by Thandazani Mhlanga | September 6, 2022 |
In 1920, the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibited the manufacture, sale and transport of alcoholic beverages. What President Hoover would later call “a noble experience” also demonstrated the old adage that necessity is the mother of invention.
The ingenuity of Californian winemakers is a good example. Since the making, selling and transporting of wine was illegal, they turned to making, selling and transporting grape bricks – dried grapes compressed into a cube that could be rehydrated.
The bricks of a business have been said to come with this witty warning:
After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug in the cupboard for twenty days or it will turn into wine.
Such clever ways of circumventing Prohibition could explain why this period saw “more than doubling the consumption of wine in the United States from 70 million gallons per year in 1917 to 150 million gallons in 1925.”
This creative interpretation is a good example of the difficulty in understanding the essence of a given law. A legal framework that results in sneaky workarounds places the interpreter’s understanding outside the intent of the legislator.
One religious law that has a long history of varying interpretations and creative workarounds is the Sabbath. Consider the reiteration of the Sabbath law as found in Isaiah 58:13ff:
If you turn your foot away from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy daytime of the honorable Lord, And you shall honor him, not making your own ways, Nor finding your own pleasure, Nor speaking yours words, Then thou shalt be pleased in the Lord… The mouth of the LORD hath spoken (NKJV).
This legal prohibition seems vague. For what exactly counts as “pleasure”? Must I be constantly on my guard against anything that threatens to bring satisfaction and joy on the Sabbath day? What does “say my own words” mean? And what exactly qualifies as prohibited work on the Sabbath?
This broad lack of specificity has been and continues to be fertile ground for the growth of a range of legal interpretations and workarounds. I want to explore a few of them and highlight how they have shaped important modern Adventist traditions.
The Jewish community to whom the Dead Sea Scrolls belonged had an interesting idea of what it meant to “say your own words” on the Sabbath. The following statement is from one of the scrolls in their library known as the Damascus Document.
On the Sabbath, let no one speak a base and empty word: he will demand no payment from his neighbor; he must not enter into a dispute over money or profit; he will not talk about matters relating to work and work that must be done the next morning (CD 10:17-19).
The Dead Sea community understood that “saying your own words” was not merely discouraging frivolous talk, but as a ban on commercial conversations on the Sabbath. Engaging in financial transactions and collecting unpaid debts that day was unacceptable.
Unsurprisingly, other performers had a different take. The Mishnah suggests that one could participate in business-related conversations as long as the choice of words was deliberately vague (Shabbat 23:1). To do any business on the Sabbath, one had to be good at circumlocution. Various sects within Judaism have taken different positions, each using their subjective values as an interpretative lens.
Traditional Seventh-day Adventists would likely agree with the values of the Dead Sea community that business negotiations should be avoided on the Sabbath. But other definitions of this passage can prove problematic.
I have known congregations where starting a sermon with a little humor might be cause enough to call an emergency board meeting to discuss pastor competence. The anti-humor stance is reflected in the NIV’s interpretation of Isaiah 58:13, which renders it “speak unnecessary words”—suggesting that every word spoken on the Sabbath must have a spiritual purpose and meaning.
Preparing food on the Sabbath was also considered “doing one’s own pleasure,” and some groups forbade it.
The Dead Sea community made an exception for foods that were in danger of decomposing in the field. If a fruit falls to the ground and, upon inspection, it appears to be beginning to rot, picking and eating that fruit on the Sabbath is legally acceptable. If the fruit shows no signs of rotting, picking it up and eating it would be picking and therefore unacceptable.
The Falashas (Ethiopian Jews whose traditions predate Talmudic traditions) believed that all food should be prepared on Fridays, without exception. Josephus says that the Essenes forbade cooking and baking on the Sabbath only because a fire had to be lit (wars II 8:9). The Pharisees, the movers and shakers of the Jerusalem group, forbade all activities and forms of food preparation on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-24).
Modern-day Adventists are, for the most part, not completely legalistic about this. Although I’ve experienced potlucks where the servers can’t cook anything that requires the use of a stove or even a plug-in slow cooker, most congregations in North America don’t make this an issue. I suspect that attitudes would differ in various parts of the world.
Like the followers of Shammai and the Dead Sea group, some Jewish sects forbade sending non-Jews and new converts to complete their work on a Sabbath. The Hillelites (disciples of the Jewish scholar Hillel the Elder) permitted it only if the non-Jewish person was invited or ordered to perform the task before the beginning of the sabbath (see Mishnah Shabbat 1:7-9).
In fact, the latter may have a lot to do with the reasoning behind Isaiah 58. In an article in Adventist today Olive Hemmings points out that “doing what pleases you” is defined in verse 3: “Yet on the day of your fast [which Isaiah identifies as the Sabbath in verse 13] you do as you like and exploit all your workers. If so, then the real reason behind the warning to do “your own pleasure” was not recreation or pleasure, as we might define “pleasure” today, but injustice to those who had been asked to work on the Sabbath to enrich the pious Jew. businessman who was at home observing the Sabbath with his family.
It seems that mainstream Jewry in Jerusalem viewed saving human life on the Sabbath as unacceptable work (see Luke 13:14-15; 14:5), while saving the lives of animals was legally permitted. On the other hand, the Dead Sea group forbade bearing children on the Sabbath, but saving the life of an adult human was acceptable (Damascus 11:11,16).
Modern Adventism has been content with a syncretistic approach. There are acceptable types of work, such as that of doctors and nurses. But the lawfulness of some works is not so clear. Is the work of, for example, physiotherapists and pharmacists different from that of doctors and nurses? What about first responders such as the police? What about those who cook in a hospital, where people have to be fed on the Sabbath, or those who do the necessary work of cleaning and disinfecting floors and bathrooms?
Spending the Sabbath with the Gentiles
The Dead Sea group considered spending the Sabbath with non-Jews a religious offense. Likewise, scripture and Pharisaical traditions show that the Jerusalem sect considered non-Jews to be ritually unclean, and a true believer could not spend the Sabbath with the unclean.
Modern Adventists seem to have aligned themselves with this way of thinking. Traditional Seventh-day Adventism does not encourage spending the Sabbath with non-Sabbathkeepers. Spending the entire Sabbath within church boundaries, fellowshipping only with other Seventh-day Adventists, is still common in many churches. Among us, the only permitted interaction with “unbelievers” is if we proselytize.
There really is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). As you can see, Adventism as we know it today has infused several Sabbath-keeping traditions into its identity. These different traditions are not all bad, but neither are they all good.
They are particularly harmful when they distort the intention of the legislator. Jesus hinted at his intention when he said, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of peopleand not people to meet Sabbath requirements (Mark 2:27 NLT). “
Could it be that the vagueness of the Sabbath law is part of divine intent, since what is experienced as Sabbath rest is largely a subjective response? The Hebrew reading of Isaiah 58:13 involves negotiation in a relationship not an authoritative ban.
Could it be that the Sabbath was never meant to be rigid and ritualistic, but became so by human design? Legal codes not only function as social contracts; they must reflect the intention of the legislator.
Failure to connect with the fundamental ideas behind the 1920 “noble experiment” guaranteed its failure, as evidenced by the infamous bricks of wine.
How are we do in this regard with understanding the basis of Sabbath observance?
Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, lecturer and author currently studying ancient Near Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto. Pastor Thandazani and his wife, Matilda, have three daughters who are the joy of their lives. His website is themscproject.com.
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