The blog series RJB is based on my reading of the Jefferson Bible for the 21st Century, published by Humanist Press.
A Shabat-Breaker Stoned to Death
And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day. And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation. And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him. And the LORD said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp. And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the LORD commanded Moses. – Numbers 15:32-36
Shabat Was Made for Man: a Humanist Appropriation of Shabat
The above must serve as background to understand Mark 2:23-28, where Jesus concludes that “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath.” To the mindset of his listeners, this would have sounded like blasphemy. Everyone knew that Shabat was the day of the Jewish God and many were prepared to kill those who desecrated the holy day, as we see in the example that was made of the poor man in Numbers 15. The regulations related to the seventh day were so important that they were enshrined in the Ten Commandments.
By saying this, Jesus inverted the commandment and argued for a humanist and utilitarian version of the commandment. The holy day was meant to be a blessing and a source of pleasure for mortals, not for God.
It is true that elsewhere Jesus is credited with saying that “not one iota” of the Torah would remain unfulfilled, and that there is a blatant contradiction here. It is difficult, in view of these two passages, to discern whether Jesus was a reformer or a fundamentalist. One cannot be both. This is also true with the commandment to stone an adulteress even if she has been raped (in Deuteronomy 22), of which Jesus also set a new and different example by challenging the sinless to cast the first stone. This is part of the big problem with the faulty idea of scripture as authoritative, rather than handed down recollections: the reader has to choose which Jesus to follow.
But I would like to focus specifically on the usefulness of the Shabat, not necessarily celebrated as the rabbis or the orthodox would celebrate it, but as a day of rest, a day of being with family and friends, a sacred day separated from the rest of time. I do think a good case can be made for observing some kind of Shabat, and I’m not alone in this assertion. In the Book of Community, the Las Indias collective argues that periodic communal ceremonies are expressions of self-respect and a necessary ingredient for a communal identity’s continuity. Jews often say that it is not they who have kept the Shabat, but the Shabat that has kept them. I’ve argued in the past that the Twentieth celebrations were originally meant to have a similar role in the Epicurean tradition. The Shabat can be understood as an act of faithfulness in remembering one’s narratives. Even atheistic Jews recognize this, and in fact the Society for Humanistic Judaism utilizes secular liturgy to celebrate the Shabat.
But Shabat can serve other uses. Alain De Botton, for instance, has made a call for celebrating a digital Sabbath. This is a day when we disconnect from our phones, and all electronic devices, in order to live less as cyborgs and more like real humans with real social interaction. It is true that, particularly when on the train, we do see the majority of people immersed in the world provided by their electronics. At times, one still sees people reading books, but that is less frequent. People live on their phones, literally. The digital Sabbath might be one way to reconnect with real people, face to face. A day to reclaim our mental space.
Some have argued that the institution of the Shabat was initially the result of ancient worker struggles for days off. If this is so, these early struggles may have taken place in ancient Sumeria, where there is the earliest record of people taking a sabbatical and of the week being divided into seven days. We can think of both Saturday and Sunday as our civilization’s extended Shabat, and build traditions for those days according to our values and projects of self-creation.
The key here is that because time is non-renewable, it is wrong to waste time. The days we have to ourselves, we should use them for what really matters to us and fully relish those days.