Sabbath Traditions

SUMMARY

The Jews developed many rules as a wall of protection to prevent noncompliance with the Law of Moses.  These rules were therefore not merely interpretations of the law, but additions to the law, making the law more severe.  For example, the Law forbids using the name of God in vain.  Therefore the Jews made the rule that one should not use the name of God at all.  They referred to God as “the name”.

These rules were known as the traditions of the elders (Matthew 15:2; cf. Mark 7:3-5).  The traditions were very important in the Jewish society; regarded as equally important to the Law of Moses.  But Christ described the traditions as “precepts of men” (Mat. 15:7-9; see also Mark 7:7) that invalidated the word of God (Matthew 12; See also Mark 7:3-9).

To understand why Jesus said this, one firstly needs to appreciate how extremely complex and detailed the traditions were.  For instance, with respect to the Sabbath, the Jews added thousands of rules to define “work” at an amazing level of detail.  This includes, for instance, lists of the types of knots one is allowed to tie and untie on a Sabbath.

One secondly needs to appreciate that these rules were very strict.  With respect to the Sabbath, anything that even remotely looked like work was classified as work, and therefore disallowed.  A Jew was not even allowed to light a candle on the Sabbath.

These help us to understand the consequences of the traditions.  These rules were developed as a hedge against con-compliance with the Law of Moses, but eventually served to separate the Jews from God:

The traditions replaced the Holy Spirit, Who must guide each person individually, with rules.

The traditions became the basis for self-righteousness.  The traditions consisted of rules with respect to outward behavior.  This serves to shift the focus away from God and to self, entrenching the belief that one is justified by one’s works, leading to self-righteousness.

By focusing on man’s works the traditions destroyed love for God and for fellow men.

This multitude of very strict rules reflected the character of selfish and dominating man and represented God as a tyrant.

By disallowing even pleasurable activities, combined with harsh policing, the traditions turned the best day of the week into the worst day.

Since the church at first consisted only of Jews, the traditions spilled over into the early church.  To combat the traditions, with the emphasis on justification by the “works of the Law”, Paul shifted the focus to man’s mind by teaching that man is justified by “faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 2:16).

DISCUSSION

The Jews developed many rules as a wall of protection to prevent noncompliance with the Law of Moses.  These rules were therefore not merely interpretations of the law, but additions to the law, making the law more severe.  For example, the Law forbids using the name of God in vain.  Therefore the Jews made the rule that one should not use the name of God at all.  They referred to God as “the name”.

These rules were known as the traditions of the elders.

…the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders … and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots. “ (Mark 7:3-4)

“Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread” (Matthew 15:2; cf. Mark 7:5)

The traditions were very important in the Jewish society; regarded as equally important to the Law of Moses.  Paul, for example, progressed rapidly through the ranks of the Jewish religious authorities due to his zeal for the traditions:

I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions” (Gal. 1:14).

But Christ described the traditions as “precepts of men” that invalidated the word of God:

You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘this people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me, but in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” (Mat. 15:7-9; see also Mark 7:7)

3 “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? … 6 … by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. … 9  … in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” (Matthew 12; See also Mark 7:3-7)

You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition” (Mark 7:9).

To understand why Jesus said this, one firstly needs to appreciate how extremely complex and detailed the traditions were.  For instance, with respect to the Sabbath, the Jews added thousands of rules to define “work” at an amazing level of detail.  This includes, for instance, lists of the types of knots one is allowed to tie and untie on a Sabbath; the knot of the camel-drivers, the knot of the seamen, knots that can be untied with one hand, a woman may tie the slit of her chemise, the bands of her hood, the bands of her girdle, the straps of her shoes and sandals; also the bands of leather flasks (filled) with wine or oil, and of a pot of meat.  One may tie a rope in front of cattle, in order that they may not escape. One may tie a bucket (over the well) with his girdle, but not with a rope.  Click here to see more of these rules.

One secondly needs to appreciate that these rules were also very strict.  With respect to the Sabbath, anything that even remotely looked like work was classified as work, and therefore disallowed.  A Jew was not even allowed to light a candle on the Sabbath.  One can also illustrate the Pharisees’ extremely strict application of the Sabbath with the incident where Christ’s disciples picked and ate grain while walking through grain fields on the Sabbath:

On a certain Sabbath day His disciples became hungry.  While walking through a grain-field, they were “picking the heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating” (Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 6:1-5).  Some Pharisees saw this and immediately complained to Jesus: “Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.”

For us today it is difficult to understand how the Jews could consider the mere picking and eating of grains, while one is walking through a grain field, to be “work”, but this teaches us how harshly the Jews applied the Sabbath law.

These help us to understand the consequences of the traditions.  These rules were developed as a hedge against con-compliance with the Law of Moses, but eventually served to separate the Jews from God:

The traditions replaced the Holy Spirit with rules.  The requirements of the Law of Moses for the Sabbath is simple, namely no work.  The Holy Spirit must guide each person individually to understand what work is and what to do when exceptional circumstances require work on the Sabbath.  This spiritual connection has been replaced with “precepts of men”.

The traditions became the basis for self-righteousness.  The idea that man must earn redemption always leads men to develop rules to force themselves to obey; at least outwardly.  The traditions consisted of rules with respect to outward behavior.  This serves to shift the focus away from God and to self, entrenching the belief that one is justified by one’s works, leading to self-righteousness. Like the Pharisee prayed, “God, I thank Thee that I am not as the rest of men, rapacious, unrighteous, adulterers … I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all things–as many as I possess”.  This Pharisee went away without being “declared righteous” (Luke 18:11-14).

The traditions destroyed love.  The focus on man’s works destroys love for God, and when love for God is destroyed, love for fellow men also disappears, leading men to be critical of one another.

The traditions represented God as a tyrant.  This multitude of very strict rules allowed very little space for compassion.  Thus the traditions eventually reflected the character of selfish and dominating man, rather than the character of the loving and caring God.

The traditions turned the best day of the week into the worst day.  God prohibited work on the Sabbath to make it a joyous day; the best day of the week, providing rest from the toil of human existence.  But by disallowing anything that even remotely looks like work, even pleasurable activities such as picking and eating grain, the Jews made it into a boring day of complete inactivity.  This, combined with harsh policing by the proud and fearsome religious rulers, made it the worst day of the week.  The life-giving power of rest was corrupted into a life-destroying burden; an intolerable burden to which the people were slaves.  It was because the traditions turned people into slaves of the Sabbath that Jesus objected by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

Since the church at first consisted only of Jews, the traditions spilled over into the early church.  For instance, Paul instructed Titus not to pay attention to “Jewish myths and commandments of men” (Titus 1:14).  To combat the traditions, that focused on external deeds, and the Jewish emphasis on justification by the “works of the Law”, Paul shifted the focus to man’s mind by teaching that man is justified by “faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 2:16).  “Faith” knows that we are unable to meet God’s infinite standards, and throws itself at His feet, trusting in His mercy, like the tax collector in Christ’s story, who “was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13).  “This man went to his house justified” (Luke 18:14).

The traditions were not developed by evil people with ill intent.  But it is not human nature to go to one’s knees and ask for the Lord’s guidance.  Human nature always asks for rules.  Leaders responded to the demand for rules and initially developed simple definitions of work, but over the many centuries the definitions were extended into more and more detail.  This is what humans always do when they are subject to rules from higher authorities; they add more detail, but always make the laws more severe.

Many people still today keep the Sabbath; either on Saturday or on Sunday, but make the same mistake.  In their eagerness to ensure that they comply with the law they disallow even pleasurable activities, such as swimming or hiking.  The poor children suffer the most.  The purpose of the Jewish Sabbath was to be a day of joy.  There were some animal sacrifices prescribed for the Sabbath, but it was not prescribed as a day for religious activities.  It was a day to cease the hard work of the other days and to rest and enjoy.  If it is you view that you must keep the Sabbath, please ensure that you make keep it as the best day of the week for yourself and for your family.

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