Love in the Law
February 8, 2023
It is the fourth of Ten Commandments etched eternal in a tablet of stone, drilled on repeat over and over again into the hearts of the Jewish people throughout the scriptures and the centuries. As a reflection of the Creator resting on the seventh day, serving as a sign between God and her people, remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy was non-negotiable even to the point of putting to death those who violated it according to Mosaic law. Of course, such extreme repercussions are obsolete, thankfully, and it was uncommonly rare for the Jewish court system to actually give the death penalty back then to begin with; still, remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy was and remains of central importance to Jews today as it was to the Jew, Jesus, millennia ago.
The Sabbath not only serves as a means of intentional rest from work as a day carved out for physical restoration, for stillness and reflection, for family, food, and fellowship, but also serves as a relational marker between Creator and Created — a reminder that we belong to God and not to the work we do. In his book, The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel remarks, “It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.” The Sabbath is a day set aside, reverent and holy, meant to inform the way one lives on the other six days of the week when work is required.
As it relates to the Sabbath, the kind of work/labor that the law prohibits to carry out on this sacred day is particular. According to Rabbi Abraham Chill, the scriptural concept of work (melakha in Hebrew) refers to, “work involving the production, creation, or transformation of an object.” For instance, if one follows the prohibitions strictly, you are permitted to read on the Sabbath; however, as soon as you pick up a pen and write a letter to someone, you are in violation of Sabbath law — for you will have then created something, produced a new object in the form of a letter, transformed paper with ink. There are 39 categories of prohibited work on the Sabbath; as is the case for all faith traditions and their evolution, though, some follow the letter of the law quite strictly, whereas others not so much. The important thing, though, the central sentiment, is that the Sabbath serves as a reminder of who we are and whose we are in the midst of eternity — a day unlike other days ordained as sacred from the beginning of time itself.
So, when Jesus shows up in the synagogue on this holy day and heals a man’s withered hand, the religious leaders are upset at what they perceived to be a violation of the Sabbath, a sacrilegious affront to the laws of God. If work is defined as the production, creation, or transformation of an object, Jesus did, in effect, transform this man’s hand by healing it after all. For being a commandment so central to his faith tradition, Jesus seems pretty quick to act in a way that appears contradictory to what scripture commands. So the question becomes: why? Why does Jesus heal on the Sabbath?
Why does Jesus heal on the Sabbath?
- Love is consistent and immediate no matter what day of the week
- The law is not quite so simple
- Doing good versus doing harm
- Matters of life and death
- Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it
The Jewish Holocaust survivor, novelist, journalist, activist, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Elie Wiesel, once said, “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” Living through unimaginable suffering and having the courage to speak up about it, devoting his life to activism and the pursuit of justice through education, many credit Elie Wiesel as being one of if not the most important reasons why history has not seen the horrors of the Holocaust repeated. Heavily influenced by his devoutly Jewish father, Elie Wiesel’s remarkable life was informed by his own Jewish tradition — privileging loving, involved action as the most faithful response to God’s calling on our lives, while criticizing indifference and inaction as the opposite of faith itself. I think Jesus, a fellow Jew, would agree.
When Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath, he sees a man suffering with a withered hand. Upon inviting him to come and stand by him, Jesus asks the religious leaders, “is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” and then proceeds to heal the man. In posing this question of legality, Jesus seemingly equates indifference and inaction to the destruction of life — essentially saying that to do nothing in the face of suffering is a worse violation of the law than breaking the letter of the law itself, even one so set in stone as the Sabbath. Further, he seems to be implying that doing good by responding to the suffering of this man is actually a faithful observance of the Sabbath itself.
When we read story after story about Jesus healing on the Sabbath, Christians tend to think this was a revolutionary new concept — that it was Jesus’s way of criticizing the Jewish tradition in favor of a superior approach to spirituality. However, violating the Sabbath for the sake of preserving life is not a new concept but, rather, inherent to the law itself. In the book of Leviticus, we read: “You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live,” (Lev 18:5, NRSV). Over the centuries, Rabbis and scholars have engaged with scripture and its laws, debating their meanings and recording their interpretations in a collected work known as the Talmud. On the subject of the Sabbath, Rabbis concluded that the verse, “one shall live” by adhering to the law implies that one shall not die by adhering to the law. In other words, if adhering to the law endangers the health and well-being of an individual, then one is not only permitted but required to break the law in order to save and preserve life whether that applies to oneself or to another.
This concept is known in Hebrew as Pikuach Nefesh, roughly translated as “saving a life.” Rabbi Simon Glustrom explains Pikuach Nefesh this way: “When life is involved, all Sabbath laws may be suspended to safeguard the health of the individual;” and he further states, “most of Jewish law can and should be set aside in order to avoid endangering a person’s health or safety.” Even though the concept of Pikuach Nefesh was not codified until centuries after Jesus’s life, it is a concept that has always been at the heart of the Jewish tradition: that when it comes to prioritizing legalism or prioritizing life, life takes precedence because love is the priority.
When Jesus heals the man on the Sabbath, a man who experienced not only incredible physical pain but incredible mental anguish as well from likely being ostracized and out of work due to his condition, Jesus did not violate the law at all; he fulfilled it, for at the very heart of the law itself is the precedence of life and the priority of love. In Deuteronomy, we read, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might;” in Leviticus, we read “you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live.” Well, my friends, to know and love God and live by God’s laws means loving oneself and one another, too. As 1 John 4:8 reminds us, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Jesus healing on the Sabbath reminds us that when adhering to a scripture passage comes in opposition to loving one another, we are called to choose love and everything that love requires every time — for choosing love over legality is, in fact, the essence of the law itself.
Why does Jesus heal on the Sabbath? — because he does not let the letter of the law keep him from following the heart of the law, a law that inherently points to the priority of love over literalism, love over legalism, love over letting someone suffer in the name of sustaining one’s piety. By doing so, one shall live. Jesus heals on the Sabbath because in the face of suffering, the least faithful thing we can do and feel is nothing. According to Pikuach Nefesh, we have no excuse, not even in the law itself, to treat anyone with anything less than our love.
So, when our attempt to adhere to scripture excludes someone to the margins of survival, may we remember Pikuach Nefesh. When our loyalty to the law limits someone’s access to healthcare and the necessary resources to thrive, may we remember Pikuach Nefesh. When our pursuit of piety pushes someone out the door and over the edge, may we remember Pikuach Nefesh. When revering regulations reduces someone’s capacity to love themselves, may we remember Pikuach Nefesh. May we remember that the most faithful response to God’s calling on our lives is the caring for life itself — for above all, we are called to be led by the law of love, and love is never indifferent.