Indeed, it is one thing to conclude that Yahweh established the seventh day of the week as a Sabbath. Still, it is quite another to know what keeping the Sabbath actually entails.
Work Not to be Done
According to the instructions from Scriptures, there are several things that one must not do on the Sabbath Day (whether the weekly Sabbath or a High Sabbath).
Primary to the instructions regarding the Sabbath Day is that you are not to do “מלאכת (malakath; work, employment),” or “מעשה (maseh; activity, product creation),” or any “עבד (abad; servile labor).” (Exod. 20:8-11, 23:12; Deut. 5:12-15)
Per the basic principles derived from Exodus and Deuteronomy, the following restrictions apply:
• You shall not sell any merchandise or any food on the Sabbath Day. (Neh. 10:31, 13:15)
• Conversely, as Amos informs us, you shall neither buy food nor hire labor on the Sabbath Day. (Amos 8:4–7)
• Isaiah adds that on the Sabbaths you are not “to do your חפץ (khephets; business pleasure)” and you shall refrain “from doing your own דרך (derek; business ways), from finding your own חפץ (khephets; business pleasure), and speaking your own דבר (debar; innermost thoughts).” (Isa. 58:13-14)
The word דרך (derek; business ways) carries the idea of a merchant traveling up and down the road to sell his products and wares. In context, חפץ (khephets; business pleasure), as used above, is a reference to the desires of one’s own business concerns, both the planning out and acting out of gaining wealth or some other personal gain.
For instance, it is the pleasure that one gets from seeking precious and valuable things. Since one can also receive pleasures from seeking Yahweh, it is clear that Isaiah is speaking of the pleasure obtained by men and women who are seeking after those things they consider valuable that are not related to Yahweh or Yahweh’s work.
The Greek Septuagint (LXX) translates the Hebrew phrase, “keeping away from doing your khephets (business pleasure), from finding your own khephets,” to simply read, “you shall not lift up your foot TO WORK.” (LXX Isa. 58:13-14) The Moffatt translation renders the Hebrew word in this passage to mean doing “business.”
As such, the khephets (business pleasure) herein spoken of deals with the desires of men with the business of getting precious things, like valuables and material things, wealth, and power. It is connected with human work.
It is the pleasures of the business of making money and obtaining valuable things. Those who seek gold, or silver, or the recognition of men who seek their own khephets (business pleasure), while those seeking truth and the recognition of Yahweh seek after Yahweh’s pleasure.
The Sabbath is also guided by the harvesting principle. That is, you shall not plant, tend to, or harvest crops on a Sabbath Day, as you would not do in a Sabbath year. (Lev. 25:1-7)
Therefore, the gathering of עצים (atsim; trees, logs) on the Sabbath Day, whether by cutting trees down or picking up logs from the field, is forbidden. (Num. 15:32-36) The gathering of logs falls under the same restriction as to the harvesting or gathering of food.
This principle is demonstrated when Yahweh allowed for the “gathering” of quail and manna during the six working days of the week but prohibited it on the Sabbath Day. (Exod. 16:1-30)
In the same way, the doing of one’s own pleasure (e.g., doing our own business, for one can have pleasure in doing Yahweh’s work), and speaking of our own business, is forbidden. (Isa. 58:13-14)
The picking up of firewood or food out of the field on the Sabbath Day to tend to an immediate need, i.e., a meal at hand, but not for storage or to sell, is, however, permissible. (Exod. 23:10-11; Lev. 25:12)
Sexual intercourse is also our own business and personal life. It is also considered an act of uncleanliness, which is to be set aside on the Sabbaths.
It is often misconstrued that the prohibition against work, labor, and activity on the Sabbath Day is all-inclusive.
This “all-inclusive” principle has been carried to such extremes that many Jews would not even light a fire to warm themselves in the cold of winter or to cook a hot meal on the Sabbath.
Some Jewish factions would not even eat or relieve themselves on the Sabbath Day.
A few stayed in the position that they found themselves in when the Sabbath Day arrived, remaining almost motionless until the end of the Sabbath.
For a time, some of the Jews even allowed themselves to be slaughtered by their enemies because they refused to defend themselves on the Sabbath Day. (1 Macc. 2:31-41)
As an example of excess prohibitions applied to the Sabbath among present Orthodox Jews, we present the linked article titled “39 Categories of Sabbath Work Prohibited By Law.”
In reality, the Scriptures do not teach these excesses. These extremes have arisen only because those carrying out such practices are confused and have a total misunderstanding of what keeping a Sabbath actually means.
Cease From What Work?
We begin to sort out the issues as to what is allowed and what is not allowed on the Sabbaths when we examine the proper division of different types of work.
As previously mentioned, primary to the instructions for the Sabbath Day is the command that you are not to do “YOUR מלאכת (malakath; work, employment)” nor any “עבד (abad; servile labor),” (Exod. 20:8-11; Deut. 5:12-15) nor do “YOUR מעשה (maseh; activity, product creation).” (Exod. 23:12)
We are to avoid “YOUR חפץ (khephets; business pleasure)” and keep away from doing “YOUR own דרך (derek; business ways), from finding YOUR own חפץ (khephets; business pleasure),” and from speaking “YOUR own דבר (debar; innermost thoughts).” (Isa. 58:13-14)
“Your work” concerns your own personal business. It is work and conversation accomplished for your own personal gain, pleasure, and efforts at earning a livelihood. It is not related to Yahweh’s innermost thoughts, business, work, activity, or labor.
The important distinction made is that to Sabbath (cease) does not mean that all activity ceases, only our own personal business, thoughts, work, labor, and activity. William Smith writes:
A great snare, too, has always been hidden in the word work, as if the commandment forbade occupation and imposed idleness. The terms in the commandment show plainly enough the sort of work which is contemplated—servile work and business . . . A consideration of the spirit of the law and of Christ’s comments on it will show that it is work for worldly gain that was to be suspended; and hence the restrictive clause is prefaced with the positive command, ‘Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work’; for so only could the sabbatic rest be fairly earned. (DB p. 575)
At the same time, on the Sabbath Day, you shall accomplish Yahweh’s work, activity, and labor. Let us demonstrate.
In the passage from Genesis 2:1-3, there is a clear division of work. Six days eloahim did the work of creation. By the end of the sixth day, the work of creation was finished.
On the seventh day, eloahim set about performing another task; i.e., namely the priestly function of BLESSING the seventh day and making it קדש (qadesh; SACRED, consecrated).
For these reasons, eloahim had Sabbathed (ceased) from his work of creating. The fact that the seventh day is blessed and qadesh (consecrated), i.e., set aside for sacred purposes, means that by definition, religious activity is required on that day.
The work one ceases from doing on the Sabbath Day is understood by context. In Scriptures, the Sabbath is defined as ceasing from “your work,” i.e., “man’s own personal work,” in order to turn one’s attention toward the work of Yahweh.
For that reason, the Sabbath Day has been separated and made sacred. Therefore, we are to do Yahweh’s work, not our own personal work or pleasure.
What then of the statements that when Yahweh “Sabbath (ceased)” on the seventh day he “rested” and was “refreshed”? (Exod. 20:11, 31:17) These statements do not mean that Yahweh did not accomplish some form of work or activity on the Sabbath Day.
It can be compared to a man leaving his job to go on a vacation. He may well have ceased from doing his regular work, but while on vacation, he is busied with driving, sightseeing, visiting, studying, reading a good book, and other such pleasures.
At the end of his vacation, he is rested and refreshed and ready to return to his regular work of earning his living. At the same time, he may well be tired from his vacation activities.
Succinctly, it is not the exertion of energy and one’s self that breaks the Sabbath Day. It is the exertion of one’s self in works and discussions not related to Yahweh’s works that break the Sabbath.
Our study continues with Keeping the Sabbath – Pt 2. In this installment, we address the issue of the necessary work to be done on the Sabbath Day.