Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Work Versus Work

I am a Sabbath keeper, but I'm not Jewish. Most people have some idea of what Sabbath means, many can probably recite the commandment "Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy". And many can tell when the Sabbath occurs whether they themselves keep it or not. But even in a small congregation, people will differ on HOW to keep it holy. For instance,
  • Is it OK to watch TV?
  • Read a book?
  • Do household chores?
  • Eat in a restaurant?
  • Drive a car?
  • Turn on lights?
  • Cook a meal?
There are two Hebrew words translated as work, avodah and melacha, both used in the Sabbath commandment. "Six days shall you avodah, and do all your melacha." - Exodus 20:8. And in Genesis 2:2-3, it says that God rested from HIS melacha in creating the Sabbath day. Well, I thought it would be easy and helpful to understand the difference between the two words for work, so that I too could rest from my avodah and my melacha on the Sabbath. Not as easy as I thought.

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Avodah seems to be the easier word to define. It generally means the labor we do, especially to earn a living, or the kind of work that makes one tired, also described as obligatory work. When God gave the Ten Commandments [1], the first thing He says is "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." - Exodus 20:2. That word slavery, also translated bondage, is avodah. Do avodah type work, then rest. The word avodah is also translated worship in the context of the work done in the Tabernacle.

Melacha is a little harder to define. It says God rested from melacha, not avodah. I think it is safe to say that God does not tire out like man, and didn't need rest like us. It says three times in Genesis 2 that He rested from His melacha, which was His work of creating - not like creating the heavens and the earth, which He created out of nothing, but taking that creation, specifically earth,  and fashioning it into something new. He fashioned the dry land, created plants and animals and mankind. He created the heavens and the earth, He made the plants, animals, and man. Mankind has a limited ability to fashion the world into new things too, that is, we make stuff according to our will. "Melacha is transforming into a higher state, through intelligent intervention." - Big Creator, Little Creator [2]. It sounds like entropy [3] to me, something else I don't understand.

Is the Sabbath a prohibition on creating, ie. a prohibition on making stuff? In some ways, we can't help but transform things into a higher state. Even making a cup of tea, or toasting a slice of bread transform the universe a little.

Not My 39 Rules

Jewish rabbis define melacha as any activity which would have been necessary to build the Tabernacle in the wilderness - What is the Shabbath? [4] They list 39 such activities. At first, it seems like a good idea to simply list what can and can't be done, no more struggling to figure it out. But the 39 rules become contradictory and impossible to observe in their own right. For example, it is forbidden to turn on a light switch, except by an automatic timer. Even the light bulb in your refrigerator must be unscrewed on Friday lest it come on when you open the door. The original rule this is based on was not to kindle a fire on the Sabbath. I see their sincerity, but can't agree with their conclusion - as best I understand it, electricity is not fire. It seems that the 39 rules violate the Torah itself, ""You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you." - Deut 4:2. And they kind of admit the 39 are added, "The Torah specifically mentions two melachot, kindling a fire and carrying." - Melacha - A Unique Definition of Work [5], two, not 39.

As another example, some Jewish people employ a Sabbath goy, goy not guy. This is a non Jew who does the things the Jew "can't" do, like light candles, turn on lights, etc. My problem with that is the Sabbath command is for everyone in your household, "but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you." - Exodus 20:10. That is, it forbids your servants from working too, meaning others doing work on your behalf - The Shabbat Goy [6].

Nor are all Jews in agreement on melacha however. A sect of Jews call Karaites don't accept the 39 rules of the Rabbis. Neither do they agree about kindling a fire. "The Sages forbid both lighting a fire on Shabbat and leaving a fire burning on Shabbat that was lit before Shabbat" - Mikdash Me'at [7], meaning no hot meals. (At the other end of the spectrum, the United Church of God teaches "God, it appears, was telling them to not kindle industrial fires on the Sabbath" - No Fire on the Sabbath? [8]). The Karaites also interpret the prohibition on carrying differently too - Mikdash Me'at [7].

I do admire the Jewish people. Of all the sons of Jacob, they are the only tribe to preserve the Hebrew language, the scrolls, the history, and the culture of ancient Israel. And I have learned much about the Bible from Jewish sources.

Christians in general don't even care about the Sabbath question because they believe the Ten Commandments, including the Sabbath, were done away with. They weren't. Or they believe Sunday is the Sabbath and apply some of the Biblical prohibitions to Sunday, but not as strictly as the Jews.

But doesn't this all seem too hard? (And I haven't shown the half of it) Especially for the Sabbath commandment since "the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" - Mark 2:27. And don't forget "call the Sabbath a delight" - Isaiah 58:13. I had sought an easy way to help me decide if an activity should be embraced or avoided on the Sabbath, and I found no easy way. It is tempting to make a list of do's and don'ts, but the lists I've seen don't work. They were written before the light bulb, and couldn't have anticipated it. Or the toaster, or the electric oven, or the microwave oven. Or plumbing.

After all the articles I've read and the research I've done, I don't feel I have the answer to "what is melacha?". The best I can summarize it is this, avodah is repetitive work, melacha is creative work. Presumably, the people who heard the command at Sinai knew what it meant. The only real guide is the Bible itself, but we sometimes need some help interpreting and understanding the text. Unfortunately, it seems there is not a verse in the Bible that people, even believers in the same congregation, don't disagree about. An old joke goes, "if you have two Jews, you have three opinions". I think that's people in general, not just Jews.

So let me examine the two melachot we do have from the Bible and give my uncredentialed opinions. I don't believe we can treat interpretations like a smorgasbord, picking whichever meaning we find most convenient, we need a Biblical basis.

Kindle a Fire

Exodus 35:3 “You shall not kindle a fire in any of your dwellings on the sabbath day.”. Billions of people live in cold climates where a heating fire is a necessity, not a luxury. So it can't be talking about a heating fire. At the other extreme, is it forbidding the lighting of a candle? The rabbis make a rule that you must burn Sabbath candles, then forbid you to light them. While we have electric lights today, in the before time, candles were light. We all know the perils of getting up in the dark without light. "It can hardly be thought that this is to be taken in the strictest sense, as an entire prohibition of kindling a fire and the use of it on that day, which is so absolutely useful, and needful" -  Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible [9]. Gill continues "and even for the preparation of food, which must be had on that day as on others, the sabbath being not a fast, but rather a festival." I like what Susan Hooge [10] wrote about kindling a fire on the Sabbath, "The whole focus is on the kindle part… it is not on the cooking or heating aspect of a fire." That is, in those days, there was a difference between starting a fire from last night's ember and kindling a fire from scratch.

What about cooking on the Sabbath? This generates lots of strong opinions. Even people who teach against it admit to making coffee or toast, cooking in the strictest sense. Their objection is based on transforming the ingredients from raw to cooked, so to them reheating leftovers is OK, but cooking is not. Remember that melacha involves transforming the universe according to our will. The only verse in the Bible about cooking on the Sabbath concerns manna, at best I find it ambiguous.

Exodus 16: 23 Tomorrow is a sabbath observance, a holy sabbath to the LORD. Bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.” 24 So they put it aside until morning, as Moses had ordered, and it did not become foul nor was there any worm in it. 25 Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field.
Some interpret the bake and boil to mean baking and boiling for two days worth, that is cooking ahead and the "left over" refers to leftover cooked manna. Some interpret the bake and boil to mean baking and boiling for that day (Friday), and the raw manna was left to be baked and boiled on the Sabbath. Otherwise why would it mention the manna not growing worms as on other days? Or that you will not find "it" in the field? I favor baking and boiling each day (option 2). As for making an elaborate meal from scratch, is that not already forbidden as avodah? The rule of thumb that I like is similar to preparing food for a camping trip - "ready to eat" or "ready to heat".


Jeremiah 17:21-22 "Thus says the LORD, “Take heed for yourselves, and do not carry any load on the sabbath day or bring anything in through the gates of Jerusalem. You shall not bring a load out of your houses on the sabbath day nor do any work (melacha), but keep the sabbath day holy, as I commanded your forefathers."

Load, also translated burden, is the Hebrew masa. "It is a fact that every instance of the word masa throughout the entire Tanach implies a "heavy load" or a "heavy burden" -  What Is The Sabbath? [4]. Carrying a pen, a key or a Bible may be forbidden by Jewish rabbis, but is not a heavy load.

What is Jeremiah 17:21-22 talking about then? The same thing that Nehemiah saw taking place in Nehemiah 13:15-18. He saw the people carry loads (masa) for the purpose of buying and selling on the Sabbath. Melacha must have a goal or purpose. Buying and selling on the Sabbath was already prohibited (v18 did not your fathers do the same?). Buying food, whether from a store, a merchant, (or a restaurant?*) is what Nehemiah is talking about here. As for carrying heavy loads, is that not also already forbidden as avodah?
15 In those days I saw in Judah some who were treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sacks of grain and loading them on donkeys, as well as wine, grapes, figs and all kinds of loads (masa), and they brought them into Jerusalem on the sabbath day. So I admonished them on the day they sold food. 16 Also men of Tyre were living there who imported fish and all kinds of merchandise, and sold them to the sons of Judah on the sabbath, even in Jerusalem. 17 Then I reprimanded the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing you are doing, by profaning the sabbath day? 18 “Did not your fathers do the same, so that our God brought on us and on this city all this trouble? Yet you are adding to the wrath on Israel by profaning the sabbath.”

*Restaurants on the Sabbath are a controversy of their own. It sounds very much like the Sabbath goy, paying someone to do something for you. Of course the day is less work for you if someone else cooks and serves your dinner. Not for them though. That cook, that server, that dishwasher, are all working like a Sabbath goy for you. What will you do when everyone keeps the Sabbath and there are no goyim left? The complication that I see is when traveling, your options are few.

And In The End

I had hoped that understanding avodah and melacha would help me better understand Sabbath keeping, after all, it's right in the commandment "Six days shall you avodah, and do all your melacha." It is referring to two types of work, but I can't tease out the subtleties of the terms, especially melacha. I've given my opinion on a few matters, I differ with the Jews on some things, with Christianity on some things. And they are MY opinions, I don't speak for any church. But they are opinions based on reading the Bible and reading lots of other points of view. And in the end, everyone should decide their practices based on the Bible. Maybe the point is that it isn't supposed to be all THAT easy. It has to be mindful. We need to think about what we are doing on the Sabbath using the Bible as our guide, not a list, and not convenience.


1. http://jlfreeman-1.blogspot.com/2015/12/ten-little-known-facts-about-ten.html
2. http://www.aish.com/sh/t/e/Big_Creator_Little_Creator.html
3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laws_of_thermodynamics
4. https://www.karaiteinsights.com/article/shabbat.html
6. http://peshat.com/index.php?itemid=10
7. http://www.karaites.org/uploads/7/4/1/3/7413835/mikdash_meat_section_3_shabbat.pdf
8. http://bible.ucg.org/bible-commentary/Exodus/Sabbath-regulations;-Offerings-for-the-tabernacle;-Artisans-called/
9. http://biblehub.com/commentaries/gill/exodus/35.htm
10. https://bewellwithyou.wordpress.com/2014/12/24/making-fire-and-cooking-on-the-sabbath/

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