Shabbat and Commerce

Today, I’d like to address a common blind spot regarding Shabbat, among those from church backgrounds who would like to live a more Torah-observant lifestyle. Many who grew up in Christian churches see nothing wrong with going out to eat and then stopping off at Costco or Target as soon as the church service lets out on Sunday. It seems normal and acceptable, and it pretty much is – for Sunday. Some of us may hear tales from the old days about how stores and businesses used to close on Sunday, or maybe know of a few more “backward” (usually conservative) communities or just occasional businesses still follow this practice today. To most, this probably seems quaint, at this point in history, in the U.S..

But once you have been convicted by Torah and the Ruach (Spirit) that you need to keep Shabbat on Saturday, you can get into trouble, unthinkingly applying this practice to Shabbat, as well.

Though not explicitly stated in Torah, it is made abundantly clear in the book of Nehemiah that buying and selling are not to be normal activities on Shabbat:

15 In those days I saw people in Judah treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and loading donkeys with wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I warned them about the day on which they were selling provisions. 16 Men of Tyre dwelt there also, who brought in fish and all kinds of goods, and sold them on the Sabbath to the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem.

17 Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said to them, “What evil thing is this that you do, by which you profane the Sabbath day? 18 Did not your fathers do thus, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Yet you bring added wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.”

19 So it was, at the gates of Jerusalem, as it began to be dark before the Sabbath, that I commanded the gates to be shut, and charged that they must not be opened till after the Sabbath. Then I posted some of my servants at the gates, so that no burdens would be brought in on the Sabbath day. 20 Now the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares lodged outside Jerusalem once or twice.

21 Then I warned them, and said to them, “Why do you spend the night around the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you!” From that time on they came no more on the Sabbath. 22 And I commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves, and that they should go and guard the gates, to sanctify the Sabbath day.

Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of Your mercy! – Nehemiah 13:15-22

We see in this passage that commerce has to do with profaning the day. When we think of “profane” in common understanding, we think of something dirty, or filthy talk – profanity. What it really means, in this sense, is “common.” We have six other days in which we do common things – including working for a living, and spending our earnings. Shabbat is to be unlike the other, common days. In the Havdalah blessings, we bless G-d, “who separates the holy from the profane” (or “mundane”, depending on your translation.) The Torah does say we are to keep the Sabbath holy, and I believe the Nehemiah passage sheds light on how that was understood by the Torah’s original audience.
Shabbat is to be a day of resting – not only from our normal work, but also from acquiring material things. It is a day to be content with what we already have – and thank the One who has blessed us with so much. And more than that – we should aspire to avoid talking about business, or planning shopping trips, or engaging in any more of the workday materialism than absolutely necessary. Setting these as goals will add more Shalom to your Shabbat, without doubt. Just keep telling yourself, “I can do that another day,” and move on.

This commerce avoidance is a discipline, undoubtedly. When my family started to try keeping Shabbat when I was a teen, we didn’t figure it out for awhile. But the Father was faithful and patient with us, and gave us a few lessons we could look back on as markers along the path. The first, we refer to as “Sabbath Jam.” My mom unthinkingly bought two or three flats of strawberries from the local berry stand on a Saturday morning in June. The berries then took top priority, as we went to work cleaning and hulling them all, to turn into our yearly jam supply. We realized our mistake when we were still up to our elbows in strawberries. We were up late in the night, dealing with all the berries, which would have spoiled if we had left them for later. As it was, the jam we made never set, so every time we ate the extremely runny jam for the rest of the year, we were reminded to avoid the common (buying berries and making jam for future consumption) on the holy Shabbat.

Another time, after we were better informed, we went into a store to get some necessary/emergency supplies on Shabbat, and I saw a beautiful shirt I just had to have. It was on sale, and away from our usual shopping locations, so after debating with myself, I decided to buy it while I was there anyway. It wasn’t working, right? And it was so simple – just reaching into my purse for some cash, and it was mine. Well . . . when I got it home, it was still beautiful, but it was sewn wrong. The buttons didn’t line up with the buttonholes, so it never looked right when I wore it. Yes, I could have gone to work and moved all the buttons, but I decided to leave it that way, and keep it as a reminder not to go clothes shopping on Shabbat.
Another problem that engaging in commerce raises is that of paying someone else who IS working, and thereby contributing to their breaking of the holy day that was instituted at Creation (Genesis 2:3). Even if they aren’t convicted that they need to keep this day sacred, if you know better, yet you are contributing to what you know to be their sin, are you accountable?

Just some things to think about, Obviously, this discussion can (and has) gone on for thousands of years, regarding where to draw your family’s lines, what constitutes “emergency spending,” etc.. And this is only one aspect of Sabbath-keeping.

If you are interested in further discussion and examination, I found a couple of neat articles on the topic. The first is really fun, the second is more scholarly, with some great points.

Saturday Without My Wallet

How to Observe a Biblical Sabbath

As always, I welcome discussion and questions.

Thanks for reading, and Shavua Tov!

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