The Negative Commandments
Sabbath Day taboos were a frequent point of conflict between Yeshua and the Jewish religious leaders of the first century. The Sadducees and Pharisees placed severe restrictions on what a person could and couldn’t do on the weekly Sabbath, what he could carry, how far he could walk, etc. Yeshua, on the other hand, said that these rules were themselves a violation of the Sabbath because of the heavy burden they placed on people.
The Judeo-Christian world has fragmented since then into a thousand different interpretations of the Sabbath, how to keep it, and whether we ought to keep it at all. One person will refuse to work at his job, but he will pay someone else to work at theirs. One person goes to church, while another won’t leave his house. One person won’t push a button or turn on a light, while another person says the Sabbath is obsolete and we should treat all days exactly alike.
The Jewish rabbis have continued to add volumes of restrictions to Sabbath, so many in fact, that they long ago had to organize them into thirty-nine types which can be grouped under six general headings: field work, making cloth curtains, making leather curtains, making the beams of the Tabernacle, assembling and disassembling the Tabernacle, and inaugurating the Tabernacle.
Why do curtains get two headings? And how does carrying a bed roll or long distance walking fit into this scheme?
Despite initial appearances, those six categories do make a sort of sense when you examine the reasoning behind them, but in my opinion, they have over-thought the issue into absurdity. If you ever find yourself seriously wondering whether pushing a wheelchair through a patch of dirt might be a violation of the Sabbath because the resulting ruts look suspiciously like furrows plowed in a field…then I think you have missed the point of the Sabbath.
I don’t believe that God has canceled the Sabbath that he instituted in the very first week of Creation, but I also believe that it shouldn’t be so complicated to keep that a person can spend months or years mastering the details. God gave us a day off from our concerns, not a day of agonizing over the minutia of daily life.
Unfortunately, since there is widespread disagreement over what is and is not acceptable on the Sabbath, we still have to talk about it. Most importantly, we must continually return to the Scriptures, God’s instruction manual for life, to remind ourselves what God actually said.
In preparing for this series, I compiled a list of Sabbath-related scriptures, which you can view here: Bible Passages about the Weekly Sabbath. I encourage you to read and study them yourself, and if you find that I am missing anything, please let me know in the comments on that blog post.
Rather than dividing up the negative commandments of Sabbath into thirty-nine categories or even six, I think they can be reduced to seven simple restrictions and summarized in two statements. I am confident that every capable adult can understand these rules and interpret them for their own lives and circumstances.
Let’s take the seven restrictions first.
The Sabbath’s Seven Restrictions
1. Do not gather manna
…Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none….The LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day. Exodus 16:1-30
When God gave the Hebrews manna in the Wilderness, he instructed them to gather it for six days only, gathering twice as much on the sixth day, and none at all on the seventh. If anyone gathered extra on the other days, it rotted before morning, but the extra manna gathered on the sixth day would remain fresh and edible through the seventh. No manna fell at all on the seventh day, so anyone who disobeyed and went out to gather manna on the Sabbath came back empty-handed. Anyone who didn’t gather extra on the sixth day because they expected it to rot before morning as on other days would go hungry on the seventh.
The manna stopped when Israel entered the Promised Land, so this command no longer applies to us directly, but God was teaching eternal principles to them that we can still learn from in any age. The main principle is this: Obey God even when it doesn’t make sense. God does not make arbitrary rules. Every single statute and precept was given for our benefit. Trust him.
We might think that we will lose economic advantage if we close our shops and offices on the Sabbath, but it’s a lie. God provides for His faithful and rewards their obedience. Those rewards might not be in the form or in the time that we would prefer, but if we trust His judgment, they will always be in the form and time that is best suited to our needs.
2. Let no one go out of his place
See! The LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day. Exodus 16:29
Although this command is actually part of the instructions for not gathering manna on the seventh day, I include it as a separate restriction because it is often understood as a general command not to travel more than a certain distance from one’s home. Through some convoluted eisegesis, the rabbis variously set this distance at 2000 cubits, 4000 cubits, or 8000 cubits (.5 to 1.5 miles), depending on the rabbi, the century in which the rabbi lived, and the circumstances of the person in question. A person who lived in a city might be allowed to travel a little further than someone who lived in a small village, and even further if his destination was in the countryside on the opposite side of the city.
However, the command was given within the context of gathering manna, and I don’t believe it was intended to apply to all travel, let alone to set a specific distance that one may “go out of his place”, when it plainly says that each person is not to leave his own place, not the collective “place” of the whole wilderness camp.
The Hebrews didn’t have to walk very far, let alone 2000 cubits, to gather a few liters of manna. It fell on the ground everywhere. They only had to step outside their sukkot (tents) and collect it from the ground right at their feet. If the intended meaning was “Don’t go outside to collect manna”–and it seems quite clear that it was–then it must mean not to step foot outside at all.
But it doesn’t mean that either, at least not in a general sense. “Remain each of you in his place” was given in the context of gathering the manna which stopped falling more than three thousand years ago. It wasn’t a command not to leave one’s sukkah (tent) for any reason at all, but not to go out to collect manna.
The command is about going out to find sustenance, not about going outside your house. In other words, don’t harvest, don’t collect rent, don’t accept payments, but by all means, go out to visit with your neighbor. Gather for worship. In fact, we are commanded to gather for worship on the Sabbath (Leviticus 23:3), which cannot be done without leaving our homes.
On the other hand, I’m also not saying that one should plan a journey on the Sabbath…but more on that later.
3. Do not work during plowing or harvest time
Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest. Exodus 34:21
Whether Old Testament or New, prophets or epistles, all of Scripture was written in the context of agrarian cultures. From behind our computer screens and air conditioned houses, it is easy to forget that, until the 20th century, almost everyone in the world worked in only four industries–farming, herding, fishing, and war–frequently in two or more of them at the same time. There were many other industries, of course, but those who made their living through masonry, carpentry, shipping, etc. were relatively few, and nobody at all worked in electronics.
In ancient Israel, everything revolved around the agricultural cycle. The Biblical feast days, invasions, migrations, trade routes…nearly anything you could think of was profoundly affected by plowing, planting, and harvesting. “In plowing time and in harvest” is a statement very similar to “the alpha and the omega”. It refers to the beginning and the end and everything in between.
So when the Torah says, “In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest,” it means that, no matter what you are doing, whether you work directly in agriculture or not, no matter what season of the year it is, you will rest on the seventh day of the week and refrain from your normal work. Every kind of work that a person might do to feed, clothe, and house himself, must cease on the Sabbath.
4. Do not do physical or menial labor
Six days you shall work (abad), but on the seventh day you shall rest…. Exodus 34:21
Six days you shall labor (abad) and do all your work… Deuteronomy 5:13
See also: Matthew 24:20, Luke 13:16, Luke 23:54-56.
There are two Hebrew words commonly translated as work or labor in the Torah: abad and melakah. Abad refers to the kind of work which is frequently done by servants and hired laborers.
Obvious examples include harvesting, landscaping, plumbing, manufacturing, and house cleaning. Any task that you might hire someone else to do for you because it is demanding, dirty, unpleasant, etc., could be called “abad“, and we are not to do those things on the Sabbath.
Less obvious examples include arduous travel and bearing emotional and spiritual burdens or placing them on others. This is why Yeshua told the residents of Jerusalem to pray that they wouldn’t have to flee the city on the Sabbath (Matthew 24:20). A strict adherence to the command would require that they leave behind all of their possessions and not move harder and faster than they absolutely must to preserve their lives.
It is also why Yeshua frequently healed and delivered the oppressed on the Sabbath. If God does not want us to burden ourselves on this day, how much more must He approve of releasing others from their burdens, especially when it costs us nothing but a blessing or a prayer?
5. Do not transact business or engage in your occupation
Six days you shall labor, and do all your work (melakah), but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work (melakah), you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. Exodus 20:9-10
See also: Exodus 31:14-15, Exodus 35:2, Leviticus 23:3, Deuteronomy 5:13-15, Nehemiah 10:31, Nehemiah 13:15-22, Isaiah 58:13-14, Matthew 28:1, Mark 15:42-47, Mark 16:1.
The second Hebrew word that is commonly translated as work in the Torah is melakah, and it refers to commercial activity or a person’s occupation. Melakah is anything that a person might do to earn a living or to obtain greater wealth, and isn’t restricted to only laborious work.
The most obvious characteristic that distinguishes business from other activities is the element of trade. If the activity involves trading goods or services, including all of those tasks which are necessary to prepare and support the trade, such as accounting, marketing, and public relations, then it is forbidden on the Sabbath.
Not only are we not to engage in business ourselves, but–according to Nehemiah–we are not to patronize those who do. See Nehemiah 10:31,13:15-22.
6. Do not prepare for business
Six days work (melakah) shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day. Exodus 35:2-3
See also: Numbers 15:30-36, Isaiah 58:13-14.
The command not to kindle a fire on the Sabbath is usually understood to mean “don’t light a fire on the Sabbath”, and–depending on who you ask–might be applied to lighting candles, starting a car, or starting a gas stove.
I have titled this section “Do not prepare for business” instead of “Do not kindle a fire” because, as I examined all of the Sabbath-related Bible passages, I became convinced that the command was not about kindling any and all fires, but kindling fires in a specific context.
Moses didn’t arbitrarily tag an unrelated specific instruction (verse 3) on to the end of a general command (verse 2), but rather as a directly-related clarification. Let me rephrase the passage to better illustrate what I mean.
You have six days in the week to engage in your chosen occupation, but the seventh day is reserved as a solemn rest, set apart for God’s purposes alone. Whoever does business on the seventh day shall be put to death. Do not use the Sabbath to prepare for resuming your occupation after the sun sets, not even so much as kindling a fire.
Or to put it more succinctly…
Conduct business on six days of the week, but don’t even think about it on the seventh day. Don’t even think about thinking about it.
In the ancient world, almost every occupation required the kindling of fires for one reason or another. A smith must have a fire, of course, but farmers, carpenters, fishermen, and scribes also use fire in their businesses.
The intent of the command in Exodus 35:3 is to keep our minds on the Sabbath so long as the Sabbath lasts. We are not to use that time for planning and preparing to “hit the ground running” as soon as the sun sets. Although the Sabbath was created for man’s benefit, the entire day belongs to God.
It doesn’t seem like work to turn the home office computer on and write out a to-do list for after sunset, but to do so on the Sabbath is to rob God of time that He has set apart for our restoration. Resting from all our mundane cares on the Sabbath pleases God. It makes Him happy. To use his day to get a jump start on the worries of the rest of the week is to rob Him of that pleasure.
If the house is cold, I think it’s okay to light a fire in the fire place or to heat up some hot cocoa on the stove, but let the work week take care of itself. Don’t watch for the sunset, anxious to review that presentation, to fill that order, or to do whatever else it is that you do for a living.
Relax and enjoy the day off. Rest while you can. You know that you don’t get enough during the week.
7. Do not allow your family, servants, hirelings, guests, or animals to work
Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. Deuteronomy 5:13-15
See also: Exodus 31:14, Nehemiah 10:31, Nehemiah 13:15-22, Luke 13:15, Colossians 2:16-19
God rewards obedience. His rewards aren’t always monetary or even tangible, but they are real all the same. Keeping the Sabbath is no different from other commandments. If we keep it, we will be rewarded. The Sabbath is a blessing.
“Love your neighbor as yourself” is also a commandment, and it is superior to all commandments that you might keep in order to gain rewards for yourself. In fact, it is such an important commandment, that Yeshua ranked it as the second most important of all, right after the command to hear, obey, and love God.
It is more important to love your neighbor than to keep the Sabbath.
I will go even further and say that, if you don’t love your neighbor then you cannot keep the Sabbath, because Sabbath-keeping requires you to give your family, your employees, and even your animals the day off too. If you don’t do that, you might as well just go back to the office yourself.
We are commanded to see that those under our authority keep the Sabbath.
But don’t be too zealous about it. Don’t put unnecessary burdens on people through extra-biblical regulations that might cause more stress and turn the day into yet another onerous chore. Be understanding and consider that other people won’t always agree with your interpretation and application of God’s instructions. Sometimes they’re right.
In modern America, we don’t own slaves, and we can’t order our employees to follow God’s instructions on their own time, but we can make sure that we aren’t living or doing business in such a way that we require–or even encourage–others to break the Sabbath. We can close our offices. We can ask landscapers, housekeeping, and others to schedule their visits on other days. We can eat at home instead of going to a restaurant. There are a thousand little ways we can change our lifestyles to help others keep the Sabbath.
Even if the people who labor on our behalf don’t want to keep the Sabbath and will bus someone else’s table if we don’t go to their restaurant, at least we will know that we didn’t contribute to their actions. We didn’t encourage, bribe, or extort them into working on the one day that God set apart just for their benefit.
However, this restriction introduces some interesting conflicts that might require us to do some work on the Sabbath that we wouldn’t otherwise.
If you have animals that require food, water, or shelter, then take care of them even on the Sabbath. If you don’t, you will be placing a burden on them that they wouldn’t have on another day, turning their rest into labor.
Do you have guests in your home on the Sabbath? Don’t make them uncomfortable by refusing to serve them and making them fend for themselves in your kitchen and bathroom, especially if they are unaccustomed to keeping the Sabbath in their own home. It doesn’t take much work to change sheets, fetch towels, make tea, and so on. Don’t expect them to know or understand or even accept your traditions. Just be a good host. Love your visitors and be grateful that they have chosen to visit you. They have given you an opportunity to perform a good deed by unburdening them on the Sabbath, so take advantage of it.
Two Summaries of the Seven Restrictions
Keeping the Sabbath shouldn’t be complicated
Don’t labor. Don’t do business. Don’t make other people work. Don’t put burdens on others.
The seven restrictions I discussed above are pretty straightforward, but let me simplify them even more with two summarizing statements.
Statement One: Do not provide or arrange for the future or ongoing physical needs of yourself or others.
Whether it’s gathering manna or trading stocks on Wall Street, the Sabbath is not for providing for the mundane needs of tomorrow. The seventh day is about spiritual needs. Remove the burdens of care and labor for just this one day and focus on rest, restoration, and being in unity with your community and especially with your Creator.
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Matthew 6:25
And that goes doubly for the Sabbath.
Statement Two: Do not place burdens on yourself or others.
Labor takes more forms than just working with your hands. There are burdens of the mind and spirit that weigh more heavily than any bag of cement mix.
Do that which brings you joy. Don’t do that which causes you distress.
Maybe working in the vegetable garden isn’t appropriate on the Sabbath, but if getting your hands a little dirty brings you peace and facilitates fellowship with Yahweh, then plant some flowers during the week that you can care for on the Sabbath. I wouldn’t turn over a new bed, but a little pruning and weeding doesn’t seem to me like much of a burden, and unless you’re a florist or horticulturist, it’s hard to call that doing business.
Remember that no one bears the same burden in the same way. What seems easy to you might be crushing to someone else. Be sensitive of the needs of others. Don’t put them in a position to have to work at their occupation on the Sabbath, but also be careful of putting them under burdens which are less physically tangible. Be kind and considerate. Be cautious with your words and sparing with discipline, scolding, and condemnation.
The seventh day Sabbath is a sign by which God’s people are to remember that they are his (Exodus 31:13), and the Sabbath is characterized, more than anything else, by the loosening of burdens and cares.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30
What sort of god gives his people a yoke of slavery and impossible rules as a special sign of their relationship to him? Not mine.
On the contrary, the Sabbath is a blessing and a sign that our God truly loves us and His Law is a profound and thorough expression of that.