The Sabbath in History and Tradition

Where did the Sabbath come from? Why do we keep it holy? What did those who went before us find in it?

For the past six thousand years, the Jews have been celebrating the Sabbath, while Seventh-day Adventist Christians have only been celebrating the Sabbath for the last one hundred fifty years. The Jews have six millennia on us. While we picked up the seventh day, the day God has blessed, and while we discovered the requirement for not doing work, we have much to learn about creating a Sabbath celebration!

Tradition: Is it a bad thing? The Pharisees in the New Testament were hampered by their tradition because they treated it like the law of God, when it really was only something they built themselves. They forgot that it was not their effort that had made the day holy, but God’s blessing on it. God’s blessing was God’s choice, not a response to their “proper” manners. Their intentions had been pure, but they got lost along the way, and forgot that the Sabbath was a celebration, not a burden.

Regardless of some pitfalls along the way, however, the Jewish people have kept the celebration of the Sabbath—they have loved the Sabbath—since very early in human history.

There are Christmas traditions that families celebrate. Easter traditions. Birthday traditions. Holiday traditions. Traditions for the first day of school and Thanksgiving. Tradition is not a bad thing. It is a human thing. Tradition marks off a given day to make it special, enjoyable, recognizable. Traditions are a part of celebrations. Perhaps there is something we can learn from some of the traditions that others have created over the centuries to celebrate the Sabbath.

In a traditional Jewish family, the Sabbath is welcomed before sunset. At least twenty minutes, and for some families, a few hours before the sun sets, the family stops all their preparations and comes together to welcome the Sabbath. A special meal is part of the celebration. For a Jewish family, that meal includes two challah bread loaves, an egg bread made in a braid, and grape juice. The rest of the meal is whatever appeals to the family. You might have popcorn and fruit salad every Friday night. The tradition depends on your family, but the point is to have a tradition.

Another tradition that the Jewish faith treasures is that of blessings. The father of a home blesses his children individually. He prays for them, specifically asking God to protect them and care for them. In the authorized Jewish prayer book, the traditional
blessing for children includes the passage from Numbers 6:24-26: “ ‘The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace’ ” (NKJV).

Not only the children receive blessings, however. The husband and wife also bless each other. The husband might read from Song of Solomon or Proverbs 31, and the wife might read something like Psalm 112. They then pray specifically for each other, asking God to bless their spouse and keep them. They might also add something personal, like telling their spouse how much they love them and how thankful they are that God gave them someone so special. For children to see their parents appreciating each other is important. It is a special memory to build a young life on, that of parents blessing each other. It is also a reminder to the family as a whole of how important a family is. Every week, as the Sabbath comes near, the family comes together and remembers how important each of them is to each other and to God.

A lovely tradition held in Jewish families is that of lighting the Sabbath candles. Twenty minutes before sunset, the wife of the home lights the candles for Sabbath. Traditionally, this was a special time for the woman to pray for her family, and she would do so either aloud or in her heart. There is something beautiful about candlelight. It is restful and creates a special ambiance. Many women cover their heads, often with a special, perhaps heirloom, lace shawl for this prayer, in honor of 1 Corinthians 11:2-5, which talks of the “traditions” (v. 2) and women covering their head for prayer (v. 5).

The type of traditions that a family holds for the Sabbath hours is not as important as having special traditions. The Jewish traditions are beautiful and steeped in history. They remind us Christians of where we came from. It does not matter what cultural background we might have; our lineage goes back all the way to Adam!

There is nothing magical, however, in this particular way of welcoming the Sabbath. God wants us to join with Him honestly and sincerely. Whatever makes the Sabbath a delight to your family and reminds you that you are entering into holy time is what is important to God. Your traditions, whether they be a special meal, a worship with singing, a family walk, or just sitting together and enjoying each other’s company without TV, homework, phone calls and the rest of life getting in the way—your traditions will make the Sabbath something special to look forward to every week!*


* Adapted with permission from the iFollow Discipleship Resource, ©North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.