughing and harvesting does not apply if that ploughing or harvesting is itself commanded.Rashi explains how this happens: "This excludes the harvesting of the Omer, which is mandatory and overrides the Shabbat." The Omer is the grain offering of barley brought on the 16th of Nissan, the second day of Pesach (Vayikra 23:9-14). "This offering is to be harvested the night before it is offered. Thus, when the sixteenth of Nissan falls on Shabbat, it is mandatory to harvest the barley on Friday night for the grain-offering brought the next morning." If the dates just work out that way that you have to harvest the fresh barley on Shabbat in order to bring the grain offering, then that particular act of harvesting is commanded and so overrides the general commandment not to harvest on Shabbat.
Yeshua said several things about Shabbat observance that are recorded in the gospels. Asking the Pharisees, "I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?" (Luke 6:9, ESV) and providing the example, "Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath" (Matthew 12:11-12, ESV), the text suggests that Yeshua values Shabbat, yet sees some acts of kindness and compassion as more important: "Ought not this woman, a daughter of Avraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?" (Luke 13:16, ESV). At no point is there any word from Yeshua abrogating or denying Shabbat; Mark records Him saying, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27-28, ESV), challenging the authorities in Jerusalem: "Moshe gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moshe, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moshe may not be broken, are you angry with Me because on the Sabbath I made a man's whole body well? Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment" (John 7:22-24, ESV). Yeshua gets to balance those priorities; we, with His delegated authority have to take the same choices.
So let's apply Yeshua's principles to everyday decisions we have to take. Should we leave some unattended or unvisited in hospital so that we can attend Shabbat services? No; quite apart from the fact that bikur kholim - visiting the sick1 - is a commandment, it is important to show kindness to those who are ill or receiving treatment, if no other time is available or if a visit is needed, this should take priority over attending Shabbat services, even if it involves travelling some distance and paying for parking. Can we, on the other hand, pick up some last minute shopping on the way to Shabbat services? No; we have the whole week to get ready for Shabbat and shopping - unless perhaps for prescription medicine which has just become necessary - does not take priority over Shabbat. Is it permissible to take the family out for a Shabbat afternoon walk? Yes; this adds to our enjoyment of and delight in Shabbat and may be done on Shabbat. Shabbat is for our enjoyment, that we may participate in the holiness and blessing of the day.
1. - Based on the L-rd visiting Avraham after his circumcision (B'resheet 18:1ff.) and our being told to "Walk in His ways" (D'varim 28:9).
Further Study: Psalm 92; Isaiah 58:13-14
Application: How could you make a little extra effort this week to honour, rather than slavishly obey, the holiness of Shabbat?
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
Comment - 08:58 21Feb16 Tom Hiney: I have no problem about going to church as a priority on the Sabbath. As regards keeping the day totally sacred Jesus's dictum about the Sabbath being made for man not man for the Sabbath is a perfect way of clarifying the situation. However the piece has alerted me to taking note of being aware of morally neutral decisions when choices are presented on the Sabath.
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