As a well known fact, in its history Judaism has struggled with the balance of sanctifying the Sabbath and preserving life. The first book of Macabees gives us one such account of how the Jews in the time of Antiochus IV had to realize that preservation of life in regard to self-defense took precedent over Sabbath restrictions. After nearly being wiped out by the armies of their enemies, the made a determination that they would fight on Shabbat, rather than letting their brothers and sisters be exterminated like vermin (1 Macabees 2:29-41).
In the Gospels (less than two centuries later), there is still a struggle with balancing Sabbath restrictions with compassion for humanity. Yeshua chastises the opposing Pharisees for their lack of compassion and adamantly declares that bringing wholeness to a person on the Sabbath is the overriding element of the normal Sabbath stringencies. Mark records the account of the man with the withered hand as follows:
Another time he went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
Yeshua emphasizes to those around him that the priority of bringing wholeness to another person has taken precedent over Sabbath abstentions.
Another similar case in which Yeshua emphasizes this message is found in the Gospel of Luke:
On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”
The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.
Here he actually interacts with the people, bringing in a chal v’homer argument from Scripture to prove his point.
In both of these instances Yeshua is seen to be critical of the current halacha regarding Sabbath, and by most Christian interpretation as critical of adhering to any form of Sabbath restriction. However, I seriously believe he was helping to shape the embryonic development of the halachic standard of Sabbath observance within the framework of Judaism. I believe his rulings, such as these, helped to shape the “binding and loosing” within the Rabbinic Judaism of today. The Mishnah (compiled less than two centuries after the time of Yeshua) records Sabbath leniencies in regard to aiding a woman in labor.
We may assist a woman in childbirth on the Sabbath; and we may call a midwife from place to place for her; and we may desecrate the Sabbath on her behalf.
(Mishnah, Shabbat 18:3)
According to this mishnah, nearly anything may be done on the Sabbath for the woman giving birth. This includes lighting candles for her, even though she may be blind, for it might give her peace of mind knowing that the midwife could see well. The Gemara goes even further to tell us we may even “desecrate” Sabbath on her account up to seven days after “the opening of the womb.” And in another instance it tells us that a fire may be kindled on the Sabbath to bring warmth to one who is ill, even if it is in warm weather (b.Shabbat 129a).
Just two centuries after Yeshua, the halacha has been codified with the more lenient (and compassionate intent of the Sabbath) viewpoint. We see from these examples Yeshua’s tremendous influence on the development of Rabbinic halacha as the one who would be the “Repairer of the Breaches” (Isaiah 58:9-12).
- Jesus, Friend of Sinners – Part 1
- Fishers of Men – Yeshua’s Messianic Midrash
- Honoring the Sabbath
- Shabbat Shalom Conference ’08
- Vision Quest