SHABBAT SHALOM

When Constantine the Great issued his famous edict in Milan in 313 AD, he did not all at once make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Instead, his "Edict of Toleration" gave equal rights to all religions to exist. But what Constantine did next to tilt the empire toward Christianity was to officially make what Christians called "the Lord's Day" into a legal holiday by forbidding the carrying on of government business and commercial transactions.

In effect, Constantine gave imperial recognition to the middle-eastern idea of dividing the lunar month into four seven-day periods and with it, the Jewish concept of Shabbat Shalom, the Sabbath peace or day of rest. Until then, the week as we now measure it was unknown to the Romans, who scorned the Jews for being "lazy" for refusing to work one day out of seven. Instead, the Romans let their slaves do all the work all through the month while they themselves enjoyed a perpetual holiday. Constantine's decision to legally establish the Christian version of the Jewish Sabbath, and with it the week as we now have it, became one of the foundation stones of European civilization -- so much that even wars were often interrupted to observe a truce on Sundays!

Today, even as we demand longer weekends for relaxation and recreation, it seems we hardly give the origin of this age-old custom a second thought. A large number of people, especially in our country, still flock to church on Sunday (or even the evening before -- another custom borrowed from the Jews whose Sabbath begins at sundown the day before). But how many of these same Christians then immediately flood into the nearest major discount store? Jesus may have healed the sick on the Sabbath and told us that the Sabbath was made for our sake -- and not the other way around -- but would he who drove the money-changers out of the Lord's House approve of the Lord's Day being given over to "business as usual"?

Here I think we have to try to strike a balance. No one wants to go back to the kind of puritanical "blue laws" that practically put life on hold on Sundays by confining all movement or activity to church-going alone. On the other hand, I doubt if even the most ardent secularists would want to go as far as the post-revolutionary French who from 1793-1805 tried to abolish the week (and with it the Lord's Day) altogether and replace it with three ten-day periods to make nice even 30-day months followed by a five or six day New Year's binge. Not even atheistic Soviet Communism went that far!

How much of our present lack of balance is business-driven? Some years ago, the auto sales-persons in Michigan refused to be forced by their employers to work weekends. This should tell us something. Even if one is not religious, there is something disturbing about a business that refuses to give its employees a break -- or even if it is a necessary business (people have to eat, even on Sunday), fails to pay them extra for that sacrifice. But even here there is a danger, especially if one is attracted to Sunday or weekend work because it might pay more. Then the danger comes from the temptation of making money one's major goal in life to the exclusion of all other values. Maybe that is why in the Ten Commandments, the observance of the Sabbath is right up there near the beginning along with the prohibition of idolatry in all its other forms.

On the other hand, how much of America's present disregard for keeping the Sabbath (whether is be Sunday for Christians, Friday for Muslims, or Saturday for Jews) comes not from a the worship of the false god of money but rather from the general loss of our sense of "creatureliness", that is, our dependence on a greater reality in the first place? Otherwise, how else explain devoting a whole day or even a whole weekend to our own re-creation without any reference to the Creator?

 

R W Kropf 5/13/03 Sabbath3.doc 03-05-13.html