The word Sabbath, Shabbat in Hebrew, comes from a root word meaning “to cease”: it is the cessation of work on the seventh day. One of the justifications for the Sabbath day rest in the Hebrew Bible comes from a creation theology:
“For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.” Exod 20:11.
For those who are overworked during this time of COVID-19, working longer shifts in health, food services, or other industries addled with the burden of going online, a whole day’s rest sounds an unrealistic luxury. And yet rest is commanded in the law of the Exodus, because rejuvenation is essential for humans to flourish; to pause in this way is to experience the holy. To cease work is as essential to the community as work itself. The seriousness of this commandment is found in its place alongside other commandments: “do not murder” or “do not steal”. It is my daily prayer that those who are overwhelmed throughout this time with work, will be provided with the means and space for peaceful rest, a Shabbat Shalom.
For others, COVID-19 is experienced as a period of complete cessation. Some have lost their jobs or the activities that kept them busy; whilst others continue to study or work from home – busy, but with the peculiar feeling that every day feels the same. How is it possible to cease on the seventh day when all normality on the other six days has already ceased? Living in isolation is intense emotional and mental work; where is peaceful rest, Shabbat Shalom, in the midst of ongoing, exhausting cessation of normal activities?
Closer examination of other sabbath commandments in the Hebrew Bible may provide some answer. The other account of the commandments in Deut 5:12-15 is addressed to the heads of a household, “But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” But the command doesn’t end there; instead it goes on to list all the workers under the care of the heads of household who also rest, “Your son, your daughter, your male and female slave, your ox and your donkey, your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns.” Central to this commandment is that those under your care are able to rest, for you too “were a slave in the land of Egypt.” The Sabbath command is not simply to rest on the seventh day; the command is to give others rest, those who perhaps need rest more than you.
This principle is made even more explicit in the instructions for Sabbath year for the fields in Exodus 23:10: “six years, the fields should be sown, and on the seventh it lies fallow”. For the good of the field, and your future yield? Perhaps. But the more important reason is stated in v. 11, “that the poor of your people may eat.”
To find sabbath rest, especially for those of us who have already ceased normal activities, may be to give others rest. A phone call to give a friend rest from their loneliness; an offer to take a burden from another; a financial gift to give someone rest from money worries. This too can bring a peaceful Sabbath, Shabbat Shalom.
Rachelle Gilmour is Bromby Senior Lecturer in Old Testament at Trinity College. She completed her studies in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at the University of Sydney (PhD), before undertaking postdoctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Edinburgh. She has also held positions as Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at BBI: The Australian Institute of Theological Education, and research fellow at the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University.