Leading a Worthy Life p.356

The Sabbath Day

Of all the statements in the Decalogue, the one concerning the Sabbath is the most far-reaching and the most significant. It addresses the profound matters of time and its reckoning, work and rest, and man’s relation to God, the world, and his fellow men. Most important, this is the only injunction that speaks explicitly of hallowing and holiness – the special goal for Israel in the covenant being proposed. Here is the relevant text:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work. But the seventh day [is a] Sabbath to the Lord thy God.

Thou shalt do no manner of work, thou, thy son and thy daughter, thy servant and thy maidservant, thy cattle and thy stranger that is within thy gates.

For in six days made the Lord the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them; but He rested on the seventh day; and therefore the Lord blessed the seventh day and He hallowed it. (Exodus 20:8-11)

The passage opens with a general statement specifying two obligations: to remember, in order to sanctify. Next comes an explication of the duty to make holy, comprising a teaching for the six days and a (contrasting) teaching for the seventh. At the end, we get the reason behind the injunction, a reference to the Lord’s six-day creation of the world, His rest on the seventh day, and His consequent doings regarding that day.

Imagine ourselves “hearing” this simple injunction at Sinai. We might find every term puzzling: what is “the Sabbath day”? What does it mean to “remember” it? And what is entailed in the charge “to keep it holy” or “to sanctify it”? And yet the statement seems to imply that “the Sabbath day” is, or should be, already known to the Israelites. What might they have understood by it?

The word “sabbath” comes from a root meaning “to cease,” “to desist from labor,” and “to rest.” Where, then, have the ex-slaves encountered a day of desisting? Only in their recent experience with manna.

After the Exodus from Egypt and their deliverance at the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites encounter shortages of water and food, and begin to murmur against Moses’ leadership. Comparing unfavorably their food-deprived new freedom with their well-fed existence in bondage, they long for the fleshpots of Egypt and accuse Moses of bringing them in the wilderness to die of hunger. As if waiting for just such discontent, the Lord intervenes even without being asked. He causes manna to rain from heaven for the people to gather, “a day’s portion every day,” not only to tame their hunger but explicitly “that I may prove them, whether they will walk in My law or not” (Exodus 16:4). The restrictions placed on their gathering are threefold: each should gather only what he and his household need and can eat in a day; there is to be no overnight storage or waste; and there is to be no gathering on the seven day, for which a double portion will be provided ahead of time on the sixth.

The provision of the manna, and the restrictions attached to its gathering and storage, teach several lessons: the condition of the world is not fundamentally one of scarcity but of plenty, sufficient to meet the needs of each and every human being; there is thus no need to hoard against the morrow or to toil endlessly, grabbing all you can; and there is no need to look upon your neighbor as your rival, who may keep you from a livelihood or whose needs counts less than yours. Accordingly, one may – one should – regularly desist from acquiring and provisioning, in an expression of trust, appreciation, and gratitude for the world’s bounty, which one also must neither covet beyond need nor allow to spoil. In all these respects, the provision of manna in the wilderness stands as a correction of fertile Egypt, where land ownership was centralized, acquisitiveness knew no respite, excesses were hoarded, the multitude sold themselves into slavery in exchange for grain, neighbor fought with neighbor, and one man ruled all as if he were a god. * Against the ex-slaves’ despairing belief that food is preferable to freedom and that serving Pharaoh offered the surest guarantee of life, the children of Israel are taught that they live in a world that can provide for each and every person’s needs, and also that the Lord helps those who will help themselves. They must work to gather, but what they gather is a gift. In a world beyond scarcity and grasping , the choice is not freedom versus food and drink, but grateful trust versus foolish pride or ignorant despair.


  • The provision of manna to sustain the children of Israel through their wilderness wanderings has political significance, in that economic matters are set aside so that moral and spiritual ones may be pushed to the fore. In keeping with its central mission to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, Israel will be the only people who become a people before inhabiting a land and before being required to provide for their common subsistence. (Whether the subordination of autochthony and political economy to morality and holiness has been politically good for the Jews is another question.) The provision of manna returns the Israelites to a gathering society, preagricultural, not unlike the Garden of Eden, before the division of labor and before the emergence of inequality that comes with landed property. The community can thus be founded not on organic economic growth, with households giving rise to villages and then cities (Aristotle); not on conquest or plunder by the strong or an act of patricide or fratricide (Machiavelli, the biblical example of Cain, the Roman example of Romulus); not on a social contract, entered into by fearful individual aiming to escape the war of all against all (Hobbes), to protect private property (Locke), or to ratify a swindle pulled off by the rich against the poor (Rousseau); but on a covenant made by still-free and equal human beings with the Lord. The manna acknowledges the necessity of meeting necessity, but it does not put economics or the mastery of nature above the task of making men orderly and good. Getting the human beings out of slavery is easy compared with getting the inherent slavishness – and tyranny – out of the human beings.


Aside from their experience of manna, the Israelites may have had another referent for a “Sabbath day.” Before the coming of the Bible, many peoples in the ancient Near East already reckoned time in seven-day cycles connected with the phases of the moon. Among the Babylonians, these seventh days were fast days, days of ill luck, days on which one avoided pleasure and desisted from important projects out of dread of inhospitable natural powers. This was especially the case with their once-a-month Sabbath, shabattu or shapattu, the day of the full moon (that is, the fourteenth day from the new moon).

Against these naturalistic views, the Sabbath teaching in Exodus institutes a reckoning of time independent of the motion of the heavenly bodies, in which the day for desisting comes always in regular and repeatable cycles and is to be celebrated as a day of joy and benison. Readers of Genesis already know the basis of this way of reckoning time from the story of Creation, whose target was precisely those Mesopotamian teachings and the belief that the heavenly bodies are gods. But the children of Israel are only now learning that time in the world – and, hence, their life in the world – will be understood differently from the way nature-worshiping peoples understand it. The Sabbath day, blessed by the Lord, has existed from time immemorial, but the creation-and humanity-centered view of the world enters human existence only through the covenant being here enacted with the children of Israel.

What, then, is the duty to remember the Sabbath day? About some matters – such as their previous condition of servitude – the Israelites will be exhorted to keep in mind what they previously experienced. About the Sabbath day – whose original, of course, no human being could have experienced – the Israelites are told to keep present in their minds what the Lord is now telling them for the first time. Once they learn the reason for the injunction, the duty to remember will link their future mindfulness with their recall of the remotest past: the original creation of the world and the beginning, or prebeginning, of time. Each week, going forward, the children of Israel will be recalled to God’s creation of the world and invited to relive it symbolically.

Much later, when Moses repeats the Decalogue in Deuteronomy, he will enjoin the Israelites to “guard” (or “keep” or “observe,” shamor) the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, “as the Lord thy God commanded thee” (Deuteronomy 5:12). Guarding and keeping are duties for the Sabbath day itself, but remembering it can and should take place all week long, reconfiguring our perception of time and its meaning. Under this radically new understanding, the six days of work and labor point toward and are completed by the seventh day and its hallowing. Mindfulness of sanctified time makes an edifying difference to the manner and spirit in which one lives and works all the time; and the remembered change in the meaning of time transforms and elevates all of human existence. Work is for the sake of a livelihood, but a livelihood has a new meaning when staying alive is seen to have a purpose beyond itself.

The root meaning of qadesh, to make holy, is to set apart, to make separate. Other people have their own forms of separation or sanctity: sacred places, sacred rituals and practices, sacred persons or animals. But in Israel what is made holy is not a special object, place or practice, but rather the time of your life.

How to make this time holy we learn in the sequel, but here the Israelite idea of holiness is connected to the distinction between work (or labor) and rest, as well as the distinction between the things that are yours and the things that “belong” to God. The six days of work appear to be for yourself and your own; by contrast, the seventh day is said to be a Sabbath unto the Lord thy God, when “labor” (avodah) for oneslef is replaced by “service” (avodah) to the Lord.

Yet the form of devotion is odd. No rituals or sacrifices are specified; on the contrary, what is required is an absence, a cessation, a desisting, and this obligation to desist falls on the entire household. From master to servant to beast and stranger, the worldly hierarchy is to be set aside; regardless of rank or station, all are equally invited to participate in the hallowing of the day. Nor do people need to travel or to sacrifice in order to encounter this sanctified time. Holiness has a central and ever-renewable place in their ordinary life at home, if they but keep it in mind.

And the key to the holiness that is the Sabbath’s desisting from labor? It is nothing less than God’s own doing in connection with Creation. Every week the children of Israel are, as it were, returned to the ultimate beginning and source of the world, summoned to remember and to commemorate its divine Creation and Creator.

This means, among other things, remembering that what we call “nature,” once widely worshiped – heaven, earth, sea, and all they contain – is not itself divine but rather the aggregate of God’s creations and creatures. At the same time, in remembering the majestic fact of creation and the world’s plenitude and beauty, the Israelites are also taught not to disdain the world or regard it as hostile, malevolent, or inhospitable, but rather to see it as a generous gift for whose bounty and blessings all human beings can and should be grateful.

The Israelites are not only recalled to the Creation; their own weekly cycle of work and desisting is meant to reproduce it symbolically. Here is the most radical implication of the Sabbath teaching: the Israelites are, de facto, enjoined “to be like God” – both in their six days of work and especially on the day of desisting. Note well: their relationship to the Creator is no longer grounded solely in historical time and in their (parochial) deliverance from Egyptian bondage. It is also ontologically rooted in cosmic time and in the universal human capacity to celebrate the created order and its Creator, and in our special place as that order’s godlike, God-imitating, and God-praising creatures.

It is, of course, peculiar to command us to rest as God rested, because it is peculiar to speak of God “resting.” Nevertheless, we can conjecture something of what it might mean.

In the original account of Creation, at the end of the sixth day “God saw every thing that He had made and, behold, it was very good.” But the true completion of Creation comes on the seventh day, only after the creative work has ceased:

And the heaven and the earth were finished and all their host. And God finished on the seventh day His work which He had made and He desisted on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. And God blessed the seventh day and He hallowed it, because on it He desisted from all His work which God in creating had made. (Genesis 2:1-3)

Here there is no talk of resting but only of desisting, and in this way blessing and hallowing (or setting apart) the seventh day. A complete world of changeable beings has been brought into being by a divinity Who then completes His creative makings by “standing down.” In this mysterious blessing and hallowing of time “beyond” the world of creative making, God, as it were, makes manifest in the rhythm of the world itself that mysterious aspect of being that is beyond change.

Remarkably, this consecration of time – and this pointing to what is “out of time” – is something we (and only we) humans can glimpse and participate in. It is open to us if and when we set aside our comings and goings, and turn our aspirations toward the realm beyond motion from which motion derives. It is open to us when we are moved by wonder and gratitude for the existence of something rather than nothing, for order rather than chaos, and for our unmerited presence in the story.

It may seem similarly odd to suggest that human beings would be imitating God by feeling gratitude: why, and for what, would God be grateful? Yet gratitude for the created world is not itself part of the created world. It is literally a manifestation of grace, which stands us, however briefly, outside the world, beyond the flux of the world’s ceaseless motions and changes. Though ourselves being of motion and change, we alone, godlike among the creatures, are capable of standing outside and contemplating the world, and of feeling gratitude for it and for our place in it. In this respect, too, Sabbath remembrance and sanctification permit us to be “like God.”

The Sabbath rest thus offers a partial reprieve from the sentence of unremitting toil and labor prophesied by the Lord at the end of the story of the Garden of Eden – a “punishment” of the human attempt to become like gods, knowing good and bad,  undertaken in an act of disobedience. According to that account, our prideful human penchant for independence, self-sufficiency, and the rule of autonomous human reason led us into a life that, ironically, would turn out it be nasty, brutish, and short. This is still very much our lot. But here, with Sabbath desisting, we are not only permitted but obliged regularly to cease the life of toil, sorrow, and loss, and to accept instead the godlike possibility of quiet, rest, wholeness, and peace of mind.

And this rise to godlike peace, unlike the self-directed “fall” into the knowledge of good and bad, depends not on disobedience but on obedience: the only way a free and reckless creature like man can realize the more-than-creaturely possibility that was given to him at the Creation. It is not only or primarily in imitating God in our workaday labor, but mainly and especially in hearkening to a command to enter into sacred time, that we may realize our human yet godlike potential. Doing as I say, teaches the Lord, is the route to “doing as I did” (or “being as I am”).

The Sabbath teaching has other profound implications for human life, especially for politics. Adherence to the Sabbath injunction turns out to be the foundation of human freedom, both political and moral. By inviting and requiring all members of the community to imitate the divine, it teaches the radical equality of human beings, each of whom, may be understood to be equally God’s creature and equally in His image, each of whom is entitled to leisure from toil and the freedom to exercise our peculiarly human capacities for appreciation and gratitude.

Sabbath observance thus embodies and fosters the principle of a truly humanistic politics. Although not incompatible with political hierarchy (including kingship), the idea behind the Sabbath renders illegitimate any regime that denies human dignity or that enables one man or some few men to rule despotically as if he or they were divine. And in reconfiguring time, elevating our gaze, and redirecting our aspirations, Sabbath remembrance promotes internal freedoms as well, by moderating the passions that enslave us from within: fear and despair (owing to a belief in our lowliness), greed and niggardliness (owing to a belief in the world’s inhospitality), and pride and hubris (owing to a belief in our superiority and self-sufficiency).

The deep connection between the Sabbath and political freedom is supported by the repetition of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy. There the reason given for Sabbath observance rests not on God’s creating the world but on the Exodus from Egypt:

And thou shalt remember that thou wast a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God brought thee out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:15; emphasis added.)

In place of the six days of God’s creative work contrasted with the seventh day of divine rest and sanctification, the Deuteronomic version contrasts the Israelites’ enforced labor in Egyptian servitude with the Lord’s mighty deliverance. The substitution invites us to see the second justification for Sabbath observance as the logical analogue and consequence of the first. In a word, where men do not know or acknowledge the bountiful and blessed character of the given world, and the special relationship of all human beings to the source of that world, they will lapse into worship either of powerful but indifferent natural forces or of powerful and clever but amoral human masters and magicians.

These seemingly opposite orientations – the worship of brute nature and the veneration of clever and powerful men – amount finally to the same thing: both deny the special god-like standing and holy possibilities of every single human being, and of humanity as such. Called upon to remember what it was like to have lived where men knew not the Creator in whose image we humans are made, and called upon to remember the solicitude of the Creator for His suffering people, the Israelites will embrace the teaching about Sabbath observance, and their politics will be humanized and their lives elevated as a result.


Leon R. Kass – Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times p.356

The Beginning of Wisdom p.663

To turn a nation, linked largely by common lineage and descent, into a people with distinctive mores and a defined way of life, the Israelites must share not merely a set of ancestors but also a people-making history. Specifically, they must be collectively transformed by a special set of shared political and cultural experiences. They must first experience enslavement and loss of all worldly power. They must then be emancipated and liberated against all odds, yet in a manner that obliges the slaves to declare their willingness to be freed. And their former masters – the world’s greatest civilization – must be brought to bear witness to the superiority of the God of Israel and the insufficiency of relying solely on human wisdom and power.


Leon R. Kass – The Beginning of Wisdom p.663