Jul 23rd: Remember the Sabbath Day, with Rabbi Johanna M. Hershenson.
A Part of the Series:
Remember the Sabbath Day with Rabbi Johanna M. Hershenson. Series: One Thing A Spacious Christianity, First Presbyterian Church of Bend, Oregon. Scripture: Exodus 20:8-11.
This week, Rabbi Johanna Hershenson from Temple Beth Tikvah synagogue joins us to discuss what is the meaning of Sabbath rest? and, how has this concept has evolved over time to adapt to modern life and technology?
It is just such a pleasure to be here and a privilege. I’m grateful pastor koskie invited me to come and guest preach this morning. My name is Rabbi Johanna Hirsch Shinsen and I serve Temple Beth Tikvah synagogue here in Bend. And in fact we inhabit a downstairs room at First Presbyterian Church. Today we’ll be exploring some scripture from the Hebrew Bible. Exodus chapter 20, verses eight through 11. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor and do all the work, but the seventh day is a sabbath unto the Lord thy God in it, Thou shalt not do any manner of work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy man servant, nor thy maid servant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates. In six days, the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them. And then God rested on the seventh day. Wherefore the Lord bless this the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.
Well, the first thing I like to say when I teach about Jewish sacred literature, and particularly the Sabbath, it’s to begin with a simple question right begin at the beginning. So here we go. Where is it in the Torah, in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, that we discovered the rules around observing the Sabbath? In fact, it’s a trick question, a trick question. Indeed. The Sabbath is mentioned in each of the five books of the Torah. It’s mentioned in Genesis, the seventh day of creation, God rest and refreshes. In our scripture this morning from among the 10 Commandments in Exodus, the fourth instructs us remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. In Leviticus on a priestly note, numbers documenting life in the wilderness, again, references to the Sabbath, to rest and holiness. And finally, Deuteronomy, a second accounting of the 10 commandments, we hear the words, observe the Sabbath day, while the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible is the foundation of the Jewish people coming into being as a faith community. The truth is, the Torah says what it says through the filter of commentary and interpretation of Jewish scholars, rabbis, ancient, medieval and contemporary, each bringing the challenges the mores of their own time into this conversation, a conversation I like to call the longest running book club, the Bible study. All right, what do I mean? In the Talmud, the book of Jewish law, the ancient rabbis, influenced by Hellenistic culture, in the centuries after Alexander the Great notice a question akin to the question I asked to start this teaching. They ask it this way, how can we set ourselves up to remember and observe the Sabbath? When Torah is not structured to tell us what to do in one place? What if we combed through the Torah separated all the commandments, the laws, the ethical reasoning into categories? And so this book, the Talmud, our compendium of Jewish law, begins with the ancient rabbis assessment of what remembering and observing the Sabbath actually means. Their focus, like the Empire who occupied their land was a systematic and legal approach. What is Hellenism if not an effort to spread the democracy of ancient Greeks to tribal lands, and maybe an opportunity for the ancient Greeks to access a few natural resources. law in order is the point here, rules on parchment governance leaning from autocracy and oligarchy, to democracy, centered around shared ideas, rather than powerful individuals. Remember and observe the Sabbath. On the seventh day, God rested and refreshed. do no work on My holy day. As a rabbi and a mother, I remember when my children first protested. Mom, why do you work on the Sabbath? They teach us at Sunday school, you’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath. You work on all the Sabbath every Sabbath. What indeed does it mean? To do note work? What is work after Are all the ancient rabbis have an answer to this question too. They document in the Talmud work consists of 40 minus one categories of activity.
The 39 categories of activity are the labors associated with building the great temple in Jerusalem, carrying of supplies, cutting of wood, lighting a fire to burn on the altar, sewing of the curtain, transforming matter from one state into another, melting gold and silver and copper to make the ornaments of the temple and its furniture. Isn’t it clear? Sabbath Rest is a day without labor, and X, Y and Z are what constitute labor. So how is it when we look at Jews today in the world that we moved from not lighting fires, do not driving a car, or not pushing the button in an elevator or turning on a light during the Sabbath. Each generation of Jewish legal scholars, identifies and discusses how new inventions and situations apply to the ever evolving wisdom and experience of what we learned in the Torah and the Talmud. What among the 39 categories of labor are at play here, modern luxuries that no longer require lighting of fire, but run on electricity generate a spark. When one turns on an appliance, or wakes a computer from a sleep mode, or starts an engine, we are causing a spark to generate. We are not permitted to light a fire. But modern Orthodox rabbis infer we may also not initiate a spark. And so we don’t turn electricity on Iran during the Sabbath. How do we get around that we could leave something on as long as it’s not a fire hazard like a low heat hot plate, we can benefit from heat being turned on the house if a non observing non Jewish neighbor happens to enter the apartment. And notice that somebody’s called the move the thermometer needle. Even the most orthodox among practicing Jews, is always adapting some degree, accounting for modernity and convenience. In this what I would call a postmodern world, in which we no longer follow rules, just because it’s difficult to maintain concern about accidentally engaging in some emanation of work indicated in the Talmud about the Sabbath. So we in this day and age recalibrate our understanding of Sabbath rest.
Let’s try this one on for size, labor, doing work that builds or destroys work that changes the status or state of matter. For us, these are acts of co creation with the divine. We do see ourselves in partnership with God and an ongoing unfolding of creation. On the surface, resting from labors of co creation, is the way we imitate God, just like Genesis one, and God rested. Of course, I think we require more than imitation if we’re to find a meaningful practice, a practice that nourishes and refreshes us body and mind. We know for better or for worse, we no longer are satisfied simply committing ourselves imitating the divine.
In not performing labor, we might think about ourselves as having refrained from having an impact. Instead of changing what is around us. We encounter we’d rediscover how the universe already holds us how relationships hold us. Sensation for work, and dedication to the Sabbath. may very well be about practicing humility, more than it is about chilling. When I accept what is I notice my sustenance is more than the fruit of my labor. Of course, my labor matters. But there’s more to it. There are more variables converging than I can possibly identify. Take this example. It’s easy to thank a chef or mom for a scrumptious meal. And it’s a well deserved gratitude. But wait, the chef or mom if you think about it gets credit for laborers that we don’t think about that have occurred. Who produces the food that the chef works with? Who brings about harvest the ingredients? Who butchers the animals? who transports this food? who assists the chef? What about the table upon which we eat a meal? How did that table get here? who constructed it? And what about the companies sitting around the table as we share the meal? I certainly enjoy a meal much more. If the company’s pleasant refraining from working, refraining from doing create space for noticing.
Ultimately, Sabbath rest for the Jewish people is about noticing about practicing humility, about withdrawing enough to see how many and how much holds us makes us possible. And that indeed, rest and refresh mind, body and soul. To this lesson, we say amen.