I have a friend who is a rabbi in the Houston area. When I used to attend his Friday evening worship services, I would often hear the upbeat musical chorus, “Shabbat Shalom!” It was a reminder that the practice of sabbath was meant to usher in a time of holistic, peace-filled, joyful rejuvenation. Sabbath, of course, originates from the biblical creation narrative, where God rested on the seventh day after six days of creation (Genesis 2:2-3). It was later codified in Exodus 20:8-11, calling for a day of rest in honor of God's creative and re-creative activities. The sabbath is therefore a divine ordinance, emblematic of our relationship with the Creator.
One of the ancient Jewish documents known as The Jerusalem Talmud extends this narrative, painting the sabbath as a precious gift from God. It states, “God said to Moses, ‘I have a good gift in my treasure house called the Sabbath and I want to give it to Israel’” (Tractate Brachot 6:1).
From the beginning, sabbath observance has been imbued with a deep sense of holy celebration. More than mere cessation from work, the Sabbath is a day of communal worship, study, reflection, and joy! It is a pause from the preoccupations of daily living, a respite for the soul to reconnect with the Divine, and an affirmation of freedom — despite circumstance — reminiscent of the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian enslavement.
In the New Testament, Jesus, a Jewish rabbi himself, upheld the sabbath commandment by emphasizing its life-giving properties. Through healing the sick (Mark 3:1-6) and pronouncing that his followers were allowed to pick grain on the sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8), Jesus reminded his observers that the purpose of the sabbath is to do good, to heal, and to nourish life. It is for the benefit and not the burden of humanity. Jesus’ interpretation focused less on prohibitive regulations and underscored compassionate action as key to sabbath observance.
Sabbath observance, through this lens, becomes an act of love and liberation. It calls us to put aside our ceaseless striving, to remember our inherent belovedness is not determined by our productivity, and to cherish the goodness of God’s creation. In Jewish wisdom and the teachings of Jesus, we see the sabbath not as an obligation, but as a gracious invitation to rest, celebrate, do good, and contemplate God’s divine presence among us.
The space of history we are now living in is marked by restlessness and constant distractions. The ancient tradition of sabbath rest holds profound potential for reorienting our world. It invites us to break from the tyranny of busyness, to pay attention to our souls, and to cultivate a deeper connection with the Divine and with others. Sabbath rest, as taught by the biblical texts and ancient Jewish literature, can become a spiritual sanctuary constructed to bring expansiveness into our time, to offer spiritual respite, to be a beacon of peace, and to remind us of our shared humanity in the presence of a loving God.
Rev. Kimberly C. Orr serves as the Publisher of The Upper Room.
This reflection appeared in the June issue of The Upper Room Journal, a monthly newsletter to support you in creating daily life with God. Subscribe here.
Photograph by Jornada Produtora / Unsplash
Sabbath can be a reminder of our shared humanity and our connection to the Divine. How does sabbath challenge you to foster a deeper sense of interconnectedness with others and with the world?
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