On Shabbat, and how to live with Sunday as the first day

Since the day I arrived in Israel, it has been very confusing to start the week on a Sunday. My whole brain is so set on the idea of Monday being the first day of the week, that it will refuse any other assumption, even when instructed otherwise. To complicate the matter, in Hebrew days of the week are identified by cardinal numbers and therefore named First-Day, Second-Day, Third-Day, and so on, up to the seventh which is Shabbat. When Israelis say: lets meet on Third-Day, it should be obvious to anyone capable of handling an elementary calculation, that Sunday + 2 = Tuesday. Having said that, when I hear Third-Day, I instantaneously think of (and consequently mistakenly show up on) Wednesday. This has caused me so many problems that I surrendered to counting days on my fingertips, making sure to take Sunday as the first one.

Shabbat derives from the Hebrew verb “to rest”, “to cease”. The etymology of the word is rooted in the opening chapter of the Bible, where it is written that God worked six days to create the world, but rested on the seventh. Likewise, Judaism expects people not to carry out any activity on Shabbat, which starts Friday at sunset and ends Saturday at sunset. The list of do’s and don’ts for the keepers of Shabbat is heavily restrictive and contains some odd precepts, especially when examined in the context of modern-day life. For instance, the Torah affirms that on this holy day one should not make a fire. Nowadays, This dictate has been extended to all electrical appliances, such as light bulbs, computers, and car engines. A corollary of this law is that on a resting day religious Jews are not allowed to operate buttons. This explains the mysterious  “Shabbat elevator”, a haunted machine which seems to have a life of its own: big hotels, hospitals and other public buildings provide the public with automated elevators that continually stop at every floor, without the need of human intervention. Cooking of any kind is also forbidden on Shabbat, as is boiling water: everything has to be prepared in advance. This prohibition gave birth to many Jewish culinary delicacies, such as Chund (a stew which is cooked on a very low temperature oven overnight), or the many cold salads and soups. Following the example of God, on Shabbat one is supposed to abstain from creating. Interpretations vary as to how literally this should be intended: it is not clear if reading a book, for example, render the words readable and therefore creates them. In doubt, observers will refrain from reading, at least for leisurely purpose. The Torah does not allow to carry objects on Shabbat. This applies to anything that is not one’s clothing or body. Here, opinions vary as well: you can safely carry a book, or the house keys, but you cannot carry a cell phone or an umbrella. Ongoing discussions are held upon the orthodoxy of tearing toilet papers (in doubt, some prepare pre-cuts on the eve of Shabbat, or purchase special pre-cut toilet paper), or whether tearing the aluminum off the top of a yogurt constitutes forbidden action.

No matter how hard or pedantic these rules may appear to the non-believer, they were created to fully honor the commandments which God himself gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai, not too far from where I am writing these words today. The Ten Commandments are the base of both Judaism and Christianity. Growing up in a Catholic household, I thought I knew the commandments well. In fact, my knowledge was heavily mediated by the interpretation that the Church has to offer. Before living in Israel, never did I spare a moment to question how and why Christians unabashedly ignore Sabbath as a direct and unequivocal commandment of God. Instead, Sunday has been universally recognized as the Christian holy day of the week, a day that in many Latin languages translates as “Day of the Lord” (from Latin dominus – the Lord- such as in the Italian word domenica, French dimanche and Spanish domingo). When exactly did this occur? Back in the IV century, it was Emperor Constantine who first declared Sunday as the official Christian holy day, re-assessing the pagan habit of Sunday as the day of Sun worshiping. Many see this decision in the light of the deliberate efforts that Christianity put in place in order to build itself a new identity, while dissociating from the embarrassing descent from Judaism.

Moses with the tablets of the Ten Commandments...
Moses with the tablets of the Ten Commandments, painting by Rembrandt (1659)

Ecclesiastics explain the choice of Sunday by linking this day to the resurrection of the Christ, which the Gospels say took place on a Sunday (well, technically on a Saturday evening, which was not really Sunday although the Shabbat was over at sundown). Likewise, the fourth commandment of God has been conveniently rephrased from “sanctify Shabbat” into “sanctify the Holy Days”, thus removing any reference to a specific day of the week. To those who still insist in wondering how was the holy day of Shabbat dismissed so easily, the scholars will reply that Jesus himself was not a strict observer of Shabbat, since he was performing miraculous healing on this day of theoretical non-action.

References to Sabbath are found throughout the Bible. Israel went into captivity for breaking the Sabbath (Ezekiel 20). Jesus himself declared that the Son of Man was the Lord of Shabbat (Luke 6:1-11). It is no coincidence that many of Jesus’ sermons – like the famous Sermon on the Mount- took place on Sabbath. Similarly, there was no “Palm Sunday”, as the Christian like to remember the day of the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem: it was really a “Palm Sabbath”. The Acts of the Apostles report that early Christian communities continued to meet on Shabbat for worshiping and teachings, many years after the death of Jesus. Apostle Paul himself frequented the synagogue every Shabbat, showing continuity in the observance of this specific day.

Among the different branches of Christianity, only the Adventist Church recognizes the importance of the observance of Shabbat, as well as other kosher laws (such as abstaining from eating pork and shellfish). During the many masses I attended as a child, I have no recollection of ever hearing a word about Shabbat. I have questioned my Christian friends on this divergence from the Ten Commandments, but they seemed to have no idea as to why or when this occurred. It can be noted that the fourth is not the only commandment that Christianity nonchalantly discarded. The second commandment explicitly prohibits the adoration of God through images or statues. It is enough to step inside a church today, with its panoply of saints, frescos and baroque statues, to realize that something was lost along the way. But this is another story and as Shabbat is setting here, I’d rather switch off the computer and enjoy some due rest.

Shabbat shalom.

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One thought on “On Shabbat, and how to live with Sunday as the first day

  1. Laura, this is written like an outsider looking in & trying to figure out what’s going on. This can lead to many mistakes such as saying that using electricity on shabbath is like making a fire. This is your assumption & it is incorrect. The 39 forbidden activities on shabbath are derived from the 39 activities that it took to construct the tabernacle (the mobile temple we carried in the Sinai desert after our Exodus from Egyptian slavery). One of those activities was “building” & CAUSING electricity is a BUILDING of a CLOSED, electric circuit. That’s what’s happening when someone presses an electric button & this has NOTHING to do w/fire.

    The shabbath stew is called in YIDDISH, “cholent,” or “chulnt.” In Hebrew it is called HAMIN.

    It IS CLEAR that “reading a book [on shabbath]” does NOT render them readable & it is TOTALLY permissible on shabbath. It’s seems you’ve never been to a synagogue on shabbath where Jews around the world have been reading from our Torah scrolls for the last 3600 years!

    How can the 10 Commandments be the basis of xty when xians don’t observe shabbath & the 10 Commandments were given ONLY TO THE JEWISH PEOPLE???

    Our rabbis sent three “Christian” leaders to sabotage Christianity so it would be NOT like Judaism. Their names were Peter/Shim’on, Paul/Sha-ul & John/Yochanan. The church “changed the sabbath from Saturday to Sunday because so many of the early xians were JEWS & they were still observing SATURDAY as sabbath. If the church WOULD be embarrassed of their Jewish origins, that would undermine their claims that Jesus was messiah (which he was NOT!).

    What does a supposed resurrection have to do w/shabbath???

    Why do you think that Jesus’ sermons were more appropriate on shabbath???

    “Sermons” are appropriate on ANY day (that they are needed).

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