A pastor among rabbis

A pastor among rabbis: Learning Sabbath from the religious other

What can we learn from Jews about the Sabbath as a practice?

Erik C. Carter, DMin, is an instructor at Loma Linda University School of Religion, Loma Linda, California, United States.

Many people argue that the Sabbath is univer­sally applicable and not primarily Jewish because of its genesis in the Creation account.1 While this is certainly true and argued even by noted Jewish scholars,2 it is crucial to remember that the Sabbath is embedded in the exodus of Israel from Egypt (Deut. 5:12–15) and the covenant with God. “The point of such apparent hair-splitting,” writes Michael Lodahl, “is to assert that in the Jewish notion of Sabbath, even when its observance somehow recalls creation, that recollec­tion itself is founded in God’s covenant with the Jewish people.”3 In other words, if it were not for God’s covenant people, Israel, who also wrote and preserved the Scriptures, the world would not even be aware of the Sabbath, the day God blessed and sanctified, “because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (Gen. 2:3, NASB).

Christians who observe the Sabbath, therefore, must acknowledge they do so as a sign of solidarity and celebration of Israel’s covenant elec­tion, still sustained by the faithful God of the Exodus. For this reason, Sabbath observance also serves as a witness to Christianity’s origin in Jewish faith and practice. This is a timely testimony for today considering the anti-Jewish sentiment the church has harbored throughout its history. Fortunately, this thinking is now slowly being undone through the work of post-Shoah theo­logians,4 denominational statements,5 and genuine dialogue.6

Christians and the Sabbath

One result of rethinking Christianity’s relationship to Judaism has been a renaissance among Roman Catholics and Protestants who see Judaism as a rich resource for Christian practice, including the Sabbath. Walter Brueggemann’s recent book on the Sabbath is a prime example of how, despite the numerous texts that have rolled off Christian presses in recent years, the topic of the Sabbath proves to be seemingly inexhaustible.7 This swelling interest in the Sabbath and its Jewish roots among Christians is laudable insofar as it does not result in the replacement theology of days gone by. This also raises complex questions pleading for a practical theological reflection, such as the following posed by Claire Wolfteich: “Where might Jews and Christians meet in a shared appre­ciation for the gift of the Sabbath, while avoiding supersessionism or misap­propriations of Jewish understandings of Shabbat?”8

Examining Shabbat as a practice

Numerous voices within the Seventh-day Adventist Church have urged the denomination to consider what can be learned from the Jews about the Sabbath. Jacques Doukhan and Richard Davidson are two promi­nent figures who have done notable work along these lines.9 Both draw from the Hebrew Bible, Jewish texts, and liturgical resources, as well as their own Shabbat encounters, to highlight how symbols, food, music, and ritual portray the potential beauty, joy, and hope contained in a Jewish Shabbat experience.10 Although Sigve Tonstad argues that the “portfolio of meaning” inherent in the Sabbath “inevitably lead[s] beyond the Jewish perspective” for the believer in Jesus, he asserts how our Jewish mentors point Christians in the right direction.11

These three biblical scholars have advanced our understanding of the Sabbath’s Jewish roots. Yet, still much more needs to be done. What is lacking is a substantial investigation of the Sabbath as an embodied practice. It is not a detached object devoid of a context; it is experientially known. What is needed is the incorporation of empirical research into our theologi­cal reflection. How do religious Jews actually practice Shabbat? Failure to ground any Christian application of Jewish Shabbat practices in the reality of contemporary lived Judaism not only results in anecdotalism but could easily lead to the gross caricaturization of Jews that Christianity desperately tries to overcome.

To address this void, I conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with Jewish rabbis in an attempt to mine the depths of their Shabbat experience. I have also spent the past several years as a participant-observer at Shabbat services in Southern California, the northeastern part of the United States, and Israel. The remainder of this article is based on my research as a practical theologian.12 I will highlight two inter­related themes that surfaced from the data and then draw implications for Christian praxis.13

Shabbat and the spectrum of Judaism

The story of Jews in the United States is often untold among Christians. Were the pages of history allowed to speak, writes Jonathan Sarna, we would not hear a “stereotypical tale of linear descent” but a tale of a people struggling to be Americans and Jews. We would also learn of a people who shaped events, “establishing and maintaining communities, responding to challenges, working for change.”14 One significant change incurred by the presence of Jews was to extend the boundaries of American religious lib­erty “so that they (and other minorities) might be included as equals.”15 Today, an estimated 6.8 million Jewish adults and children live in the United States, 50 percent of whom live primarily in urban areas either along the East Coast or in California.16 The 4.2 million adults who self-identify as Jewish, when asked about their religion, are spread across a diverse range of denominations, or movements, within Judaism: 35 percent belong to the Reform move­ment; 18 percent, to the Conservative; 10 percent, to the Orthodox; 6 percent, to other movements (e.g., Reconstructionist or Renewal); and 31 percent say they do not identify with any Jewish movement.17

This statistical snapshot demon­strates that it would be a misconception to think of Judaism as if it were one entity and that all Jews believe and practice their beliefs in the same way. It follows that if there is indeed a spec­trum within Judaism, there also exists a diverse range of Shabbat practices and experiences among rabbis as well. This theme was perhaps one of the greatest revelations for me as I conducted my research. As Christians considering what can be learned from the Jews about the Sabbath, it is critical that the history and diversity of Judaism—past and present, historical and lived—be examined on its own terms. Although the interview data revealed a basic shared structure to how these rabbis practiced Shabbat, there were vast variations between Orthodox rabbis, Conservative rabbis, and rabbis from the Reform, Reconstructionist, or Renewal movements. This included one’s preparation, the role of commu­nity, the location of celebration, and the function of ritual, to name just a few.

Jewish law and Shabbat practices

Another significant theme surfaced when probing deeper and asking the question as to what accounts for the diversity of practice among these rabbis. The role of Jewish law (halakhah), more specifically the 39 general cat­egories of forbidden labor on Shabbat (melachot), is one of the major dividing lines among the Jewish movements.18 These rabbinic prohibitions serve as religious guidelines for how observant Jews (shomer Shabbat) are to honor Shabbat. Such prohibitions include not driving, shopping, cooking, mowing the lawn, writing, using electricity, carrying items in public space (unless there is an Eruv19), or moving certain objects in a private domain (muktzah). They are also the source of consternation, which is aptly illustrated by an experience I had sharing a rabbi’s “pulpit” in New York City. While fielding questions from a largely secular Jewish congregation about what I have been learning from the rabbis, I heard many stories from people who had been raised shomer Shabbat but found such practices too restrictive.

Interestingly, according to my interviews, both Hasidic and Orthodox rabbis who follow Shabbat laws experienced these laws as peaceful, joyful, and a delight. One of the most poignant moments while conducting field research was the time I spent with a Modern Orthodox rabbi. He spoke eloquently about the implications of what it means not to drive on Shabbat, namely a community of people who all live within walking distance of each other. Shabbat meant freedom for him and his family—the freedom to be in open and comfortable relationships with people who share similar values and commitment to a distinct way of life, not only on Shabbat but also throughout the week.20 In the words of this rabbi, “The restriction on electricity and technology and being connected, as well as living proximate to each other, I think, are two of the things that help shape our culture.” What may be considered restrictive for some is a beautiful way of living for others. And if Shabbat at its heart is relational, an observant community is illustrative of how that can appear.

Those rabbis who do not strictly adhere to the 39 melachot experi­mented with the aspects they viewed as spiritually beneficial. Thus, the Reconstructionist rabbi I interviewed did not have a problem with his children participating in competitive sports on Shabbat (whereas the Modern Orthodox rabbi did), but he did not want them to drive to the tournament. The solution came when his children took responsibility for their own Shabbat practices, deciding not to drive to the game. He explained that “they walked from the motel to the playing field, whereas the other kids stayed at people’s homes and then drove there.” The rabbi’s commitment not to drive on Shabbat is admirable, considering the majority of his Reconstructionist colleagues are not observant. This puts him and his family at odds with members of their congregation, who promptly get in their cars to drive home after the service. Needless to say, with­out sharing the practice in a supportive community, this rabbi described his family’s Shabbat experience as “sad” and “lonely,” “because it was not part of the practice of the [other] members of the community.”

Implications for Christian praxis

Returning to Wolfteich’s penetrat­ing question mentioned previously: How can Christians learn from the Jews about the Sabbath without falling prey to misappropriation and/or superses­sionism? Based on my research, I propose two recommendations. The first would be to cultivate sensitivity to the range of beliefs and practices within living Judaism, tending to Shabbat on their own terms and in their own language. This can be done in part by reading texts authored by Jews about Judaism and Shabbat. Meaningful dialogue with Jews across the spectrum is especially important, for language is the primary means of transmitting and discovering truth. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is gaining exposure to Shabbat services in the home and the shul, or synagogue.

The second recommendation for revised Christian praxis of the Sabbath is based on a reflection of the sources that govern Sabbath observance. On numerous occasions, when learning that I was a Christian who observes the Sabbath, I was questioned as to my sources for how to observe it. All the rabbis I interviewed indicated that the prohibitive laws for working on Shabbat, and Shabbat observance in general, are primarily derived not from the Bible but rather from the Oral Torah. One Orthodox rabbi stated that outside of the introduction of the Sabbath in Genesis, the two sets of command­ments, and several other independent mentions of the Sabbath, “you’ll not have any idea how to observe the Sabbath because the Hebrew Bible says precious little about how people observe it.” So, how do you define and apply it? He continued, “The rabbis say that the laws of the Sabbath are like mountains hanging by a thread. The thread is the biblical prescription, but the mountain is a very robust, you know, corpus of laws of how to observe the Sabbath.”

This forced me to pause and con­sider where I, as an Adventist, derive my Sabbath parameters. Is it really from scripture, or are other sources at play? Perhaps more importantly, once we identify those sources, what is our relationship to them? According to Nicholas de Lange, “Halakhah is not the only issue dividing Jews today; . . . it is the theology that underpins it that really divides Orthodox Judaism from the progressive movements and the secularists.”21 For Adventists, certainly the experience and writings of Ellen G. White play a role in our interpretation. However, we must remember to contex­tualize her life’s work as a person who lived during the Victorian era, which had a Puritan heritage of observing Sunday as the Sabbath.22 I suspect that for early Adventists, seventh-day Sabbath observance was commensurate with a Sunday Sabbatarians’ observance, just on a different day. It was the shift of the day that set Adventist pioneers apart from other churches and their understanding of the significance of the seventh-day Sabbath—not necessarily their practices on that day.23

Much more nuance exists when it comes to how seventh-day Sabbatarians actually practice the Sabbath than we may wish to admit.24 It is interesting that over the millennia, Judaism has held together despite a variety of interpretations of how to observe the Sabbath. There are certainly debates as to who is right; yet through it all, the Sabbath, in its myriad ways of observance and celebration, has kept Judaism Jewish. Without any prompting, every rabbi I interviewed quoted Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” Celebrating Shabbat during the festival of Purim at the Western Wall in Jerusalem—the holiest place on earth in Judaism—has been one of the great­est examples of this. I saw Orthodox Jews davening, or praying, with tears streaming down their faces alongside equally emotional young secular Jews serving in the military who locked arms as they danced with machine guns strapped to their backs. Both are expressions of Sabbath joy and speak to how varied practices encompass a great breadth of meaning. Consequently, it could be helpful to embrace a broader approach to Sabbath observance and encourage a variety of expressions, not mistaking Sabbath uniformity for denominational unity or fearing that diversity will lead to division.


I am reminded of a statement made by the late Walter Wink: “The ultimate religious question today should no longer be the Reformation’s question, ‘How can I find a gracious God?’ but rather, ‘How can we find God in our enemies?’ ”25 If this is true, where do we begin? For the Christian, particularly the Seventh-day Adventist, we must not ignore our connection to Judaism. As Michael Barnes argues, “The retrieval of Christianity’s roots in its relationship with the people of the Covenant forms the matrix or creative heart of a new way of relating to people from other faith traditions.”26

Hence, if the church cannot resolve its relationship with Judaism, what can be done for the future of Christianity, which is quickly being pushed to the margins of Western society? I would argue that given our current pluralistic and fragmented world, to make Jewish-Christian dialogue and reconciliation a priority is an important aspect to what makes present truth present. Moreover, “when grace and law come together,” muses Doukhan, such reconciliation could even be a “sign of the end.”27 In this respect, the Sabbath as an embodied practice offers a rich starting point.


1 Jacques B. Doukhan cautions that when Seventh-day Adventists overemphasize how the Sabbath came from God at the event of creation, to the exclusion of the Sinai account, “it may in fact disguise the old anti-Semitic prejudice: they do not want to have anything to do with the Jews, precisely the motivation which led the early Christians to reject the Sabbath.” Jacques B. Doukhan, “What Can Adventism Learn From the Jews about the Sabbath?” Spectrum 39, no. 1 (Winter 2011): 15–20.

2 For example, commenting on Gen. 2:2, 3, Umberto Cassuto writes: “Scripture wishes to emphasize that the sanctity of the Sabbath is older than Israel, and rests upon all mankind,” in A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part I: From Adam to Noah, trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1972), 64. See also Martin Buber, Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant (New York: Humanity, 2011); Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1985).

3 Michael Lodahl, “Sabbath Observance as a Theological Issue in Jewish-Christian Conversation,” in The Sabbath in Jewish and Christian Traditions, eds. Tamara C. Eskenazi, Daniel J. Harrington, and William H. Shea (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 264.

4 For a few examples, see Johann Baptist Metz, “Christians and Jews After Auschwitz: Being a Meditation Also on the End of Bourgeois Religion,” in A Holocaust Reader: Responses to the Nazi Extermination, ed. Michael L. Morgan (New York: Oxford University, 2001), 238–250; Clark M. Williamson, A Guest in the House of Israel: Post-Holocaust Church Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1993). For an Adventist contribution, see Jacques B. Doukhan, ed., Thinking in the Shadow of Hel: The Impact of the Holocaust on Theology and Jewish-Christian Relations (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University, 2002).

5 Vatican II was the watershed that set the standard not only for Roman Catholicism but also for statements issued thereafter by denominations across Protestantism. See Pope Paul VI, “Nostra Aetate: Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” October 28, 1965 (Holy See, 1965), www.vatican .va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents /vat-ii_decl_19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html; Austin Flannery, ed., Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1975). For the historical and theological reasons as to why and how the Roman Catholic Church radically reversed its adversarial position to the Jews, consider John Connelly, From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933–1965 (Cambridge: Harvard University, 2012). For the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s involvement, see Adventist-Jewish Friendship Conference,“Consensus Statement,”Shabbat Shalom 52, no. 3 (2005): 24, 25; Biblical Research Institute Committee, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, “Official Statement on the Jewish-Adventist Connection,” Reflections: Biblical Research Institute Newsletter 3 (July 2003): 2.

6 A couple of good introductory texts include Mary C. Boys, ed., Seeing Judaism Anew: Christianity’s Sacred Obligation (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005); Tikva Frymer-Kensky et al., Christianity in Jewish Terms (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2000). Summarizing these developments within Adventism, Stefan Höeschele writes, “The last decade [2000–2010] has seen a number of publications that stress the continuity of the Jewish and Adventist faiths . . . and that counteract the theory that Israel has been rejected by God in the Christian dispensation.” Stefan Höeschele, “The Emerging Adventist Theology of Religions Discourse: Participants, Positions, Particularities,” in A Man of Passionate Reflection: Festschrift in Honour of Jerald Whitehouse, ed. Bruce Bauer, Andrews University Mission Studies, vol. 8 (Berrien Springs, MI: Department of World Mission, Andrews University, 2011), 364. Another rich resource is a journal Doukhan edited for sixteen years: Shabbat Shalom: A Journal of Jewish-Christian Reconciliation.

7 Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014). See also Dorothy C. Bass, “Keeping the Sabbath,” in Practicing Our Faith, ed. Dorothy C. Bass (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997), 75–89; Marva J. Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholy: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989); Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives (New York: Bantam, 2000); Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2006).

8 Claire E. Wolfteich, “Re-claiming Sabbath as Transforming Practice: Critical Reflections in Light of Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” in Religion, Diversity, and Conflict, ed. Edward Foley (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2010), 248.

9 Among their many writings, see Jacques B. Doukhan, Israel and the Church: Two Voices for the Same God (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002); Richard M. Davidson, Love Song for the Sabbath (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1988); and “Sabbath, Spirituality and Mission: Torah’s Seven Dimensions of Sabbath Rest,” in Encountering God in Life and Mission: A Festschrift Honoring Jon Dybdahl, ed. Rudi Maier (Berrien Springs, MI: Department of World Mission, Andrews University, 2010), 3–19.

10 Although Shabbat and Sabbath are the same word—the former is transliterated from the Hebrew and the latter is English—in this article I cite them with a specific intention in mind. When I use Shabbat, I am generally referring to the Jewish expression, and when I use Sabbath, I am generally referring to the Christian expression.

11 Sigve K. Tonstad, The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University, 2009), 511.

12 Empirical research is one of the hallmarks of the academic field of practical theology. But what exactly is “practical theology”? Here, I follow Richard Osmer’s definition: practical theology is “that branch of Christian theology that seeks to construct action-guiding theories of Christian praxis in particular social contexts.” Moreover, “it focuses on the ‘how to’ within Christian ministry, but is guided by an informed theory of ‘why to’—why we ought to practice the Christian way of life in certain ways in light of an interpretation of a particular social context and the normative claims of the Christian community,” in Richard Robert Osmer, The Teaching Ministry of Congregations (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005), xiv. For an example of Sabbath empirical research on pastors, see Erik C. Carter, “The Practice and Experience of the Sabbath Among Seventh-day Adventist Pastors,” Pastoral Psychology 62, no. 1 (February 2013): 13–26.

13 It is important to note that my findings, which are based on six interviews, are not intended to be generalized to represent all Jewish rabbis. Despite relatively small sample sizes, in qualitative research this is not viewed as a methodological flaw nor does it prohibit transferability of meaning as findings “resonate with the experiences of the participants or others.” John Swinton and Harriet Mowat, Practical Theology and Qualitative Research (London: SCM, 2006), 122. More specifically, as a study that draws from a phenomenological research methodology, attention to particularity is key. In other words, it is idiographic: “It wants to know in detail what the experience for this person is like, what sense this particular person is making of what is happening to them.” Jonathan A. Smith, Paul Flowers, and Michael Larkin, Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis: Theory, Method, and Research (London: SAGE, 2013), 3 (emphasis theirs). For a fuller treatment, see my forthcoming dissertation, Erik C. Carter, “American Pulpit Rabbis’ Shabbat Practices in Practical Theological Perspective” (PhD diss., Claremont School of Theology).

14 Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism: A History (New Haven: Yale University, 2004), xiv, xx.

15 Ibid., xv.

16 Elizabeth Tighe et al., “American Jewish Population Estimates: 2012,” Steinhardt Social Research Institute, Brandeis University (September 2013), 1.

17 “A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings From a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews,” Pew Research Center (October 2013), 10.

18 Dana Evan Kaplan, Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal (New York: Columbia University, 2009), 69.

19 An Eruv is an enclosure created by demarcating eligible public domain to extend private domain because certain items can be carried in private, but not in public. From Jewish Virtual Library, s.v. “Shabbat: Eruv,” www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource /Judaism/eruv.html.

20 On this point, Roy Branson’s observation coincides with the experience of this particular rabbi: “Orthodox’s discussion of the Sabbath emphasizes how conformity to the law brings man’s actions into line with the will of the Creator. But conformity to God’s will does not result in dreariness. On the contrary, for the Orthodox, as for all Jews, the Sabbath brings a sense of freedom and joyfulness.” Roy Branson, “The Sabbath in Modern Jewish Theology,” in The Sabbath in Scripture and History, ed. Kenneth A. Strand (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1982), 269.

21 Nicholas de Lange, An Introduction to Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2000), 221.

22 Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Land, and Ronald L. Numbers, eds., Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet (New York: Oxford University, 2014).

23 For an exposition of this development of Christian Sabbath observance, see Erik C. Carter, “Sabbatarianism,” in Encyclopedia of Christian Education, eds. George Thomas Kurian and Mark A. Lamport (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).

24 See May-Ellen Marian Colón, “Sabbath-Keeping Practices and Factors Related to These Practices Among Seventh-day Adventists in 51 Countries” (PhD diss., Andrews University, 2003). Her dissertation has been edited for accessibility and published for a popular audience under the title From Sundown to Sundown: How to Keep the Sabbath and Enjoy It! (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2008).

25 Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992), 263.

26 Michael Barnes S. J., Interreligious Learning: Dialogue, Spirituality and the Christian Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2012), 50.

27 On this point, Doukhan writes, “The dream of reconciliation, when grace and law come together, I believe would be a sign of the end. . . . In a way, without knowing it, Seventh-day Adventist people are working toward reconciliation without necessarily knowing or wanting it. It happens that in [the Seventh-day Adventist] context, you have grace and law, Old and New Testaments together, and that promotes and allows reconciliation.” Quoted from “Building Bridges,” Office of Research and Creative Scholarship, Andrews University (2011), accessed June 25, 2014, www.andrews.edu /services/research/research_highlights/research_brochure/2011 _brochure/building_bridges/index.html.

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Erik C. Carter, DMin, is an instructor at Loma Linda University School of Religion, Loma Linda, California, United States.

January 2015

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