Don’t Do That! It’s Sabbath!
by Thandazani Mhlanga | 6 September 2022 |
In 1920 the 18th amendment of the United States Constitution banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. What President Hoover would later label “a noble experiment” also demonstrated the old saying that necessity is the mother of invention.
The ingenuity of winemakers in California is a case in point. Since the manufacture, sale, and transportation of wine was illegal, they pivoted to the manufacture, sale, and transportation of grape bricks—dried grapes compressed into a cube that could be rehydrated.
One company’s bricks were said to come with this witty warning:
After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days because then it would turn into wine.
Such clever ways to work around prohibition might explain why that period saw “more than double wine consumption in the U.S. from 70 million gallons per year in 1917 to 150 million gallons by 1925.”
This creative interpretation is a good example of the difficulty in understanding the essence of a given law. A legal framework that results in sneaky workarounds places the interpreter’s understanding outside of the lawgiver’s intent.
One religious law that has a long history of varying interpretations and creative workarounds is the Sabbath. Consider the reiteration of the Sabbath law as found in Isaiah 58:13ff:
If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, The holy day of the Lord honourable, And shall honour Him, not doing your own ways, Nor finding your own pleasure, Nor speaking your own words, Then you shall delight yourself in the Lord… The mouth of the LORD has spoken (NKJV).
This legal prohibition seems vague. For what, exactly, counts as “pleasure”? Should I be on constant guard against anything that threatens to bring satisfaction and joy on the Sabbath? What does it mean to “speak my own words?” And what exactly qualifies as prohibited work on the Sabbath?
This broad lack of specificity was and continues to be fertile ground for the growth of an array of legal interpretations and workarounds. I want to explore a few of these, and highlight how they have shaped significant modern Seventh-day Adventist traditions.
The Jewish community to whom the Dead Sea Scrolls belonged had an interesting take on what “speaking your own words” on the Sabbath meant. The following statement is from one of the scrolls in their library that’s known as the Damascus Document.
On the Sabbath, let no man speak a vile and empty word: he shall not demand any payment from his fellow; he shall not enter into a dispute concerning money or profit; he shall not speak about matters relating to work and labour that need to be done on the following morning (CD 10:17-19).
The Dead Sea community understood “speaking your own words” not merely as discouraging frivolous talk, but as a prohibition of business-related conversations on Sabbath. Engaging in financial dealing and collecting outstanding debts on that day was unacceptable.
Unsurprisingly, other interpreters had a different take. The Mishnah suggests that one could participate in business-related conversations as long as the choice of words was deliberately vague (Shabbat 23:1). To do any business on the Sabbath, one had to be skilled in circumlocution. Various sects within Judaism adopted different positions, each using their subjective values as an interpretive lens.
Mainstream Seventh-day Adventists would probably agree with the values of the Dead Sea community—that one ought to avoid business negotiations on Sabbath. But other definitions of this passage can prove problematic.
I have known of congregations where beginning a sermon with a bit of humor might be sufficient cause to call an emergency board meeting to discuss the pastor’s competence. The anti-humor stance is reflected in the NIV’s interpretation of Isaiah 58:13, which renders it “speaking idle words”—suggesting that every word spoken on the Sabbath must have a spiritual purpose and meaning.
Preparing food on the Sabbath was also considered “doing your own pleasure,” and some groups prohibited it.
The Dead Sea community made an exception for food that was in danger of decaying in the field. If a piece of fruit falls to the ground and, upon inspection, looks like it is beginning to decay, picking and eating that fruit on the Sabbath is legally acceptable. If the fruit doesn’t display any signs of rot, picking it up and eating it would be gathering it and, thus, unacceptable.
The Falashas (Ethiopic Jews whose traditions predate the Talmudic traditions) believed that all food was to be prepared on Friday, without exception. Josephus says that the Essenes prohibited cooking and baking on the Sabbath only because one would have to ignite a fire (Wars II 8:9). The Pharisees, the movers and shakers in the Jerusalem group, banned all activities and forms of food preparation on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-24).
Modern-day Adventists are, for the most part, not completely legalistic in this matter. While I have known some potluck dinners where servers can’t prepare anything that requires the use of a stove—or even a plug-in slow cooker—most congregations in North America don’t make this an issue. I suspect attitudes would differ in various parts of the world.
Like the followers of Shammai and the Dead Sea group, some Jewish sects prohibited sending non-Jews and new converts to complete one’s work on a Sabbath. The Hillelites (followers of Jewish scholar Hillel the Elder) allowed it only if the non-Jewish individual was asked or directed to perform the task before the Sabbath began (see Mishnah Shabbat 1:7-9).
In fact, this last may have a great deal to do with the reasoning behind Isaiah 58. In an article in Adventist Today Olive Hemmings points out that “doing as you please” is defined in verse 3: “Yet on the day of your fasting [which Isaiah identifies as the Sabbath in verse 13] you do as you please and exploit all your workers.” If so, then the real reason behind the warning about doing “your own pleasure” wasn’t recreation or enjoyment, as we might define “pleasure” today, but injustice toward those who had been asked to work on Sabbath to enrich the pious Jewish businessman who was at home keeping the Sabbath with his family.
It appears that the Jewish mainstream in Jerusalem viewed saving human life on Sabbath as unacceptable work (see Luke 13:14-15; 14:5), while rescuing the life of animals was legally permissible. On the other hand, the Dead Sea group prohibited the carrying of infants on the Sabbath, but saving the life of a human adult was acceptable (Damascus 11:11,16).
Modern-day Adventism has settled for a syncretistic approach. There are acceptable types of work, such as that of doctors and nurses. But the permissibility of some work isn’t as clear. Is the work of, say, physiotherapists and pharmacists different from that of doctors and nurses? How about emergency workers such as policemen? What about those who cook in a hospital, where people need to be fed on Sabbath, or those who do the necessary work of cleaning and disinfecting floors and bathrooms?
Spending the Sabbath with Gentiles
The Dead Sea group considered spending the Sabbath with non-Jews as a religious infraction. Similarly, Scripture and Pharisaic traditions show that the Jerusalem sect thought of non-Jews as ritually unclean, and a true believer could not spend the Sabbath with the unclean.
Modern-day Adventists appear to have fallen in line with this way of thinking. Mainstream Seventh-day Adventism doesn’t encourage spending the Sabbath with non-Sabbath keepers. Spending the entire Sabbath within the confines of the church, fellowshipping only with other Seventh-day Adventists, is still common in many churches. Among us, the only permissible interaction with the “unchurched” is if we are proselytizing them.
There truly is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). As you can see, Adventism, as we know it today, has infused several Sabbath-keeping traditions into its identity. These several traditions are not all bad, but they are also not all good.
They are especially harmful when they twist the lawgiver’s intent. Jesus hinted at his intent when he said, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27 NLT).”
Could it be that the Sabbath law’s vagueness is part of the Divine intent, since what is experienced as Sabbath rest is very much a subjective response? The Hebrew reading of Isaiah 58:13 implies a negotiation within a relationship and not an authoritative prohibition.
Could it be that the Sabbath was never designed to be rigid and ritualistic, but it has become so by human design? Legal codes do not only function as social contracts; they must mirror the lawgiver’s intent.
Failure to connect with the foundational ideas behind the 1920 “noble experiment” guaranteed its failure, as demonstrated by the infamous wine bricks.
How are we doing in that regard with understanding the basis of Sabbath observance?
Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, speaker, and author who is currently studying ancient Near Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto. Pastor Thandazani and his wife, Matilda, have three girls who are the joy of their lives. His website is themscproject.com.