The Leviticus:8 Project
Seven days you shall make offerings by fire to the LORD. The seventh day shall be a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. Leviticus 23:8
We seem to have fascination with work, we human beings. From the very beginning of the story we tell about ourselves in Western culture, we are first and foremost concerned about work. The first two words in the Hebrew Bible mean (depending on how you translate) either “In the beginning [God] created” or “When [God] began to create.” And before we get to the end of Chapter 1, God has made human beings in the divine image and told them to get about the business of creating something themselves.
The work wasn’t so hard in the Garden of Eden, but when those first earthlings were expelled, the punishments were hard work and hard [tellingly] labor.
God’s place in the world is defined by work, and our place in the world is defined by work. In fact, the act of worshiping God (or idols) is called by one name for work (avodah) and the activity that separates us from God on special days of communion is called by another name for work (melakha). And there is even a category that combines the two, implying that we serve our occupations during most ordinary days.
Except for some negligible periods of time, in my adult life I have always worked, even during college and seminary. And with a very few exceptions, in my adult life I have always taken a full day off of work at least once a week – at least work as it is defined by the long tradition of Jewish law. The weekly opportunity to refrain is Shabbat. And the annual opportunities to refrain include certain holidays distributed unevenly across the seasons.
Abandoning work for a day each week has been ridiculed by all sorts of people at every time in history. As far back as the Romans, we Jews were called a lazy people because we didn’t spend every day in pursuit of material prosperity. But aside from the respite that a weekly sabbatical brings, it also says something about work.
Whether a person loves their work enough to look forward to it each morning or sees their work as a necessary means to survival and nothing more, no matter the satisfaction or compensation, unrelenting work is enslavement. Whether a person lives to work or works to live, if a day off is a danger to living, then work is the master who is served.
We have lots of conversations in the United States these days about the dignity of work. A friend of mine who was involved in the reform of the public assistance program once suggested to me that the way people measure worth in this country is by productive labor. I am not sure that is a universal truth, but it is reasonably correct, at least for those with the ability to be employed. Here is what is correct: the person who brings home a paycheck to provide for themselves and their household has a sense of dignity and worth. But the measurement is not the size of the paycheck. Rather, it is capacity to master a set of skills – driving an Uber, navigating a spacecraft, teaching a child to read, maintaining a household, designing the circuitry for a computer – that makes a person better than their work.
And the only way to know that dignity is to be able to set it down with regularity and pick it up again when responsibility calls.
I suppose it is my responsibility to advocate for a traditional definition of Shabbat and Jewish holiday observance at this point. There are good arguments to be made for the formality of liberation that comes with relinquishing work in a community of like-minded people and in defining that liberation in a way that comes with the satisfaction of doing God’s will as best as it has been understood across the centuries. I have also listened to Jews make the case convincingly for a less formal approach to Shabbat and to Christians make the case for “sabbath-time,” a more personal withdrawal from the work week not tied to the community calendar. As a believer, I remain something of a traditionalist. But in looking at American society, I understand a truth that applies more broadly.
Enslavement is no more defined by its extreme expression than freedom from work is defined by a traditional Shabbat alone. Without meaningful work and a living wage, including vacation time and support through medical needs, a person is enslaved to maintaining sustenance by the unrelenting sweat of their brow. Too-low-paying jobs, consultant work with no benefits, a leave policy that is without compassion makes everyone – including the business owner focused entirely on the bottom line – a slave to work, seven days a week.
As a matter of faith, we were not created to live that way. And for those without such faith, the reasonableness of treating human beings as least as well as we think to treat the environment in which we live is probably unquestioned. That’s the wisdom of a weekly celebration of self-liberation.