This week’s Parasha opens with Moses calling for a public assembly of the entire community of Israel. At this assembly, he relays to them what God told him on the mountain.
The Hebrew verb vayakhel (וַיַּקְהֵל), meaning to assemble, convene, or gather, is related to kahal, meaning assembly, convocation, and congregation. The word kehilla, a derivative word, can mean community. (Most Messianic congregations refer to themselves as a kehillah, rather than church, since that word is not derived from Hebrew.)
Less than a week earlier, this Israelite community that assembled before Moses had worshiped the Golden Calf. Now Moses instructs them in the ways of Adonai.
The first instruction Moses gives the people concerns the Sabbath, which God set apart as a day of holiness, elevating it above the rest of the week. On this day no work was to be done:
“For six days, work [malekah] is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a day of Sabbath rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work [malekah] on it is to be put to death. Do not light a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day.” (Exodus 35:2)
There are two words for workin Hebrew, avodah and malekah, and the one used is this passage does not typically mean physical exertion.
Malekah, traditionally interpreted as the 39 different categories of work that went into building the Mishkan (Tabernacle), is the type of work specified in Exodus 35:2. Although there is some degree of interpretation regarding what type of work malekah indicates, the Bible specifically forbids some types outright: lighting a fire and carrying a burden. (Jeremiah 17:21)
The commandment to keep the Shabbat is so important in the Torah that anyone found working on this holy (kadosh)day would receive the death penalty (Exodus 35:2).
Essentially, malekah is constructive, creative work that involves producing, making, or creating—anything that demonstrates humankind’s mastery over nature.
Since God created in six days and rested on the seventh, when we rest on the seventh we are declaring that He is “the ultimate Creator and Master.” (Chabad)
Avodah is also work, but often in the form of cultivating or performing service, whether free or slave.
“Six days you shall labor [avod], but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.” (Exodus 34:21)
So, therefore, both avodah and melakah are mentioned as forbidden on the Shabbat.
Perhaps no society on earth today would impose the death penalty for violating the Sabbath, but the command to keep it holy still stands.
The Seventh Day Sabbath
The Bible defines the Sabbath day (Shabbat) as the seventh day (Friday evening to Saturday evening), not the first or any other day of the week.
Nothing in the Bible commands the Sabbath to be kept on another day.
Because of that, it is clear in Jewish thinking that we simply do not have the authority to change God’s holy days.
According to Daniel, that would constitute acting in the spirit of the anti-Messiah, who will seek to change the times and the laws:
“He will speak out against the Most High and wear down the saints of the Highest One, and he will intend to make alterations in times and in law; and they will be given into his hand for a time, times, and half a time.” (Daniel 7:25)
But why, then, do many Christians keep Sunday as the Sabbath? Who initiated and sanctioned this change in the times and the law (Torah)?
It is generally acknowledged that the reason many Christians keep Sunday instead of Saturday is because the Roman Catholic Church changed the day to Sunday, believing it has the authority to do so.
The following two quotes from Catholic publications reflect this stance:
“We observe Sunday instead of Saturday because the Church, in the Council of Laodicea AD 364 transferred the solemnity to Sunday.” (The Converts Catechism of Catholic Doctrine, 1957)
“Sunday is our mark of authority… the Church is above the Bible, and this transference of Sabbath observance is proof of that.” (Catholic Record of London Ontario, 1923)
Yeshua on the Shabbat (Sabbath)
The observance of the Shabbat is often perceived as burdensome. Those, however, who do keep it, sincerely seeking the Lord, experience wonderful rest and great joy on this day.
Even Yeshua (Jesus) and His talmidim (disciples) kept the Shabbat, and the Brit Chadashah (New Covenant) states that it was His custom to be in the synagogue on that day, a custom shared by Paul. (Luke 4:16; Acts 17:2)
Yeshua never spoke against keeping the Shabbat, and completely acknowledged it, calling Himself the Lord of the Shabbat.
There were a few situations in which Yeshua’s commitment to Torah and the Sabbath were called into question by the religious leaders of His day. He took these opportunities to address some errors in the way the commandment was being applied.
For instance, one day when Yeshua’s disciples were walking through the grain fields on Shabbat, they picked heads of grain to eat because they were hungry. The Pharisees objected to this because reaping is considered malekah.
Therefore, they accused the disciples of breaking the Shabbat saying, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” (Matthew 12:2)
Of course, the disciples were not picking grain for the purpose of harvesting; they were simply satisfying immediate hunger.
Yeshua essentially rebuked them, pointing to the fact that David and his companions entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread when they were suffering from extreme hunger. (Mark 2:25–26)