by Jonathan Sjordal
Part I: The Work
The fourth commandment is clear: we are to abstain from doing our labor on the seventh day of the week—the sabbath day. For those who wish to heed the words of our Father in heaven who gave us his Laws, the following discussion pertains to how to obey the seventh day sabbath command of our Creator, not how to replace or ignore it.
The sabbath day command is for the master as well as the servant. The master is commanded to cease from his labors, and not to compel his servants nor even his beasts to labor on the sabbath day. It is a day to devote to our Creator, the one day in seven that we give to our Father, as he commanded us.
Abstaining from work on the sabbath day can cause employment difficulties. You may lose your job, or not even get hired in the first place. But persistence will pay off, and in our modern society, you can find a way to make a living that allows you to not work on the seventh day. Yet this was not always so.
What about feeding the animals?
Most of the population of ancient Israel were farmers. They raised animals for meat and wool, for sacrifices, and also used animals to plow their fields. They had to feed and water the animals (which is real work!) on the sabbath day. Even the ultra-righteous-appearing Scribes & Pharisees were aware of this fact of life. When the ruler of the synagogue chastised Yahoshua (Hebrew name translated Jesus in English) for healing on the sabbath day, our Messiah put him in is proper place:
The Lord then answered him, and said, Thou hypocrite, doth not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering? Luke 13:15
Don’t fall into the ignorance of “city people” in thinking that the animals were all out in the fields grazing and finding their own water, so that there was no need to care for them on the sabbath day. That is true only for some animals, and not at all true in the winter. Animals must be fed, and cows and goats must be milked (twice daily), even on the sabbath day. And even those animals that are out in the far pastures grazing had a shepherd to protect them from the lions and bears. Did the shepherd simply take the day off on the sabbath day so that the lions and bears could dine in peace? As with the other elements of this issue, we must account for reality in order to make sense of the whole thing.
In our modern society, with most of us not having animals to care for, it is relatively easy to forget that there is some work that must be done on the sabbath day. We have become sheltered from reality in these days when we have so many specialized jobs. We might well live our whole lives without having a job that requires necessary work on the sabbath day.
What is the test for which work is necessary? The famous “ox in a ditch” passage sheds some light:
And Yahoshua answering spake unto the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath day? And they held their peace. And he took him, and healed him, and let him go; And answered them, saying, Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the sabbath day? Luke 14:3-5
Q: Why could the ox be pulled out of the pit (a HUGE amount of work) on the sabbath day?
A: Because it was necessary. It was something that could NOT be done yesterday or tomorrow (the ox might be dead by then).
The scribes and Pharisees were constantly trying to find ways to trip up Yahoshua, to trap him in his words, or accuse him of some unlawful action:
At that time Yahoshua went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day. But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests? Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless? But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple. But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day. Matthew 12:1-8
The Pharisees’ accusation of breaking the fourth commandment was a false accusation. The disciples were NOT breaking the Law (Hebrew: Torah) of the sabbath day by feeding themselves. They were not doing harvesting labor, nor causing someone else to do it on their behalf. The Pharisees had created their own law (the traditions of men that our Messiah so roundly condemned) that prohibited far more than the Torah did. Itappeared that the disciples were breaking the fourth commandment, but a closer look revealed that this was not so.
In a similar manner, our Messiah quoted two other examples from the Old Testament where it appeared that men of God had broken the sabbath day command. David appeared to have broken the law of the showbread that was to be before YHWH continually. Indeed, had David taken the showbread from before the altar, he would have transgressed the Torah. But the account in I Samuel 21 states that the bread had just been replaced that day (which was a sabbath day) by the fresh bread that replaced the old bread every sabbath day. So David’s action did not break the Torah of the showbread, for the new showbread had been placed before the altar that very day.
In the other example Yahoshua used, he reminded the Pharisees that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, which is to say that they do the temple work that was commanded of them. Again, though what the priests did was work, it was work that was commanded by YHWH himself, and therefore did not break the sabbath day commandment. Yahoshua continually reminded the Pharisees that he and his disciples kept the Torah, not the vain traditions of men.
Do you obey the fourth commandment? How do you feel about work on the sabbath day? You may surprise yourself. Take the sabbath day work test:
The command to cease from your labor on the sabbath day is not separated from the reality of the human condition. There are necessary functions that must be performed in order for people to live. As our Messiah said, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.” Disobeying the sabbath day command is sin. But it is also sin to make an idol out of the sabbath day, putting the sabbath day before all else, including helping people by doing necessary work.
What defines “necessary”? Is a waitress performing necessary work when she serves food to patrons on the sabbath day? What would happen if waitresses didn’t work and restaurants were to shut down on the sabbath day? Would anyone be hurt? Even if the restaurant is one’s only source of food (an unlikely proposition), fasting won’t hurt you, and might even give you incentive to use the preparation day (the day before the sabbath day) for its intended purpose.
Examples of Necessary Workers
- 911 operators
- Poison Control operators
- Military & Border Patrol agents
One measure of how necessary these functions are is to consider the behavior of devout sabbath day keepers. Such people would never shop, mow the lawn, go to the office to work, or even go out to eat on the sabbath day. But they would (and do!) depend upon and call upon the people who do these necessary functions when there is a need for them. How many Yes boxes did you check in the test above? How do you feel about your approval of other people working for you on the sabbath day?
We expect (and even demand!) that people who work in these professions to be on duty, even during the sabbath day. If we had a NEED for any of these people to help us on the sabbath day, would we not call upon them for help? Of course we would! If our house is on fire on the sabbath day, any of us would call the firefighters to help. We expect, and insist upon their help, because the fire can’t wait until tomorrow.
If you have a serious injury, you go to the Emergency Room at the hospital. You fully expect that there will be trained people there to help you. It would be folly to shut down the ER with a sign saying that injured people and mothers in labor should come back tomorrow for help. In some cases, waiting until tomorrow would mean greater injury or even death. And what about the gravely ill who are already lying in the hospital? Should the doctors and nurses self-righteously go home for the sabbath day, and not care for these people? As always, elitist thinking falls apart when confronted with reality.
While insisting that these functions be staffed on the sabbath day, do we then condemn the people who are there to help us by classifying their service to us as sabbath breaking? “My sincere thanks for coming to put out my house fire, you infidel!” In saying to these people that we insist that their kind of work be done on the sabbath day, but that they are wrong to do that work on the sabbath day, we demonstrate elitist behavior, and outright hypocrisy.
The Bible has a few things to say about hypocrites & hypocrisy: Job 8:13; 13:16; 15:34; 17:8; 20:5; 27:8; 34:30; 36:13; Psalms 35:16; Proverbs 11:9; Isaiah 9:17; 10:6; 32:6; 33:14; Matthew 6:2; 6:5; 6:16; 7:5; 15:7; 16:3; 22:18; 23:13; 23:14; 23:15; 23:23; 23:25; 23:27; 23:28; 23:29; 24:51; Mark 7:6; 12:15; Luke 6:42; 11:44; 12:1; 12:56; 13:15; I Timothy 4:2; James 3:17; I Peter 2:1
What kind of progress will we make witnessing to people and telling them about the blessing of the command from our Father in heaven to keep the fourth commandment if we are demonstrating this kind of hypocrisy?Our behavior nullifies our witness. If, however, we share the truth of the sabbath day command while recognizing the reality that necessary functions won’t wait and have to be done by someone, our witness is strengthened.
Does the need to perform necessary work on the sabbath day mean that we have license to ignore the seventh day sabbath and treat it like any other normal work day? Certainly not! We have the example of the priests in ancient Israel, who were not known as being disobedient to the sabbath day command. The priests worked hard, even on the sabbath day. They worked in 7 day shifts (courses), with 24 groups sharing the burden in rotation. In practice, this meant that each priest only had to work on the sabbath day twice a year, and on annual holy days (which were also sabbath days). This example, given by the Creator himself, demonstrates hownecessary sabbath day work can be done properly, within the bounds of the commandment.
Just as the priests rotated their sabbath day work, so it is right and proper for us to rotate the sabbath day labor among those who do it so that no one person has an undue share of the burden. The sabbath day should be, as much as possible, a day to cease from your labor. But the reality is that it is not always possible to avoid all labor. Minimizing the work by rotating the absolutely necessary work among many people is a realistic solution that remains within the spirit of obeying the fourth commandment.
A frequently heard argument regarding performing necessary work on the sabbath day goes like this:
“Sabbath keepers should simply choose not to work in any of those professions where
working on the sabbath would be necessary. Let unbelievers fill those functions.”
Because of the necessary nature of the work in such professions, the work involved is helping people in their time of need. As a sabbath keeper, do you really want to take the stand that the sabbath day command is absolution from helping people? Is that really the hill you want to die on? Such elitism demonstrates that commands of our Father are a burden, whereas we know that they are a blessing for our good. Worse yet, it demonstrates the hypocrisy of the one making such a claim. You would call a 911 operator on the sabbath day, but you would not carry your share of the burden by being a 911 operator on the sabbath day? The world that we are to carry a witness to will instantly see the duplicity, the arrogance, and the outright hypocrisy of such a stand.
We are told in Leviticus 19:18 that “…thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself…” Look at it from the other side for a moment: How would you like it if others exhibited elite behavior that demonstrated disdain for you, even as you were serving them in their time of need? Where is the love in using people, and looking down on them as “unbelievers”? It is these “unbelievers” who are doing all the serving, and you are the one being served. People are highly sensitive to arrogance and hypocrisy. Demonstrating these behaviors is the fastest way to turn people off and completely nullify your witness.
Historical note: The Maccabees took a hard line on their sabbath day observance. In 168 b.c., they were being besieged by Antiochus IV Epiphanes and his army. The Maccabees read the fourth commandment to say absolutely no work whatsoever, with no flexibility for necessary work—not even the work of defending their own lives from the enemy who was upon them. They refused to take up arms on the sabbath day, and as a result, over 1,000 men, women, and children were needlessly slaughtered.
The sabbath day is very important to our Creator. How we behave in the face of the fourth commandment demonstrates a great deal regarding our attitude toward our Father, and our willingness to obey him and acknowledge his authority. But obedience is not the antidote to reality. We can learn from the Maccabees. The fourth commandment is not a death pact. As with many things in life, it is not an either/or, all-or-nothing proposition. Our willingness to obey our Father’s commands can and should co-exist with a desire to help others, and a willingness to make that desire a reality by facing reality and doing our part. Achieving this balance is to keep—not to profane—the sabbath day.
Part II: The Money
As a sabbath day keeper, if your chosen profession involves necessary work and you work in rotation with others so that periodically you work on the sabbath day, what about the money you receive for working? Should you refuse to be paid for the work that you do on the sabbath day? Should you donate it to charity? What could you, should you, must you do with the money?
One possibility goes like this: “If you work on the sabbath day, you should give the money away. You’re not supposed to work on the sabbath day. After all, Jesus did not get paid to heal people on the sabbath day.”
There are not very many biblical examples on this particular subject. It appears that our Messiah indeed did not get paid to heal people on the sabbath day. But we do have a few examples from ancient Israel regarding those who worked on the sabbath day: Levitical priests, midwives, and the farmers.
When the inheritance land was being distributed among the tribe of Israel, the Levites were not given a portion of land for their inheritance. Instead, they were given the tithe of the increase from the other tribes. Their job was the work that they did in the service of the Temple and other priestly duties. Their compensation was a tenth (tithe) of the increase that was given by their brother tribes. It seems strange to our modern way of thinking, but the Levites were indeed paid for their work.
We know from the account in Exodus that the Israelites had midwives to assist women in giving birth. In Exodus 1 the midwives told Pharaoh that the Hebrew women were lively and delivered before the midwives could get there. But this was clearly a ruse to appease Pharaoh. If the midwives were indeed not needed, why would there have even been midwives? Midwives were indeed necessary to assist mother and baby to have a safe birth. Babies are born every day of the week. Over a long period of time, 1/7 of the babies are born on any given day of the week, including the sabbath day. Babies don’t wait. They come when they’re ready. We can safely conclude that the midwives in ancient Israel did about 1/7 of their work on the sabbath day. Such work was not an unexpected emergency, for they knew that babies were born on every day of the week. We have no record of their scheduling, but it would follow the pattern that YHWH set down for the priests if the midwives worked in rotation, so that someone was always on duty, but they took turns so that no one would have to work on the sabbath day all the time.
The other significant example of necessary work that was performed on the sabbath day in ancient Israel was the work done by farmers. In ancient Israel, this was just about everyone. Feeding and watering the livestock was not something you could do yesterday or tomorrow. And even the vegetable farmers raised livestock to plow their fields and carry the heavy burdens. Plowing the fields could wait until another day, but feeding and watering the stock was ongoing work—hard work!—that happened every day, including the sabbath day.
In considering the examples of the Levites, the midwives, and the farmers, we encompass nearly the whole nation of Israel. What did they do with the money that they earned for the work that they did on the sabbath day? That’s easy, right? “They didn’t get paid for working on the sabbath day.” Or did they…?
When you raise livestock, a good deal of the work concerns feeding and watering. When it is time to sell the stock, the money a farmer gets paid is compensation for the entire process of caring for that animal, from birth to sale. If the farmer were to distribute the proceeds over the life of the care, he could figure out just how much he was getting paid each day for his work. Did the farmer NOT get paid for the work of feeding and watering that he did on the sabbath day? Indeed, if this is so, did he also NOT get paid for the work of feeding and watering that he did on the third day of the week? The fifth day? The reality is, the farmer got paid for every day of work that he did, including the sabbath day. There is no place in the Bible that suggests that the farmer refused one-seventh of his compensation for raising animals because of the work of feeding and watering the animals on the seventh day. Did the entire nation of Israel sin in breaking the fourth commandment by performing such necessary work?
Did the midwives not get paid for their work? We know that they worked hard, just as the farmers did, and that their work likewise happened on any (and every) day of the week. If their rotation fell on a sabbath day, by what reasoning are they not worthy to be compensated for their work? The Bible is silent on what they did with their pay. There is no biblical evidence that the midwives had to or did refuse to be paid or that they divested themselves of any compensation they received on the sabbath day.
What about the Levites? Did they have to donate the tithes that they received for their work that they did on the sabbath day? Again, there is no record of such a donation or offering that they made for this reason. Where, in fact, do we get the notion that such a thing should be done?
The human conscience is a fascinating thing. When we think that we are doing something wrong, we have a deep need to fix the problem—to make amends and correct our wrong behavior. The alternative is guilt. Within the context of the discussion of what to do with compensation for work that is done on the sabbath day, we must examine whether guilt has a part to play.
If you think that you are doing wrong in working on the sabbath day, the natural impulse is to assuage your guilt by fixing the problem by giving away the money you earned in doing the work. After all, if you didn’t walk away with any money, then you clearly have no selfish motive for doing the work, and therefore cannot be blamed. This does, of course, prompt the question: “If you think that you are doing wrong, why are you stilldoing it?” After all, it is better to be innocent than to be repentant.
If the work you are performing on the sabbath day is necessary work, and you are doing it in rotation with others, with a proper attitude, are you doing anything wrong? Is there any need to salve your conscience by divesting yourself of any compensation that you received for doing it? Buried deep inside the reasoning that demands that we remain pure from the taint of money for necessary work done on the sabbath day is the notion that such work is wrong, and therefore is a problem that must be fixed. But where do we ever read about such a problem, or its solution? There is simply no record anywhere in the Bible of the necessity of refusing/donating your pay for necessary work done on the sabbath day.
If a person is engaged in necessary work, in rotation, etc. on the seventh day and wishes to donate his/her pay for the day, let it be with praise and glory to our Creator, with a glad heart. Let this also be true on the fourth day of the week, or the sixth as well, for he blesses us every day. But beware the trap that says that only the sabbath day earnings must be donated—for conscience sake. This is guilt-based reasoning that has no biblical backing whatsoever. In fact, the biblical record says something quite the contrary. Our goal should be to do that which is right, not to guiltily do that which is wrong and then try to fix it: “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” (James 4:17)
The fourth commandment is truly a blessing. We are instructed by our Creator to put aside the seventh day of the week to cease from our labor and keep a day holy unto him. It is a day of spiritual and physical renewal. It is a way of overtly honoring our God by giving up our own pursuits and seeking his instead. But in honoring our God on the day that he instructed, we must not lose ourselves in theoretical thinking. We live in the real world, with real people who need real help—even on the sabbath day. When done in rotation with others, with the proper attitude, necessary work does not profane the sabbath day, nor should it be a cause of guilt. We honor our Father best when we obey him and help those who are in need.
Charlottesville, VA 2006