In a Sabbatarian economy, the right to rest–the right to do nothing of value to capital–is as holy as the right to work. We can give freely to the poor and open our homes to refugees without being worried that there will be nothing left for us. We can erase all debts from our records, because it is necessary for the community to be whole. It is time for us, whatever our religious beliefs, to see the Sabbatarian laws of old not as backward and pharisaical, but rather as the liberatory statements they were meant to be.
As a boy in late-1940s Memphis, my dad got a nickel every Friday evening to come by the home of a Russian Jewish immigrant named Harry Levenson and turn on his lights, since the Torah forbids lighting a fire in your home on the Sabbath. My father would wonder, however, if he were somehow sinning. The fourth commandment says that on the Sabbath “you shall not do any work–you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.” Was my dad Levenson’s slave? If so, how come he could turn on Levenson’s lights? Were they both going to hell?
“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” The commandment smacks of obsolete puritanism–the shuttered liquor store, the check sitting in a darkened post office. We usually encounter the Sabbath as an inconvenience, or at best a nice idea increasingly at odds with reality. But observing this weekly day of rest can actually be a radical act. Indeed, what makes it so obsolete and impractical is precisely what makes it so dangerous.
When taken seriously, the Sabbath has the power to restructure not only the calendar but also the entire political economy. In place of an economy built upon the profit motive–the ever-present need for more, in fact the need for there to never be enough–the Sabbath puts forward an economy built upon the belief that there is enough. But few who observe the Sabbath are willing to consider its full implications, and therefore few who do not observe it have reason to find any value in it.
The Sabbath’s radicalism should be no surprise given the fact that it originated among a community of former slaves. The 10 Commandments constituted a manifesto against the regime that they had recently escaped, and rebellion against that regime was at the heart of their god’s identity, as attested to in the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” When the ancient Israelites swore to worship only one god, they understood this to mean, in part, they owed no fealty to the pharaoh or any other emperor.
It is therefore instructive to read the fourth commandment in light of the pharaoh’s labor practices described earlier in the book of Exodus. He is depicted as a manager never satisfied with his slaves, especially those building the structures for storing surplus grain. The pharaoh orders that the slaves no longer be given straw with which to make bricks; they must now gather their own straw, while the daily quota for bricks would remain the same. When many fail to meet their quota, the pharaoh has them beaten and calls them lazy.
The fourth commandment presents a god who, rather than demanding ever more work, insists on rest. The weekly Sabbath placed a hard limit on how much work could be done and suggested that this was perfectly all right; enough work was done on the other six days. And whereas the pharaoh relaxed while his people toiled, Yahweh insisted that the people rest as Yahweh rested: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.”