Remembering the Sabbath
By Benjamin Dolson
August 20, 2012
Benjamin Dolson lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his lovely wife. He is a writer of fiction and prose, and is a contributing editor for Day Job Magazine.
Growing up, Sunday mornings went like this: Sunday school, fellowship hour, Big Church. Then, my family of six would commute, via minivan, to my grandparents’ house and join our aunts, uncles, cousins, and stray church friends for supper. Our number often topped thirty. To get a seat at a table you had to be pregnant, very old, or a well-liked guest. There, huddled around card tables filled with casseroles, pasta salads, and fried poultry, we spent the afternoon and early evening filling our paper plates with seconds, and then, desserts. When we said “home” in my family, this is what we meant: too much food, not enough seats. My grandparents had come North, from Kentucky, in the 1950s in search of well-paying union work, but like their accents and their manners, their Sundays also remained distinctly Southern.
Over time, something happened to our idyllic Sundays. As my siblings and cousins and I grew older, we began to excuse ourselves just after supper to go perform various incarnations of The First Job. We were bus boys, stock boys, clerks, baggers, and gofers of every stripe. Sometimes we’d try to “call-in” and request the day off, for “religious reasons”, which compelled one of my managers to request a note from my pastor.
When I was 14 and 9 months I got a job at a grocery store called Meijer. I was a decent worker, motivated by my two fifteen minute breaks, wherein I consumed a Mountain Dew and a Snickers bar (frozen or room temperature, depending on the season), and then, returned to the parking-lot to wrestle with shopping carts and hope to find one of those electric wheelchairs abandoned in some distant lot, which I would be responsible for driving all the way back to its charging station.
Since my entrance into the labor market as a young teenager, I have remained employed, continuously. My resume has exactly zero employment gaps. In varying degrees, I’ve hated many of my jobs since that first. Thankfully, God warns us that work is going to be kind of lame. In Genesis, as He’s outlining their post-Fall lives, God tells Adam and Eve that only “through painful toil” and “the sweat of your brow” will you eat food from the earth. Here, the word “food” can be translated as “Snickers bar”, but “painful toil” and “sweat of your brow” need no translation. I imagine that before the curse, being a cart boy was simple work. The carts would organize themselves into trains that strolled, automatically, into the proper corrals, neither squeaking nor shaking, while the cart boy walked behind these trains, just stewarding.
We call this, in Christian circles, “a calling.” This seems like lofty language for an activity that God has cursed.
Now, don’t think that I’m advocating laziness or that I resent having to work. Like everything under the sun, God redeems our work. The writer Studs Terkel, a man whose life work was devoted to writing about other people’s work, offers this wisdom on the subject: “Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash…in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
Of course, work is not all there is. In Exodus, God commands the Israelites to “remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” and that on the Sabbath “you shall not do any work.” In an effort to clarify what God meant by “work”, so that they could avoid doing it, the religious leaders eventually developed a helpful list of 39 prohibited activities. These tasks included: plowing earth, sowing, reaping, selecting, threshing, kneading, shearing wool, washing wool, beating wool, dyeing wool, extinguishing a fire, kindling a fire, and 27 other tasks, all of which sound equally irrelevant to modern work. And so, soon enough, the 39 prohibited activities became 39 categories of prohibited activities, each of which included a multitude of work-like activities.
If you think this sounds sort of legalistic, then you’re in good company. The Mishnah itself observes, somewhat humorously, that "the laws of Shabbat are like mountains hanging by a hair, for they are little Scripture, but many laws".
Now before we go poking-fun at the speck in our neighbor’s eye let’s note the plank in our own. Sundays are plenty regulated too. Like the Israelites of old, we have a lot of rules to help us keep the Sabbath holy. Our liquor stores are closed. We can’t play the lotto until after 12pm, if it all, depending on the state. We even abstain from Chick-fil-a. (And all of these rules apply before you even set foot in a church.)
There’s this refrain that hangs around modern Christianity. It goes something like this: Why can’t we live Monday through Saturday the way that we live on Sundays? We are right to long for this, but because the Sabbath is meant to be holy, it must remain only a longing. Otherwise, it is like asking why the night can’t be more like the day; why black can’t be more like white; why work can’t be more like home.