Engaging the Divine: How do you observe the Sabbath?

Rev. James J. Popham
The Rev. James J. Popham

Our granddaughter, Zoe Katarina, was born at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. In visiting Zoe in the maternity wing on the third floor, we noted a sign in the elevator that indicated that from Friday evening until Saturday evening, the elevator would stop on every floor. No need to punch the button for your floor. I do not recall whether this sign appeared in all six of the visitor elevators, but in this particular elevator, an Orthodox Jew could observe the Sabbath without violating the proscription against work on the Sabbath. This is a distinctively rigid and demanding understanding of the Sabbath, but one that must command respect. And one that challenges all of us to consider our own appreciation of Sabbath and how we observe it.

For many, the notion of Sabbath is rooted in the Biblical story of creation, which portrays God resting on the seventh day after taking six days to create the world and all that is in it, and God’s commandments to the Hebrew people after their escape from slavery in Egypt to work for six days, but to do no work on the seventh day and to keep it holy. For the Hebrews who had been brutally enslaved and forced to work tirelessly, a mandatory day off had to be an enormous relief. 

But not to dismiss or diminish God’s commandments, it seems to me that the creation story is the more compelling basis for a Sabbath, a day with no work. The creation story reveals much about God and humanity. And God’s resting after six days confirms what we all come to realize in life: As human beings we need rest. 

Do we wonder if we are, much like the Hebrews in Egypt, enslaved by our occupations and ambitions, our day-to-day chores and ever-growing to-do lists, our phones and screens, and the whole panoply of distractions, good and bad, that confront every second of our lives with an urge keep going no matter what? And yet we know we cannot. How many of us have come to learn the hard way what it means to burn out?

Sabbath can be observed on different days in different ways. For Christians, Sunday became known as the Lord’s day, when Sabbath means gathering for worship and setting aside time for rest and relaxation. Sundown Friday to sundown Saturday is the Sabbath for Jews, when work is forbidden and the community worships together. And Friday for our Muslim brothers and sisters is the “best day of the week,” when they attend “Friday Prayers,” but then return to daily activities, believing that God (Allah) required no rest after six days of creation. 

But regardless of when and how we observe a Sabbath, Sabbath recognizes our minds’ and bodies’ need for respite and rest, as well as our hearts’ and souls’ yearning for the presence and sustenance of the divine. It draws us closer not only to God, but also to who we are, and honors both our humanity and our God. 

The Rev. James J. Popham is rector at St. Andrews By-the-Sea in Destin.