Mark's Gospel

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The Sabbath

Importance of the Sabbath

The importance of the Sabbath in Jewish life is confirmed by the frequency to which it is referred in the Gospels. The Jews believed that the day was of divine origin, for God Himself had commanded Moses to tell the children of Israel, 'Above all you shall observe my Sabbaths . . . that you may know that I am the Lord who hallows you' (Exodus 31:13). Again, in the Ten Commandments, 'You have six days to labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God.' (Exodus 20:8-11).

Keeping the Sabbath

During the exile, since there was no Temple in which they might worship, the Sabbath became of added importance, taking the place of the Temple as the focal point in the practice of their faith. By their return from exile, the Sabbath had been firmly established and regulations for its observance were strengthened. So strict did the observance later become that during the Maccabean revolt, one thousand Jewish soldiers allowed themselves to be killed without resistance rather than break the Sabbath by defending themselves. In the time of Jesus, Sabbath breaking was still an extremely serious offence and to keep it worthily was considered very praiseworthy.

The Sabbath began on Friday at twilight, when three stars could be seen in the sky. The hazzan (the synagogue attendant) then blew the shofar (the ram's horn trumpet) from the highest rooftop to signify the beginning of the holy day. At this signal, the Sabbath lamp would be lit in every home. Before this, the house would carefully be cleaned and the women would cook the food to be eaten on the day. After the lighting of the lamp a meal was held, following a three-fold blessing, and afterwards no food was eaten until after the synagogue service of the next morning. This would explain the incident of the disciples plucking and eating the ears of corn on the Sabbath day (Matthew 12:1-2): they were hungry. After the synagogue service people ate their midday meal, and the final meal was supper at 5.00 p.m. The blowing of the shofar indicated the end of the day.

The Spirit of the Sabbath

The Sabbath was a day of prayer, but it was not an unhappy day. People put on their best clothes, the meals were well prepared, and they were invited to share in the joy of God at the completion of the Creation. Unfortunately it seems that the truly spiritual significance of the day was at this time being obscured by legalistic prohibitions. It would appear that for some, the essence of Sabbath observance was rather negative, that there should be no work done, rather than a sharing in the joy of the Lord. Jesus had no sympathy with this attitude.

The rules governing Sabbath observance were laid down with minute attention to detail. The Scriptures decreed that it was forbidden, for example, to light a fire, or walk more than six furlongs (a Sabbath day's journey), and from these and similar rulings the rabbis derived further prohibitions, such as carrying a burden or untying a knot, writing more than one letter of the alphabet. The less extreme rabbis were prepared to allow that some prohibitions should be governed by circumstance and thus agreed that it was lawful to fight in self-defense on the Sabbath. (In 63 BC during Pompey's siege of Jerusalem, the defenders left their posts as soon as the Sabbath began.) They did not consider it unlawful to help a man, or even an animal whose life was in danger, as Jesus himself reminded the Scribes and Pharisees (Luke 14:5). On the other hand, the extremists, notably the Essenes, categorically denied this exception. The attitude of Jesus was that the Sabbath should be observed for its spiritual value and that it was not an end in itself. He said, 'The Sabbath was made for the sake of man, and not man for the Sabbath' (Mark 2:27).

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