The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Say to the Israelite people thus: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts. You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall bring an offering by fire to the LORD.
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall practice self-denial, and you shall bring an offering by fire to the LORD; you shall do no work throughout that day. For it is a Day of Atonement, on which expiation is made on your behalf before the LORD your God. Indeed, any person who does not practice self-denial throughout that day shall be cut off from his kin; and whoever does any work throughout that day, I will cause that person to perish from among his people. Do no work whatever; it is a law for all time, throughout the ages, in all your settlements. It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall observe this your sabbath.
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Say to the Israelite people:
On the fifteenth day of this seventh month there shall be the Feast of Booths to the LORD, [to last] seven days. The first day shall be a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations; seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to the LORD. On the eighth day you shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to the LORD; it is a solemn gathering: you shall not work at your occupations.
These are the set times of the LORD that you shall celebrate as sacred occasions, bringing offerings by fire to the LORD–burnt offerings, meal offerings, sacrifices, and libations, on each day what is proper to it–apart from the sabbaths of the LORD, and apart from your gifts and from all your votive offerings and from all your freewill offerings that you give to the LORD.
Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the LORD [to last] seven days: a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day. On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. You shall observe it as a festival of the LORD for seven days in the year; you shall observe it in the seventh month as a law for all time, throughout the ages. You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the LORD your God.
So Moses declared to the Israelites the set times of the LORD. — Leviticus 23:23:44 (*Tanakh, Jewish Publication Society, 1985 ed.)
Leviticus is a book of law, ritual and practice, things with which the person we call the Priestly writer was intimately concerned. It is a book that is probably one of the harder ones in the Bible to read and to really get into, but it is important because it transmits not just God’s wishes and commands but also establishes the way life is supposed to be lived, with God and the worship and reverence of God at the center of it all.
In this passage, God gives Moses instructions on religious observances that are to become annual events, feasts that will become hallmarks of Israelite and later Jewish religious life. The first and second days of Tishri, the seventh month, are called Rosh Hashanah, a celebration of the beginning of the new year. It arrives with the blowing of the shofar and was an opportunity to examine mistakes of the past year and resolve to do better in the new one. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, comes eight days later (the tenth day of Tishri) and is the most solemn day of the calendar, a day of fasting, prayer and repentance. The fifteenth day of Tishri marks the beginning of Sukkot, the festival of booths, a joyous time when the harvest is celebrated but also where the people build simple shelters reminiscent of the temporary ones the their ancestors made on the journey to the promised land. Sukkot is also called the Feast of Tabernacles, although the only Tabernacle was the temporary structure that went with the Israelites and served as their temple during the journey.
It seems from all the activity that Tishri was a really busy month. God planned out a lot of days where sacrifices were to be made, and a lot of time for repentance and rejoicing. What strikes me, though, is that it seems that there is a lot of down time, times when anything to do with any creative work was forbidden. There are actually 39 different classifications of “work” which include things as varied as gardening or growing crops, sewing, ripping out, slaughtering animals for meat, shearing, spinning and weaving, cooking anything that wasn’t started before sundown on Shabbat, kindling a fire, using a hammer, carrying things in a public area, or even writing two letters (like A and B, not whole missives) as well as eliminating or erasing two letters. Sabbath is serious business, and the holy days and festivals of Tishri contain all the regular weekly sabbaths plus more.
What I think God had in mind for those extra days when work was forbidden wasn’t just to give people time off, like vacation days or what is occasionally called in today’s working world as “personal days.” No, God had those extra days put in for people to stop and have time to really consider what was important — where they were, what they had done, what needed improvement in their personal relationships with God and their fellow human beings, and what they could do about it. Yes, repentance came into it, but it wasn’t the same kind of repentance that most Christians think about, the sackcloth-and-ashes kind of repentance that makes us call ourselves “miserable offenders” and feel like totally unworthy creatures. Repentance such as that practiced on Yom Kippur is more a reorientation toward God and living in harmony with the earth and its inhabitants. Sabbath time gives a person the opportunity to do that in a Godly-mandated way, a way that doesn’t make it fight for time and attention with all the other things of life; it’s built into the schedule.
Something the people of this world really seem to need but seldom take is time off from work to just rest and recuperate. Most of us have weekends off from work, but the weekend hours are often filled with stuff we didn’t have time to do during the week and activities that we have been waiting to enjoy when we can sandwich it in between the kids’ soccer games and karate classes, getting the lawn mowed and the laundry done. If we make it to church, it takes a while to settle into the quiet and a lot of effort not to think of what has to be picked up from the grocery store on the way home or has to be finished up before Monday morning comes around again. There’s really very little time to really think about God much less actually spend terms cultivating the relationship.
For each of the Jewish festivals and holidays in Tishri, there are designated sabbath days that are like bookends, days before the festivals to contemplate, repent and return, days after to firm the resolve, rejoice and go out to live a more God-connected life. I wonder what life would be like if we all had those sort of mandated Sabbath days where work was forbidden and only rest, refreshment and worship were permitted? I wonder how much better we’d not only feel but actually be. For those who practice a rule of life, a discipline such as the Daily Office can be a bit of Sabbath time that one consciously chooses to do, despite whatever else is going on in life at the moment. What it does is add balance, a chance to slow down and breathe as well as connect with God. Instead of shoe-horning time for God into an hour on Sunday morning, there’s a little time every day that is as important as watering the plants or tidying up the kitchen. It puts things in order and encourages growth. That, in God’s wisdom, is what we are offered with Sabbath and sabbath time.
I wonder — how might I more consciously and constructively use Sabbath time in my own life? What would it mean to me, my health and my faith? I have a feeling it would bring nothing but good, and the world would move along just fine without my having to spend every waking moment being busy, keeping the world, or at least my little part of it, humming along. I have a feeling there might be at least a few less heart attacks and stress-related illnesses as well.
But then, I have a feeling that’s what God intended, just as surely as the opportunity for connection through prayer, fasting, worship and good works were. God had it all planned out; all we have to do is to do it.
*Reproduced from the Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 1985 The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia