Covenant Connection

Volume 16.4
August 2023/Av 5783

Noachide Sabbath

If God does not exist - nothing matters
If God does exist - nothing else matters

Colloquy: Shabbos and Noachides


"Blessed is the man that does this, and the son of man that lays hold of it: that keeps the Sabbath (Shabbos) from violating it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil."
(Isaiah 56:2)

"A Gentile who observes Shabbos deserves the death penalty."
Reish (Shimon ben) Lakish, Talmud, Sanhedrin 58b


To begin the conversation: Dr. Robert Buxbaum submitted a piece about Noachides observing the Sabbath and our supervising Rabbi Michael Katz critiqued it.

Please allow me, MD, to weigh in: For the true monotheist, or every follower of the God of Israel, the seventh day of the week Sabbath marks the goal and finish of each week. The Sabbath - Shabbos - sanctifies time. It finishes all the purposeful creative activity - i.e., the "work," or deliberate, foresighted, instrumental activity - that characterizes the workweek. 

The Bible teaches that even God elected to keep Shabbos, punctuating Creation with cessation. He stopped actively creating our world and took Himself a little time for renewal, re-dedication and refreshment. Nothing can be completed without that kind of stopping: nothing is complete without rest. By conforming to that cosmic principle, one does as God does: it's a basic Hebrew teaching that by celebrating the Sabbath one imitates God. The Sabbath-keeper commemorates, by personally adopting, God's own cyclic rhythm of Divine creativity, dedicating her or his own creativity to a completion decreed by the Father Himself.

"To fail to honor Shabbos is to fail to honor Him as the Creator; to deliberately honor a different day as one's sabbath is to honor a different deity than the Creator. As for the period of Shabbat itself, which particularly celebrates God's creation of rest, fulfillment, peace and rejoicing, it is especially auspicious for spiritual fellowship and communal worship." [From Rainbow Covenant, p.128, 144fn.]

The great Torah commentator Rashi argues that any Noachide who renounces "idolatry" [in this context, the rejection of God as the super-intelligent, holy, eternally "on-the-job" Creator, Father, Lord and Judge of everything] should definitely celebrate the Sabbath, because desecrating the Sabbath is itself a species of idolatry.

Back to Dr. Buxbaum now. On the larger subject here, our friend, Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, wrote:

On the seventh day, God rested. This statement is not in the Bible as a historical sidelight but as a piece of advice from a loving God on how we should live. God wants us to realize that we were made in His image, and as such we are very important. God wants us to rest because we need it physically and mentally. It’s a time to appreciate ourselves and our neighbors; our friends and our children and our wives or husbands. There is a hope that, if we rest, we will also come to appreciate Him, He who spoke and the world came to be, but that’s not the main idea. The main idea, as God says, is to rest and be refreshed.

Refreshment, as I understand it, means that we should elevate ourselves in our own eyes, to realize that we are not animals or machines. Our value is more than the amount we can produce for others. We can stop and spend on ourselves because we have value to God. We rest and show that have value in ourselves, even when resting.

For a Jew the rest is specified with a lot of details that are not required or implied for a Nachide. Jews are not supposed to do any work that was needed for the Divine sanctuary in the Sinai wilderness, and thus we do not - for instance - write on the Sabbath or or smoke a cigarette. Perhaps these extra prohibitions are there to show the rest of the world, including the Noachides, that you can rest too, and it won't ruin your business or your life. The sabbath has not ruined the life or finances of the Jew.

For a Noachide, you don’t have to rest every week if you wish, it’s advisable that you should, but you don’t have to. Also, a Noachide has no obligation to rest for 24-hours or not write or smoke, or even for the weekly rest to occur on the seventh day. But it is good advice to rest one day out of seven, if you can. In the short term, you will find that you lose some business, but you will regain health, and peace, and friendship. Feel confident that the benefits will outweigh the loss: that your marriage will be stronger from the sabbath, that your family relations will be stronger, and that you will be saved for making some stupid business or investment decisions, or social mistakes. You’ll avoid saying something stupid that could do a lot of damage, just because you got a good days rest.

As for what to do while resting, you can go on walks, or read, or eat and sleep. You can visit neighbors, or play games, or go to a movie, or a museum, or work on a hobby that you enjoy. You can even go to church. Jews don't typically go to movies on the sabbath, but that's a rabbinical stringency [not a black-letter Torah precept]. Movies take away from the refreshment idea, that one should enjoy one’s self in oneself, enjoy the fact that we are alive and important, and enjoy a relationship with our neighbors, friends, family and God too.

Be well, and take this bit of advice from a good friend, God.

P.S. If you think you want to take on the Jews’ sabbath, think twice, or ask a rabbi. If you avoid fun things like movies and nightclubs, you are likely to not enjoy the sabbath at all. You don’t want to end up like the Puritans, people of excruciating piety. The sabbath is a gift, not punishment. Do what you enjoy.


Rabbi Michael Katz responds, in part:

Let's begin with an understanding of what Shabbat means. Back in the time of Noah, God said that humans had to work day and night without a formal break (Genesis 8:22).

["While the earth persists, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease to exist." Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 58b: A non-Jew who keeps Shabbos is liable to the death penalty [death "by the hand of Heaven"], as the Torah says, “Day and night they shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:22). Ravina (Rav Avina, d. 460 C.E.) said: Even on a Monday.]

Later God presented Israel with the gift of a formal day of rest, declaring that this day of rest would be a sign to remind Israel that God is the Creator of everything.

The Midrash teaches all the days of the week had a partner, Sunday with Monday, Tuesday with Wednesday, Thursday with Friday and only Shabbat was left without a partner. G'd then comforted Shabbat and said the Shabbat's partner would be the Children of Israel. The idea is that only Israel was deserving of a formal day of rest.  This theme is repeated a number of times in the Tanach and in our liturgy.

The idea that Shabbat and the Jews go together exclusively is the also the rationale behind the rule that a gentile who observes a Sabbath (on any day of the week) is barging in on a private relationship and claiming that a peculiar gift given to Jews belongs to them as well.

To open Sabbath observance to non-Jews requires some logical calisthenics.  The only way that I see for your view to prevail is if we are allowed to take into account changing circumstances and mores.  You could argue that the populations of the world have seen for themselves the wisdom of a day of rest and have made it standard practice in much of the civilized world. Thus, a Sabbath is no longer seen as a peculiarly Jewish practice.  Perhaps, it was wrong of societies to introduce a Sabbath (especially as it originally had a religious component) but we can't get the genie back into the bottle.  There are a number of Orthodox Jewish practices that are followed today because of the same reasoning.

However, this line of reasoning would allow non-Jews to observe a day of rest but it still would not be correct for us to encourage it.  As Jews we, more than ever, need to strengthen our sense of being God's chosen and be appreciative of our special relationship.  Turning our Sabbath, our very special gift, into a free-for-all profanes our sense of having a unique relationship with our Creator.

MD, after conversation with Dr. Buxbaum and Rabbi Katz:

I'd like to permanently retire the ghastly idea that the God of Creation commands Noachides to work ceaselessly. I blame a bad translation: As Rabbi Katz helpfully pointed out to me, the Bible's Hebrew for "will not cease" [day and night will not cease] - lo yishbotu - contains shabbat, sh'b't, as its root. So the Torah commentary he cites is referring to Shabbos, the Sabbath, not mere off-time or a break.

Two points: 1) Shabbos isn't just leisure, a restful day off. 2) No, the King of the Universe has not arranged Creation to condemn the vast majority of the human race (not to mention their poor dumb working animals) to never stop working!

This kind of thing - representing the Torah as begrudging non-Jews God's love (or even a day off!) - makes me crazy.

So: the subject here is Noachides making a Sabbath, a particular sacred observance. When Rav Avina, quoted above, spoke to the subject, it wasn't about a ban on rest or time off - Hebrew, by the way, has other ways of saying "work-break" - but on making a ritual Shabbos. That is: taking a profoundly holy Hebrew rite from Sinai - and from Israel's patriarchs and matriarchs from long before Sinai! - involving the sanctification of time, and repurposing it for non-Jews. 

Needless to say, many of the world's Noachides rushed to do exactly that; exactly what Rav Avina said that they shouldn't do!

Christians took the start of the week, devoting it to the new figure, a dead Jewish fellow, as their "savior" and "redeemer" invested - supposedly - with the power of doing things for acolytes that the Living God couldn't or wouldn't. Muslims took Fridays, devoting it to an Allah, a deity who, though supposed to be the "old" God of Israel, is generally believed to hate Jews. (Among other problems with Allah's name.)

Of course the "old" religion of Israel with its  "old" God is just clay in the hands of upstarts; foreign innovators picking up Hebrew-isms like Jewish prayer shawls (tallisim) or skull caps (yarmulkes), or even whole books of Jewish Scripture, among other "borrowings" - that's how good things get shared; it's simply how the world works. But it shouldn't work against Israel, God and Torah!

I myself have seen "Black Hebrews" praying and ringing in Shabbat in the name of a HaShem who isn't HaShem, no friend of the seed of Abraham. (Contrary to 1 Samuel 12:22, for instance, their "HaShem" DOES "forsake His people.")

The point of the warning here  is, I think: nobody should use the religion of Israel against the God of Israel, to diminish His Name or the honor due Him. Nobody honors God by worshiping a non-god. A Noachide should either accept, philosophically, all the precepts of monotheism and become a conscious servant of HaShem or leave His Way entirely alone.

Finally, I hope, we're finished with the idea of a horrid Eighth Noachide Law commanding non-Jews to labor ceaselessly. Opinion has changed. For example, in my own fairly well-thumbed Orthodox Union modern Artscroll prayerbook "for Sabbath and Festival" - which, as I remember, I got from Rabbi Katz - we have this mention of Shabbos,

"You did not give it, HaShem, our God, to the nations of the lands, nor did you make it the inheritance, our King, of the worshipers of graven idols. And in its contentment the  uncircumcised shall not  abide - for to Israel, Your people,  have you given it in love, to the seed  of Jacob, whom You have chosen. The people that sanctifies the  Seventh  - they will all be satisfied and delighted from Your goodness."

This accompanies a note (p. 378): 

"If the Sabbath were nothing more than a day of rest, it could be the equal property to all nations. But the Sabbath is a day of holiness  and, as such, it could be  given only to the nation that accepts the mission of sanctity. God did not give the Sabbath to "the nations of the lands," i.e., who worship the land and the power it implies; nor to "the worshipers of graven idols," who  ascribe mastery of the world to  such natural forces  as the heavenly bodies, fertility, nature, etc., that they symbolize by means of idols; not to "uncircumcised," who  are unwilling  to curb their lusts for the sake of a higher goal."

So, in other words, we are NOT talking about "work without ceasing" but a completely different matter: about not blaspheming the Living God by mixing the profoundly sacred and nationally unique Hebrew rite with unholiness. (And particularly, obviously, with idolatrous, pagan, Jew-hating content. 

Here too is the immensely authoritative Maimonides, Rambam, in the Mishneh Torah (the Yad). He's speaking of Gentiles under Jewish national authority in the Land of Israel, in Messianic times - or whenever the people of Israel have full national authority in the Land of Israel. He explains:

"The general principle governing these matters, regarding non-Jews who rest, even on a weekday, observing that day as a Sabbath, is... "They are not to be allowed to originate a new religion or create commandments for themselves based on their own decisions. They may either become righteous converts [gair tzedek, righteous sojourners] and accept all the Torah's Commandments or retain their statutes without adding to or detracting from them." Mishneh Torah (Yad), Hilchot Melachim u'Milchamteihem 10:9.

Obviously, Gentiles retaining "their own statutes" - their "engraved laws," their accepted ways of doing things  - involves taking time off, vacation days, fun days, sick-days and holidays.

As for keeping to their traditional ways otherwise, since Rambam couldn't possibly be teaching that Noachides should keep worshiping horrible false gods, retaining their old ways - their oppressive, unjust, HaShem-denying ways - in every detail, we presume that his main focus here is on Israel, on how Jews are supposed to respond to Gentile religiosity. To me, at least, I think it's obvious - the real thrust of this teaching for Noachides  is "keep in your own lane": don't try to hybridize or usurp Jewish ways to honor falsity. 

The point here, I think: a Noachide should either accept, philosophically, all the precepts of monotheism, or remain an atheist or pagan.

The idea that a Noachide's wrongful "keeping" of Shabbos"deserves death" probably shouldn't be taken any more literally than (Talmud, Berachot  6b), "He who transgresses the words of the Sages deserves death." The idea, entirely, is "death at the Hand of Heaven," not by human hands.

That being said, I personally wish suffering on anyone who takes Sabbath holiness and devotes it to the glory of latter deities or principles.

What about the worship of sincere Noachides, who love HaShem and follow Him, and only Him?

The Noachide Commandment against Avodah Zorah, Strange Service/Strange Worship - prohibiting gross idolatry is a negative precept. It prohibits horrible worshipful practices that no god worth worshiping would ever invite, or tolerate - like murdering or needlessly causing suffering to honor said "deity" - as everyone of every nation with even half a brain should see. All the Seven Universal Laws are negative, 'thou shall not' Commandments.

However: no one is righteous unless she or he tries to do the opposite of what the Seven Commandments forbid.

Obviously: A pious person doesn't just avoid robbing others; she or he gives charity and does acts of kindness.

When it comes to Avodah Zorah/Strange Worship: obviously, a beneficent, well-meaning, pious person doesn't just avoid the cruel, awful worship services of terrible false gods! The Living God calls on every person or every nation to follow Him, and Him alone, much as He legally commands the same of Israel. So the good woman, and the good man, who seek goodness, should consciously try to worship, serve and glorify the Living God.

One of the marvelously great things about the Seven Noachide Commandments is that they define good and evil just this way. That is, they're benchmarks, and a guide to what God wants. E.g., murder is evil; you would do well to save the life in danger. Blaspheming God is evil; you would do well to do what you can to make His Name great. Treating your food in a hoggish, cruel way is evil; you would do well to procure your food like a civilized person, and perhaps even keep kosher!

Most all of the Torah teachings that God has given Israel, including even characteristically "Jewish" things like the Sabbath, and kosher foods, are supposed to help with the endeavor of consciously serving God.

All this being said, the Sabbath in all its glory does NOT belong to Noachides - but it's still glorious enough that only someone who's really not "with it" should ignore it. Noachides should definitely not observe it as though Shabbos in all its glory, with its two main different aspects, does belong to them - that is, exactly in the manner of observant Israel.

Israel isn't supposed to merely celebrate Shabbat but to keep it, sanctify it, guard it and preserve it - indeed, to hallow it in the eyes of all Creation. Is it likely that a Noachide would choose to sanctify and guard it, like the Jews are supposed to, as a 25-hour period, from Friday evening to Saturday night, with all its detailed stringencies, including its total ban on any of the Torah's specified 39-categories of prohibited creative activities?

Celebrating Shabbat as a great and holy day, a special, blessed day of healing mental and moral hygiene, strikes me personally as the best - and really only - thing for Noachides. Dr. Buxbaum speaks of its benefits. The day commemorates the greatest of all gifts to the whole human race, of dominion over planet earth (God stopping Creating with mankind, despite all our flaws). Beyond that, though, Shabbat in all its glory "belongs" to Israel and distinguishes Israel, not just because of the Sabbath's elemental connection to all existence (Exodus 20:11, "For in six "days" THE LORD made heaven and earth, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day"), but also due to its crucial liberationist aspect (Deuteronomy 5:15, "Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and THE LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and a stretched out arm, therefore THE LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day".

That aspect of Shabbat, as the symbol of Jewish autonomy and liberty, removing Israel from the nightmare of servitude in Egypt to the blessings of eternal freedom, is Israel's alone. Which does NOT mean, obviously, that a Noachide should desecrate Shabbat by treating it, God forbid, like part of the workaday world. The Sabbath is or should be quite a big deal to believing Noachides - and, of course, to all Jews.

By Michael Dallen

"Our Father, the merciful Father, Who acts mercifully, have mercy upon us, instill in our hearts to understand and elucidate, to listen, learn, teach, safeguard, perform and fulfill all the words of Your Torah’s teachings with love.” - Hebrew Prayerbook, morning prayer.

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