As a boy in late-1940s Memphis, my dad got a nickel every Friday evening to come by the home of a Russian Jewish immigrant named Harry Levenson and turn on his lights, since the Torah forbids lighting a fire in your home on the Sabbath. My father would wonder, however, if he were somehow sinning. The fourth commandment says that on the Sabbath “you shall not do any work–you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.” Was my dad Levenson’s slave? If so, how come he could turn on Levenson’s lights? Were they both going to hell?
“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” The commandment smacks of obsolete puritanism–the shuttered liquor store, the check sitting in a darkened post office. We usually encounter the Sabbath as an inconvenience, or at best a nice idea increasingly at odds with reality. But observing this weekly day of rest can actually be a radical act. Indeed, what makes it so obsolete and impractical is precisely what makes it so dangerous.
When taken seriously, the Sabbath has the power to restructure not only the calendar but also the entire political economy. In place of an economy built upon the profit motive–the ever-present need for more, in fact the need for there to never be enough–the Sabbath puts forward an economy built upon the belief that there is enough. But few who observe the Sabbath are willing to consider its full implications, and therefore few who do not observe it have reason to find any value in it.
The Sabbath’s radicalism should be no surprise given the fact that it originated among a community of former slaves. The 10 Commandments constituted a manifesto against the regime that they had recently escaped, and rebellion against that regime was at the heart of their god’s identity, as attested to in the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” When the ancient Israelites swore to worship only one god, they understood this to mean, in part, they owed no fealty to the pharaoh or any other emperor.
It is therefore instructive to read the fourth commandment in light of the pharaoh’s labor practices described earlier in the book of Exodus. He is depicted as a manager never satisfied with his slaves, especially those building the structures for storing surplus grain. The pharaoh orders that the slaves no longer be given straw with which to make bricks; they must now gather their own straw, while the daily quota for bricks would remain the same. When many fail to meet their quota, the pharaoh has them beaten and calls them lazy.
The fourth commandment presents a god who, rather than demanding ever more work, insists on rest. The weekly Sabbath placed a hard limit on how much work could be done and suggested that this was perfectly all right; enough work was done on the other six days. And whereas the pharaoh relaxed while his people toiled, Yahweh insisted that the people rest as Yahweh rested: “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.”
The Sabbath, as described in Exodus and other passages in the Torah, had a democratizing effect. Yahweh’s example–not forcing others to labor while Yahweh rested–was one anybody in power was to imitate. It was not enough for you to rest; your children, slaves, livestock, and even the “aliens” in your towns were to rest as well. The Sabbath wasn’t just a time for personal reflection and rejuvenation. It wasn’t self-care. It was for everyone.
There was a reason the fourth commandment came where it did, bridging the commandments on how humans should relate to God with the commandments on how humans should relate to one another. As the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann points out in his book Sabbath as Resistance (2014), a pharaonic economy driven by anxiety begets violence, dishonesty, jealousy, theft, the commodification of sex and familial alienation. None of these had a place in the Torahic economy, which was driven not by anxiety but by wholeness, enoughness. In such a society, there was no need to murder, covet, lie, commit adultery, or dishonor one’s parents.
The Sabbath’s centrality to the Torahic economy was made clearer in other laws building upon the fourth commandment. Every seventh year, the Israelites were to let their fields “rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat.” And every 50th year, they were to not only let their fields lie fallow, but forgive all debts; all slaves were to be freed and returned to their families, and all land returned to its original inhabitants. This was a far cry from the pharaonic regime where surplus grain was hoarded and parsed out to the poor only in exchange for work and loyalty. There were no strings attached; the goal wasn’t accumulating power but reconciling the community.
It is unknown if these radical commandments were ever followed to the letter. In any case, they are certainly not now. The Sabbath was desacralized into the weekend, and this desacralization paved the way for the disappearance of the weekend altogether. The decline of good full-time work and the rise of the gig economy mean that we must relentlessly hustle and never rest. Why haven’t you answered that email? Couldn’t you be doing something more productive with your time? Bring your phone with you to the bathroom so you can at least keep busy.
We are expected to compete with each other for our own labor, so that we each become our own taskmaster, our own pharaoh. Offer your employer more and more work for the same amount of pay, so that you undercut your competition–more and more bricks, and you’ll even bring your own straw.
In our neo-pharaonic economy, we are worth no more than the labor we can perform, and the value of our labor is being ever devalued. We can never work enough. A profit-driven capitalist society depends on the anxious striving for more, and it would break down if there were ever enough.
The Sabbath has no place in such a society and indeed upends its most basic tenets. In a Sabbatarian economy, the right to rest–the right to do nothing of value to capital–is as holy as the right to work. We can give freely to the poor and open our homes to refugees without being worried that there will be nothing left for us. We can erase all debts from our records, because it is necessary for the community to be whole.
It is time for us, whatever our religious beliefs, to see the Sabbatarian laws of old not as backward and pharisaical, but rather as the liberatory statements they were meant to be. It is time to ask what our society would look like if it made room for a new Sabbath–or, to put it a different way, what our society would need to look like for the Sabbath to be possible.
William R Black is a historian of American religion and culture, with a focus on the Civil War era. He recently received his PhD from Rice University and now teaches at Western Kentucky University.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
This Idea was made possible through the support of a grant from the Templeton Religion Trust to Aeon. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Templeton Religion Trust.
Funders to Aeon Magazine are not involved in editorial decision-making, including commissioning or content-approval.