Sabbath Question

Hi SD,

The Old Testament makes it clear that the Israelites were not supposed to work on the Sabbath. It is a day of rest. How flexible was the original interpretation of this rule? Obviously if absolutely no one works for one whole day, society collapses. Did religious authority at the time grant special exceptions for, as we might say today, essential service workers–such as those in charge of sanitation, health care, etc.? At the time this idea was codified, was it viewed as not to be taken literally? If so, were all other ideas set forth as rules similarly viewed?

The reason I ask this is because it seems like if someone was working on the Sabbath, even fulfilling a necessary service, they would clearly be breaking the law. Was this one of the ones taken “with a grain of salt?”

A related question is this: Was there actually a time when people adhered strictly to all, or almost all, of the laws explicitly written down in the Bible? I know from a contemporary standpoint we kind of take the spirit of the laws more seriously than the actual laws themselves. But I’d imagine a society where unclean menstruating women must be separated and purified wouldn’t last very long.

Enlighten me, please! I always learn so much from you all.



As is required by law, you asked this on the Sabbath. The folks best able to answer can’t come to the phone right now.

In general, the rules of the Sabbath (what constitutes work) is outlined not in the Torah itself but in the Talmud, which contains centuries of commentary on the Torah. The rules on work are quite strict, and society didn’t fall apart because of them. Jews are also famous or infamous for being lawyers on exactly what is permissable, so things can get done in creative ways.

More observant Jews will be along tomorrow after sundown to give more details.

Can you give us, say, three examples of necessary services performed in the pre-CE world, the slacking off of which for a single day would cause civilization to collapse? It’s not like they were running nuclear power plants, after all…

Weren’t the Hebrews wondering the desert for forty years at about this time? Any city services wouldn’t be needed.

How about cooking? Cooking is work. At least for me. Let’s take it to mean food preparation.

Um, sanitation, like emptying out of cisterns? Carrying out recently deceased bodies? Preventing disease.

Hunting for food? Winterizing homes in case of inclement weather?

I mean, work is work. If the Talmud goes through the pains to determine what work is really work, then the law is just being selective, right? And that’s also an implicit statement that “this law isn’t complete enough to stand on its own without our help in interpreting it.”. Or “We don’t like this law, so let’s try and make it more palatable”.

Could society function like this if everyone (literally everyone) rested and did nothing but lie around once every seven days? If it was a metaphor, not meant to be taken at face value, who’s to say what other laws should be looked at the same way?


There has always been an exception for vital services that can’t be put off for a day. If you were a midwife, for example, and some woman went into labor on the Sabbath, you were allowed to do your job.

This one I know… the way they defined the laws, the act of cooking is not work, it’s necessary for survival. Lighting a fire, however, is work, as you can eat food raw in some cases. Or cold leftovers. So, using your stove can be construed as breaking the rules because you’re “lighting a fire,” even if it’s electric. Some Jewish people have gotten around this by leaving the stove on all day, using slow-cookers they start before the Sabbath starts, or having a non-Jewish friend stop by to turn the stove on for them.

No, it’s an explicit statement that we love to argue about shit.

Observant Jews will generally arrange to eat meals that were cooked the day before. There are various rules about what constitutes cooking food as opposed to reheating food or keeping food warm.

The Hebrews/Jews of ancient times saw themselves as a specifically “chosen” people. Their God was a unitary universal god who, for whatever reason, had taken a particular interest in the Hebrews. The laws, as I have always understood the doctrine, largely were binding only on the Jews.

Thus, the popularity (even to this day at least in Orthodox circles) of hiring a “Shabbas Goy”, a non-Jew, to do the dirty work (e.g., turning the lights on and off in the synagogue) on Sabbath Day.

It was forbidden to drive on Sabbath (that was work!) but it was kosher to walk to synagogue – again, a custom seen to this day in heavily Jewish neighborhoods. I guess walking isn’t work. :dubious:

The heaviest labor of Sabbath is praying. Sabbath was a day for praying and praying and praying and praying (my brother called this the “pray-a-thon”). That’s gotta be exhausting. I’d be worn out by Havdalah ( הַבְדָּלָה ), the end of the Sabbath.

The Bible itself seems to tell us that the ancient Jews took Sabbath very very seriously – I was even taught that as a young Jew-kid – the most sacred holy day of all – and it happens every week! In the wilderness, one Hebrew gentleman is stoned to death for collecting sticks on Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36):

As mentioned up-thread, the Bible itself is vague about a lot of things, and did require a lot of interpretation (the Talmud) to understand what it might mean. This process goes on to this day – for example, there are rules about how to transport a dead body, and it has been necessary in modern times for Orthodox Hebrew Rabbis to rule on how to transport a corpse by airplane.

A strongly Conservative Jew, a former boss of mine, explained thus: The rabbis who made the interpretations in the Talmud wanted to be very very certain that their ideas were all in accordance with God’s rulz, so they tended to make very strict interpretations – just to be sure. Thus, for example, a lot of the detailed kosher rules (like sweeping out your cupboards so that not a crumb – not a crumb! – of chametz ( חָמֵץ ) (leavened bread) shall be in your house during Passover) originated in the Talmudic Rabbis just wanting to make very very sure that they were doing right. Thus, the Bible came to be highly over-interpreted over the centuries.

Exodus 31:14
“You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.”

I guess the guy collecting sticks profaned the Sabbath rather than simply doing some work.

There’s also a blanket exemption to almost all of the Jewish laws if breaking them is necessary to save a life or a soul. So a doctor can treat people on the Sabbath, and a Jew can eat pork if that or starvation are the only options, and so on. IIRC, the only law which may not be broken in this way is the one against blasphemy.

Many years ago, I worked part time driving a taxi in North London. A regular Saturday job was to take an elderly Jewish couple to visit her mother. They were very strict and I was expected to open and close the door for them. I had to stop at a shop and pay for some flowers as well. On Sunday I would call at the house to get paid.

When my wife was in Israel, she discovered the “Sabbath Lift (elevator)”. In a bank of four lifts, one just went up and down, stopping at all the floors so that the user had no need to press any buttons. For the rest of the week it worked normally.

The goal of the Talmudic commentators was, as I read somewhere, was to build a golden fence around the Torah. The idea being to set up ways to live without breaking any of the commandments. As an example, let’s look at the 3rd Commandment, You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.

Well, no one is really certain what it means to take the name in vain. But it’s pretty clear not to do it. So, the rabbis decided that if you NEVER say the name of God, you’ll never take it in vain. So, fast forward across the centuries to me in Hebrew school sounding out the words (and not knowing what they mean) and I start to read the word that’s the name of God. And the teacher stops me short and tells me I can’t read that word aloud. So, whenever I see that word, I can say “adonai” or “elohem”, but not that word. As non-observant as I am now, I still don’t use the name and cringe when I hear others say it.

So, observant Jews don’t drive on the Sabbath. Part of it is that ‘making a spark’ is considered work. And in earlier times, they didn’t ride to temple on the Sabbath because why should you make a horse or donkey work on the Sabbath? It’s their day of rest too. So, nowadays, Orthodox synagogues will have small parking lots compared to Conservative and Reform ones. Sure, good luck finding a place to park by the curb near an orthodox synagogue, they’ll all be taken, but there you go.

Two, actually. Murder is also forbidden, even to save a life.

Ranger Jeff:
BTW the reason why people didn’t know how to pronounce God’s name is that I think the Hebrew scriptures didn’t have vowels and since “YHWH” was never pronounced, the pronunciation was lost. Also on some Jewish webpages they write “G-d” for some reason. I wonder what they’d say if they were reading it out loud…

I was going to mention Sabbath mode, but I was under the impression those were timers that would turn on when you woke up. But it seems all they do is let you leave the appliance on when you normally couldn’t.

Seems timers would be better, so it makes me think that maybe they aren’t allowed. It sure seems like they should be, seeing as you can have another person do it for you.

You still can’t actually cook food, only reheat it, but a timer just makes more sense.

[pet peeve]
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There are electrical appliances with a Shabbos mode. Sadly, there was a horrible fire in Brooklyn where seven children died due to a faulty Shabbos hot plate. Cite