Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
Keep the Sabbath, or else! This is the tenor of Exodus 31:14: “And you shall keep Shabbat, for it is holy to you: those who desecrate it, die – he shall die. For all who perform labor upon it, that soul shall be cut off from the midst of its people.”
To put it mildly, you might find this language a little … harsh. Today many Jews work on Shabbat, and do not die. How then can we understand or relate to this verse?
Perhaps the Israelites themselves executed transgressors thousands of years ago (see Ex. 35:2), or fines were assessed equivalent to a human life (as in the Talmud, Shabbat 70a). Personally, I don’t want to live in a community where the death penalty looms over our heads to enforce religious observances. As for paying a fine, I struggle (despite what I was taught as an economics major) with the very concept that we can assign a monetary equivalent for the value of a human life.
So can this commandment have a hold on us today? How?
Shabbat is a precious gift – a gift from God, directly to each and every one of us. We need Shabbat. Even God needed to take a day of rest after six days of creation! When we ignore the Shabbat, we not only spurn this precious gift, but we also hurt ourselves. Shabbat is a time for refreshing our souls, pausing from our creative acts during the week and enjoying life. It is a time devoted to God, to our loved ones, to our innermost selves. Each week that we let pass without a Shabbat, without this holy time devoted to what matters most in life, a little piece of us dies.
Thankfully, it is never too late. If we want to restore what we have lost, the gates are always open. So don’t let this Shabbat get away, or the next one. After all, aren’t you worth it?
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2015 Rabbi Gary Pokras