When I first started observing the Sabbath 25 years ago, it wasn't by choice. My husband and I lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, at the time, and everything in our neighborhood - stores, movie theaters, and restaurants - closed from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. At first we struggled to find activities for Friday evenings and Saturdays. But after a few months, we began to enjoy a day with few entertainment options. We read, we walked, we talked. My husband sometimes went bird-watching in the field near our apartment. I wrote long letters. We napped. Sometimes we prayed together leisurely. We simply slowed down. We rested in God's love and experienced his grace.
Our Sabbaths in Israel became God's gift to us individually, and enriched our life as a couple. Through Sabbath-keeping, we experienced the truth that God's love for us isn't based on what we do. We yearned to keep growing in our ability to receive that unconditional love once we returned to the U.S.
Never did a culture need the Sabbath as ours does today. It pressures us to be productive 24/7. Everything we do has to look good and accomplish something. Nothing encourages us to stop. By contrast, the word "Sabbath" literally means stop, pause, cease, desist.
In the Ten Commandments, the Israelites are commanded to keep the Sabbath day holy, or separate, from the other weekdays. The marker of that holiness is the absence of work. But the Old Testament doesn't give many specifics about what constitutes work. One of the few clear commands forbids lighting a fire (Exodus 35:3). This mandate assured that daughters, wives, and female servants wouldn't be expected to cook. All the food had to be cooked before the Sabbath began, and the dishes washed afterwards. The Sabbath granted rest to everyone, even the women who labored the other six days of the week.
In our time, what's the equivalent of "lighting a fire"? What are those actions that send us into work mode?
When we first returned to the U.S. years ago, I was a part-time student and stay-at-home mom. For me, work consisted of studying, housework, and shopping. For my husband, work involved anything from his paid job as well as house repairs and lawn mowing. We simply didn't do any of those tasks on Sundays.
Today, turning on my computer, balancing the checkbook, weeding my garden, and cooking put me into work mode. I know some people find gardening and cooking relaxing; those women have a different list of work activities to avoid on the Sabbath.