Rethinking Sabbath

The following meditation was written by Doug Hood\’s son,
Nathanael Hood, MA, New York University

\”Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. A woman was there who had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and couldn’t stand up straight. When he saw her, Jesus called her to him and said, “Woman, you are set free from your sickness.” He placed his hands on her and she straightened up at once and praised God. The synagogue leader, incensed that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, responded, “There are six days during which work is permitted. Come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath day.” The Lord replied, “Hypocrites! Don’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from its stall and lead it out to get a drink? Then isn’t it necessary that this woman, a daughter of Abraham, bound by Satan for eighteen long years, be set free from her bondage on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:10-16)
The January 12, 2010 Haiti earthquake was one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the last decade. The 7.0 magnitude quake demolished huge swathes of the countryside and multiple cities, destroying or damaging a quarter million homes and with them upwards of 316,000 lives. Millions of survivors suddenly found themselves homeless and forced to sleep out in the street or in makeshift shanty towns with little access to drinkable water. The lack of proper sanitation and hygiene led to the first major cholera outbreak of the modern era, eventually infecting over 800,000 with a disease that hadn’t been seen on the island in over a century. Corpses literally festered in the street as the government scrambled to dig mass graves. Though the international community quickly rallied to provide relief, delays in distribution led to widespread looting and violence among the survivors. But into this hell rescue workers continued to flood, despite the terror, despite the carnage, despite the destruction.
Among these was a six-man delegation from Israel’s ZAKA International Rescue Unit that performed crucial rescue operations in the capital Port-au-Prince. The team was comprised of Orthodox Jews who insisted on being flown out to rescue sites despite it being the Sabbath, the day when traditionally no work is allowed. According to Talmudic sources, there are thirty-nine categories of work prohibited on the Sabbath, many of them necessitated by emergency rescue work like sifting (“merakaid”), demolition (“soter”), and extinguishing fires (“meḥabeh”). And yet these six Orthodox Jews sifted, demolished, and extinguished, taking time off from their work only to wrap themselves in prayer shawls and recite Shabbat prayers. When asked about violating the Sabbath, ZAKA commander Mati Goldstein explained that they did it with pride: “We did everything to save lives [despite Sabbath]…we are here because the Torah orders us to save lives.”
Those familiar with Judaism might recognize this as the fulfillment of “pikuach nefesh”—Hebrew for “saving a life”—a deeply held principle derived from both the Torah and Talmud which argues that the preservation of human life overrides almost every religious rule. For Jews, when human life is on the line it’s blasphemous not to violate God’s commands. Christianity also has the principle of “pikuach nefesh” hard-wired into its DNA, demonstrated by Jesus’ deliberate defying of the religious authorities of his day in the Gospel of Luke by healing a woman crippled for eighteen years on the Sabbath. When challenged by the Pharisees, Jesus publicly humiliated them, pointing out their hypocrisy for taking more care of their animals than their fellow human beings. As Jesus echoed elsewhere in the Gospel of Mark with his declaration that the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath, religious laws exist to help mankind. Mindless zealotry at the expense of people it itself blasphemous.
During this time of crisis, communities of faith from all the world’s major religions are struggling to cope with maintaining their traditions in the face of social distancing orders and quarantines. Christianity in particularly is feeling the sting of isolation: Sunday services are being live-streamed, baptisms delayed, funerals performed without the deceased’s loved ones. We can’t even observe Communion, one of our most important sacraments. Ask any pastor, deacon, or elder and they’ll tell you that the emotional and psychological toll of these restrictions on their congregations is devastating. But perhaps we as Christians can recontextualize these absences as a sacrament in itself. By not gathering in person to worship, we’re slowing the spread of the disease. By staying apart, we’re keeping our communities safe. By not keeping the Sabbath together, we respect the “pikauch nefesh” and the true Sabbath taught by Jesus, the one based in human life and dignity.

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