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It is a beautifully significant practice of the modern Jews, that, before fulfilling any special observance directed in their Law, they always first bless God for the giving of it. One might almost compare the idea underlying this, and much else of a similar character in the present religious life of Israel, to the good fruits which the soil of Palestine bore even during the Sabbatical years, when it lay untilled. For it is intended to express that the Law is felt not a burden, but a gift of God in which to rejoice. And this holds specially true of the Sabbath in its Divine institution, of which it was distinctly said, 'I gave them My Sabbaths, to be a sign between Me and them, that they might know that I, Jehovah, sanctify them' (Eze 20:12). In the same sense, the Sabbath is called 'a delight, the holy of Jehovah, honorable' (Isa 58:13); and the great burden of the Sabbath-Psalm (Psa 92) * is that of joyous thanksgiving unto God.
* The Talmud discusses the question whether Psalm 92 bears reference to the Sabbath of creation, or to that final Messianic Sabbath of the Kingdom--according to Rabbi Akibah, 'the day which is wholly a Sabbath.' (See Delitzsch on the Psalm.) It is a curiously uncritical remark of some Rabbis to ascribe the authorship of this Psalm to Adam, and its composition to the beginning of the first Sabbath--Adam having fallen just before its commencement, and been driven from Paradise, but not killed, because God would not execute the punishment of death on the Sabbath.
The term Sabbath, 'resting,' points to the origin and meaning of the weekly festival. The Rabbis hold that it was not intended for the Gentiles, and most of them trace the obligation of its observance only to the legislation on Mount Sinai. Nor is another Rabbinical saying, that 'circumcision and the Sabbath preceded the law,' inconsistent with this. For even if the duty of Sabbath- observance had only commenced with the promulgation of the law on Mount Sinai, yet the Sabbath-law itself rested on the original 'hallowing' of the seventh day, when God rested from all His works (Gen 2:3). But this was not the only rest to which the Sabbath pointed. There is also a rest of redemption, and the Sabbath was expressly connected with the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. 'Remember that thou was a servant in the land of Egypt, and that Jehovah thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore Jehovah thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath-day' (Deut 5:15). At the close of the work-a-day week, holy rest in the Lord; at the end of the labor and sorrow of Egypt, redemption and rest; and both pointing forward to the better rest (Heb 4:9), and ultimately to the eternal Sabbath of completed work, of completed redemption, and completed 'hallowing' (Rev 11)--such was the meaning of the weekly Sabbath. It was because this idea of festive rest and sanctification was so closely connected with the weekly festival that the term Sabbath was also applied to the great festivals (as Lev 23:15,24,32,39). For a similar reason, the number seven, which was that of the weekly Sabbath (the first seven that had appeared in time), became in Scripture-symbolism the sacred or covenant number. *
* The term 'Sabbath' is also applied to 'a week,' as in Leviticus 23:15; 25:8; and, for example, in Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1. This seems to indicate that the Sabbath was not to be regarded as separate from, but as giving its character to the rest of the week, and to its secular engagements. So to speak, the week closes and is completed in the Sabbath.
Later Perversion of the Sabbath
It is necessary to bear all this in remembrance when thinking of what the perverted ingenuity of the Rabbis made the Sabbath at the time of Christ, and probably even more in the generations following. For there is evidence that the Sabbath-law has become stricter than it had been, since, for instance, the practice of taking an ox or an ass out of a pit, to which our Savior alludes (Luke 14:5) as uncontroverted, would now no longer be lawful, unless, indeed, the animal were in actual danger of life; otherwise, it is to receive food and water in the pit. This 'actual danger to life,' whether to beast or to man (at any rate, to Israelites), determined the only cases in which a breach of the law of Sabbath-observance was allowed. At the outset, indeed, it must be admitted that the whole social Rabbinical legislation on the subject seems to rest on two sound underlying principles: negatively, the avoidance of all that might become work; and, positively, the doing of all which, in the opinion of the Rabbis, might tend to make the Sabbath 'a delight.' Hence, not only were fasting and mourning strictly prohibited, but food, dress, and every manner of enjoyment, not incompatible with abstinence from work, were prescribed to render the day pleasurable. 'All the days of the week,' the Rabbis say, 'has God paired, except the Sabbath, which is alone, that it may be wedded to Israel.' Israel was to welcome the Sabbath as a bride; its advent as that of a king. But in practice all this terribly degenerated. Readers of the New Testament know how entirely, and even cruelly, the spirit and object of the Sabbath were perverted by the traditions of 'the elders.' But those only who have studied the Jewish law on the subject can form any adequate conception of the state of matters. Not to speak of the folly of attempting to produce joy by prescribed means, nor of the incongruousness of those means, considering the sacred character of the day, the almost numberless directions about avoiding work must have made a due observance of the Sabbath-rest the greatest labor of all. All work was arranged under thirty-nine chief classes, or 'fathers,' each of them having ever so many 'descendants,' or subordinate divisions. Thus, 'reaping' was one of the 'fathers,' or chief classes, and 'plucking ears of corn' one of its descendants. So far did this meticulousness go that it became necessary to devise ingenious means to render the ordinary intercourse of life possible, and to evade the inconvenient strictness of the law which regulated a 'Sabbath-day's journey.' *
* By depositing a meal of meat at the end of a Sabbath- day's journey to make it, by a legal fiction, a man's domicile, from which he might start on a fresh Sabbath- day's journey. The Mishnic tractate Eruvin treats of the connecting of houses, courts, etc., to render lawful the carrying out of food, etc. On the other hand, such an isolated expression occurs (Mechilta, ed. Weiss, p. 110 a): 'The Sabbath is given to you, not you to the Sabbath.' If we might regard this as a current theological saying, it would give a fresh meaning to the words of our Lord, Mark 2:27.
The Schools of Shammai and Hillel
The school of Shammai, the sect of the Essenes, and strange to say, the Samaritans, were the most stringent in their Sabbath- observance. The school of Shammai held that the duty of Sabbath- rest extended not only to men and to beasts, but even to inanimate objects, so that no process might be commenced on the Friday which would go on of itself during the Sabbath, such as laying out flax to dry, or putting wool into dye. The school of Hillel excluded inanimate things from the Sabbath-rest, and also allowed work to be given on a Friday to Gentiles, irrespective of the question whether they could complete it before the Sabbath began. Both schools allowed the preparation of the Passover-meal on the Sabbath, and also priests, while on their ministry in the Temple, to keep up the fire in the 'Beth Moked.' But this meticulous enforcement of the Sabbath-rest became occasionally dangerous to the nation. For at one time the Jews would not even defend themselves on the Sabbath against hostile attacks of armies, till the Maccabees laid down the principle, which ever afterwards continued in force (Jos. Anti. xii. 6, 2; xiv. 4, 2.), that defensive, though not offensive, warfare was lawful on the holy day. Even as thus modified, the principle involved peril, and during the last siege of Jerusalem it was not uniformly carried out (compare Jewish Wars, ii. 19, 2, but, on the other hand, Antiq, xiv. 4, 2.). Nor was it, so far as we can judge from analogy (Josh 6:15, etc), sanctioned by Scripture precedent. But this is not the place further to explain either the Scripture or the Rabbinical law of Sabbath-observance, as it affected the individual, the home, and the social life, nor yet to describe the Sabbath-worship in the ancient synagogues of Palestine. We confine our attention to what passed in the Temple itself.
Scripture Rules for the Sabbath
The only directions given in Scripture for the celebration of the Sabbath in the sanctuary are those which enjoin 'a holy convocation,' or a sacred assembly (Lev 23:3); the weekly renewal of the shewbread (Lev 24:8; Num 4:7); and an additional burnt-offering of two lambs, with the appropriate meat- and drink- offerings, 'beside the continual' (that is, the ordinary daily) 'burnt- offering and his drink-offering' (Num 28:9,10). But the ancient records of tradition enable us to form a very vivid conception of Sabbath-worship in the Temple at the time of Christ. Formally, the Sabbath commenced at sunset on Friday, the day being reckoned by the Hebrews from sunset to sunset. As no special hour for this was fixed, it must, of course, have varied not only at different seasons, but in different localities. Thus, the Rabbis mention that the inhabitants of a low-lying city, like Tiberias, commenced the observance of the Sabbath half an hour earlier, while those who lived on an eminence, such as at Sepphoris, * continued it half an hour later than their brethren.
* Sepphoris, the Dio-Caesarea of the Romans, was near Nazareth. It is often referred to by Josephus, and, after the destruction of Jerusalem, became for a time the seat of the Sanhedrim. (See Robinson's Researches in Pal. vol. ii. p. 345.)
If the sun were not visible, sunset was to be reckoned from when the fowls went to roost. But long before that the preparations for the Sabbath had commenced. Accordingly, Friday is called by the Rabbis 'the eve of the Sabbath,' and in the Gospels 'the preparation' * (Mark 15:42; John 19:31)
* The expression, Luke 6:1, rendered in our version 'the second Sabbath after the first,' really means, 'the first Sabbath after the second' day of the Passover, on which the first ripe sheaf was presented, the Jews calculating the weeks from that day to Pentecost.
No fresh business was then undertaken; no journey of any distance commenced; but everything purchased and made ready against the feast, the victuals being placed in a heated oven, and surrounded by dry substances to keep them warm. Early on Friday afternoon, the new 'course' of priests, of Levites, and of the 'stationary men,' who were to be the representatives of all Israel, arrived in Jerusalem, and having prepared themselves for the festive season, went up to the Temple. The approach of the Sabbath, and then its actual commencement, were announced by threefold blasts from the priests' trumpets. The first three blasts were drawn when 'one-third of the evening sacrifice service was over'; or, as we gather from the decree by which the Emperor Augustus set the Jews free from attendance in courts of law (Jos. Ant. xvi. 6, 2.), about the ninth hour, that is, about three p.m. on Friday. This, as we remember, was the hour when Jesus gave up the ghost (Matt 27:45; Mark 15:34; Luke 23:44). When the priests for the first time sounded their trumpets, all business was to cease, and every kind of work to be stopped. Next, the Sabbath-lamp, of which even heathen writers knew (Seneca, ep. 95.), was lit, and the festive garments put on. A second time the priests drew a threefold blast, to indicate that the Sabbath had actually begun. But the service of the new 'course' of priests had commenced before that. After the Friday evening service, the altar of burnt- offering was cleansed from its stains of blood. *