As Yeshua traveled throughout the Galilee teaching, announcing the Kingdom of Heaven, and doing healings and other miracles, his fame spread through the Land of Israel like fire. He was making disciples, followers, many friends and some enemies. His teachings and deeds were rooted in the love of G‑d, love of Torah, and love of the people and land of Israel. Yet he was somehow controversial. He was certainly no stranger to the debates that were raging in those days about all matters of Torah interpretation and observance. Perhaps the most controversial of those was the observance of Shabbat.
The Torah is remarkably unclear about what kinds of work are forbidden on Shabbat, even though there is a death penalty for doing “work”. It looks like G‑d left a gap in the Torah that needed to be filled in by the teachers and judges. And so a tradition grew that supplied many details to explain what is permitted and what is forbidden.
Before we look at Yeshua’s approach to Shabbat, it is necessary to review briefly the instructions we received in the Torah.
Laws of Shabbat from the Tenakh
Shabbat is hallowed from the week of Creation, when G‑d did his creating in six days, and rested on the seventh. However, He only gave the first instructions when He gave us the manna in the wilderness, before we arrived at Mt. Sinai. We are told to collect twice the daily amount of manna on Friday, because none would be given on Saturday (Exodus 16:22ff). Then at Sinai, the command to keep Shabbat became enshrined in the Ten Commandments.
RSV Exodus 20:8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the L-RD your God; in it you shall not do any work …
We are told that we must not work on Shabbat, but there is no explanation of what is “work”. Later, still at Sinai, after giving the instructions for building the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the command is repeated with the warning that violation of Shabbat is punishable by death. Yet we are still not told what is “work”.
Exo. 31:14 You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; every one who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. 15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the L‑RD …
After the episode of the golden calf, and before we began building the Mishkan, the warning is repeated. One detail is added—that we must not kindle a fire on Shabbat.
Exo. 35:2 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy sabbath of solemn rest to the L-RD; … 3 you shall kindle no fire in all your habitations on the sabbath day.”
Elsewhere in the Torah there is an example of a man who is caught gathering sticks of wood on Shabbat, and he is executed by stoning (Num. 15:32-36). There is no explanation why this was a violation of Shabbat.
Another detail is found in Jeremiah:
Jeremiah 17: 21 … do not bear a burden on the sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. 22 And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the sabbath …
The Rabbinical tradition understands this to mean that it is forbidden to carry anything from one domain to another, that is, across a boundary between private and public property such as a door or gate.
Nehemiah 13:15-22 adds treading of grapes to make wine, and buying and selling, to the list of forbidden work.
This is about all the information we have in Tenakh to define what is “work”. Since the penalty for violating Shabbat is death, it is important that we as a people come to some understanding of what exactly is forbidden and what is permitted. The details are filled in over time by our tradition.
Laws of Shabbat from the Mishnah
Our Sages searched the Tenakh for every clue as to what might be considered forbidden work. They found a big one in the texts we already looked at in Exodus 31 and 35. Since the warning to observe Shabbat is repeated after the instructions for building the Mishkan, and then again just before the construction began, they understood from this that what was forbidden must be the same works that were performed when building the Mishkan. The list is found in the Mishnah, consisting of 39 categories of forbidden work, and each category has derived categories that are expounded in the Talmud.
Mishnah Shabbat 7:2 The principal categories of [forbidden] work are forty minus one: Sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, sorting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, whitening it, combing it, dyeing it, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying, untying, sewing two stitches, tearing for the purpose of sewing two stitches, hunting a deer, slaughtering it, skinning it, salting it, curing its hide, scraping it, cutting it, writing two letters, erasing for the purpose of writing two letters, building, demolishing, extinguishing a flame, lighting a flame, striking with a hammer, carrying from one domain to another.
These 39 categories, and the few details found in Tenakh, form the framework for the laws of Shabbat.
Then some Rabbis added another category of activities that were not explicitly forbidden, but they were discouraged because they look like work, or they might lead one accidentally to work. This is called shvut. It includes actions such as handling a tool that one is not permitted to use, or playing a musical instrument—because a string could break and one might be tempted to repair it by tying a new string (which is in the 39 categories above). Healing the sick is considered shvut if the sick person’s life is not in danger. Obviously there was disagreement about what is or is not shvut.
Yeshua’s Activities on Shabbat
Let us first notice that Yeshua is never accused of specific violations of Torah or Rabbinical prohibitions. He does not light a fire on Shabbat. He does not work in his father’s carpenter shop. He does not do business. Had he done any of these, we would surely have heard about it from his opponents.
When people questioned something that Yeshua did on Shabbat, it generally involved healing. Sometimes he would heal with a word, sometimes with a touch. Once he made clay from dust on the ground and used it to restore a man’s eyesight (John 9). These are not violations of any command in Tenakh, nor of the 39 categories. They are shvut, which is discouraged but not forbidden.
When challenged, Yeshua would usually make an argument from Torah to show that his act was not a violation.
John 7:22 Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man upon the sabbath. 23 If on the sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the sabbath I made a man’s whole body well?
Rabbi Hillel also used arguments from Torah to prove that the Pesach lamb must be sacrificed at the proper time, even if that time was on Shabbat. In the Jerusalem Talmud, Pesachim 39a, he argues all day with a strict group of colleagues, advancing many arguments from Torah to prove his point. However, they did not accept his arguments. Only when he says, “This is what I learned from my teachers Shemaya and Abtalion,” is his point accepted.
Later in the Mishnaic period, after the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132‑135 CE, this type of Biblical argument became more common and accepted. In Yeshua’s time, the Schools of Hillel and Shammai were more interested in consolidating and passing on the traditions they received from their predecessors. Recall that one of the characteristics that astonished people about Yeshua was that “he taught with authority, and not like the Scribes” (Matthew 7:28f). He was not afraid to teach in his own name, rather than citing earlier Rabbis.
On another occasion Yeshua uses a different argument, but with similar results.
Matthew 12:9 And he went on from there, and entered their synagogue. 10 And behold, there was a man with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “What man of you, if he has one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, whole like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and took counsel against him, how to destroy him.
His argument makes sense, but it was not acceptable to this group of Pharisees who were trying to discredit him. Note that Yeshua is not arguing that it is permitted to break Shabbat, even for healing. He is saying that healing is permitted. “It is lawful to do good on Shabbat,” he said. Yet Shabbat must still be observed.
I once heard of a Christian seminary student who constantly complained to the school librarian because the library was closed on Sunday (for them that was the Sabbath). He used Yeshua’s argument that a person would save his sheep from a pit on the Sabbath, so why not be able to study in the library? After repeated attempts to convince her, the wise librarian finally told him, “Young man, I suggest you take better care of your sheep!” Even something that might be shvut and technically not forbidden, ought still to be done during the week if possible, in order to keep the sanctity of Shabbat.
Now another example, but with an interesting twist
Luke 13:10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And there was a woman who had had a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years; she was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. 12 And when Yeshua saw her, he called her and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” 13 And he laid his hands upon her, and immediately she was made straight, and she praised God. 14 But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Yeshua had healed on the sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead it away to water it? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?”
The synagogue ruler’s response to Yeshua’s healing of this woman was typical of the Torah‑observant Jews of that time, as well as of today. Yeshua’s argument this time has a “knotty” problem. He says to the people that they will untie their ox or mule in order to take them to water. Now untying a knot was one of the 39 categories, and this could be a problem with his argument. Further research is needed to know whether they actually untied their animals on Shabbat. Perhaps there were ways of tying up an animal without making a knot. Or there may have been simple types of knots that were not prohibited to untie them. In any case, nobody actually untied anything in this story. Yeshua merely poses an example of how people are merciful to animals on Shabbat, and should also be merciful to people. He uses a play on words, comparing the untying of an animal to the “untying” of this woman who was “tied up” by a sickness.
There was at least one case that did not involve healing, where Yeshua’s Shabbat observance was questioned.
Matthew 12:1 At that time Yeshua went through the grain fields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” 3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the law how on the sabbath the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. … 8 For the Son of man is lord of the sabbath.”
First of all, plucking and eating grain while passing through a field is indeed allowed (Deuteronomy 23:25). What is forbidden is harvesting the grain that is not yours. The question here is, is this allowed on Shabbat? The weighing of Torah commands against one another to see which takes precedence is a common practice in the Mishnah and Talmud, especially those questions that involve Shabbat. Some Pharisees see what the disciples did (Yeshua did not do this), and they accuse them of doing what is not legal on Shabbat. The only category of the 39 that is in question here is that of reaping. Is plucking a few grains and eating them considered reaping? Since the law in Deuteronomy distinguishes between plucking and harvesting, one could argue that there is a difference also on Shabbat.
Yeshua does not bring a halakhic argument this time. He cites a story about David, who came to the Mishkan looking for food for him and his men. The priest says he has only the Bread of the Presence, which was for the priests to eat (1Samuel 21:1‑6). The priest says he will give some to David provided he and his men are not unclean. David assures him that they are on a mission, and that both the men and their vessels are clean. This bread was changed every Shabbat, and replaced with newly baked bread (Leviticus 24:8). It looks like David and his men also came on Shabbat looking for food.
Yeshua goes on to argue that the priests in the Temple do work on Shabbat that is forbidden outside the Temple. This is true, and recognized in Rabbinic literature, on the basis that the commands concerning Shabbat are “for you”, while “for G‑d” such work is allowed in the Temple. Then Yeshua says that there is here something greater than the Temple. Is he suggesting that he and his disciples should be considered like the high priest and the other priests, and where they are is like the Temple in sanctity? This is an outrageous claim.
He completes his argument by saying, “For the Son of man is lord of the Sabbath.” “Son of Man” can be a Messianic title; it is also a very regular phrase that just means ‘a person’. In this case he probably meant it as the Messianic title, since he makes a claim to be, or to be involved with, “something greater than the Temple”. His appeal to David’s eating the bread of the presence might suggest that Yeshua is the Son of David, another Messianic title. These factors give him the right to say that he is “lord of the Sabbath”, which I would not take to mean a divine title, but rather that he has some authority where the Sabbath is concerned.
Another way to look at this last phrase might be to read “son of man” to mean ‘a person’. In other words, a person is a master of Shabbat, rather than its servant. The parallel version of this story in Mark ends with just such a statement. Instead of “the Son of man is lord of the Sabbath”, Mark writes:
Mark 2:27 The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath;
This statement echoes the thought in a Midrash from the late second century, much later than Yeshua. The Torah text raises a question because it says Shabbat is “for you”, and elsewhere it says it is “for the L‑RD”.
Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 31:2 R. Shimon b. Menassia says, “And you shall keep the Sabbath, for it is holy to you” (Ex. 31:14) — Sabbath is given to you and you are not given to the Sabbath.
Yeshua answers the question in the same way that Rabbi Shimon answers it some 150 years later. Yes, keeping Shabbat is a mitzvah, and we must do that, but our understanding of what is permitted or forbidden should be decided on the more lenient basis that Shabbat is for man, and not vice versa.
Did Yeshua Violate Shabbat?
On the basis of the testimony of the Gospels, Yeshua absolutely did not violate any commandments relating to Shabbat. He did step into the gray areas, acts like healing that would be considered shvut. I believe he did so because it was precisely those areas that were being debated and decided in his time. I also believe he chose the gray areas to call attention to who he is, to raise that issue in the minds of some of the people around him. If he called himself “Lord of Shabbat” in a messianic sense, surely that shows how highly he regarded Shabbat, because who would declare himself to be the “lord” of something unimportant?
At the same time, Yeshua stood in the tradition of the Rabbis of his time. Like Hillel before him, Yeshua argued from the Torah that the things he did on Shabbat were permitted. He did not claim that he had the right to break Shabbat. And like Hillel, his midrashic arguments were not received, because the authorities of his day preferred the authority of the Oral Torah that was received from the earlier teachers. And also like Hillel, Yeshua took a more lenient approach to Torah, placing the well-being of people ahead of the strictures of observance.