Biblical Sabbath Laws: Did Jesus break The Sabbath and Does God Work on The Sabbath?

I uploaded a video in 2016 in which I claimed that Jesus broke the Sabbath. Six years later my views have not changed. I still believe Jesus and his Disciples broke Sabbath Laws, not just according to Talmudic Traditions but also from the Prophets. The incident at the Pool of Bethsaida in John Ch. 5 and the Disciples picking grain on Sabbath, Luke Ch.6, are just two examples.

This year (2022), I revisited my Sabbath studies and collected some excellent information from George Foot Moore’s Works on Judaism. I’ve decided to add the information to my video as a new article. After studying George Foot Moore’s writings, I was made aware that in 2016, I missed some crucial information from the Prophets about the Sabbath.

In this article I will touch on Midrash and Judaism’s Primary and Secondary systems of Sabbath Laws. I will also mention what I missed in my 2016 video from Jeremiah and Amos on Sabbath and what I believe Jesus was demonstrating at the Pool of Bethsaida. I will conclude with whether or not God works on Sabbath.

Stand for Talmud study – stender for gemara in Hebrew

Even in Jesus’s day Midrash was influential among the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Essenes. Let me briefly mention what Midrash is. In his book Questions and Answers, Intellectual Foundations of Judaism, Jacob Neusner describes Midrash as follows: Midrash supplies interpretation and meanings to the text. There are mainly two forms of Midrash, Halakah for Legal purposes and Aggadah for narrative and theology. In short, Midrash means interpretation.

In Judaism, Midrash has been assigned to the Rabba’s and Talmud, although, I do believe Midrash can also be found in the TaNaKh. And, yes, I can prove that! But why even mention the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, or Midrash for that matter? Because it shows that the vast majority of TaNaKh (Old Testament) Laws were open to interpretation. If a Primary Law lacked clarity, it needed a Secondary Law. Otherwise, the people wouldn’t know what they were supposed to do.

This is the predicament I believe the Jewish scholars found themselves in. The Biblical Laws can sometimes be vague and fragmented, hence the need for Midrash (Interpretation). “You shall not work on the Sabbath in ploughing time or harvest.” Work (ploughing) needed defining in this case. Especially for an agrarian community whose very survival depended on working. But the problem with interpretation is, how much interpretation is enough? There seems to be no end to Midrash.

If the truth be known, the Jewish sects of the 1st Century AD, not only disagreed on the Primary Laws but also on the Secondary Laws. According to Moore, three hundred disagreements between the Pharisees and the Sadducees are recorded in the Talmud. Although, at one point a voice spoke from Heaven at the Council of  Yavneh. The voice told them both Schools had the Words of the Living God, but Hillel’s (Pharisees) Halakah Laws are to be followed. It must’ve been a huge relief for the Pharisees and Johanan ben Zakkai who was reforming the Council at that time.

In the end the Pharisees became the dominant force in Judaism. We know from history that the Essenes died out shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple. The Sadducees hung around a bit longer, but with no Temple and a Great Bet Din (Sanhedrin) that became infiltrated by wealthy Pharisees, they also faced becoming redundant. The final nail in the coffin for the Sadducees was when the doctrine of The Resurrection of the Dead became finalized.

The Sadducees did not believe in the Resurrection of the Dead and were considered heretics by the Pharisees. Heretics had no place in the world to come according to the Pharisees and with that the Sadducees perished. If there was only one example of Midrash, the doctrine of The Resurrection of the Dead would be it in a nutshell. Because it allowed an expansion of the very fleeting mention in only a couple of Scriptures to exclude a whole religious sect as heretics.

I hope by now you appreciate that I am endeavouring to point out that the Laws in the TaNaKh (Old Testament) were sometimes fragmented and vague. And even those who claimed to have God’s Word, disagreed on what exactly God’s Word was. It is my opinion that Old Testament Sabbath Laws were challenging and because of that so much clarification was needed. A whole Tractate in Talmud is devoted to just the Sabbath.

Bethesda is a pool of water in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem, on the path of the Beth Zeta Valley.

There are, however, Sabbath Laws which are somewhat clearer in Jeremiah and Amos. They do relate back to my video from 2016 but back then when I made the video, I wasn’t aware of ‘Carrying Laws’ in Jeremiah. Neither did I fully understand the issue with the Disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. But thanks to George Foot Moore, I now do.

In Jeremiah Ch.17:21-22, the Prophet is very specific about bearing burdens. He says, “Bear no burdens”, “Nor carry a burden out of your house on the Sabbath Day.” One can assume then that carrying inside the house is perfectly fine. Since Jeremiah, Carrying Laws have taken on so many more Secondary Laws, such as carrying in alley ways or whether the alley ways have open or closed ends. It’s in the video.

If we are to accept that Jeremiah instituted those ‘Carrying Laws’, then I can understand why the religious authorities had a problem with Jesus telling the man to take up his bed and walk. We have a similar incident with the Disciples picking grain on Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-21; Mark 2:23; Luke 6:1-11) and the Sabbath Laws in Amos. Amos expounds Sabbath Laws from Exodus. Exodus 34:21 says, “You shall not work on the Sabbath in ploughing time or harvest.” Amos in Ch.8:5, adds trading grains and making profits on the Sabbath to ploughing and harvest as things forbidden.

But what has agricultural ploughing and selling grains have to do with the Disciples picking grain on the Sabbath? Well, it’s all in the definition of what ploughing means or how it was interpreted. The definition of the Primary Law of Exodus 34:21 has Secondary Laws which includes, planting, plucking, reaping, picking food and grinding. A total of thirty-nine laws have been derived from “You shall not work on the Sabbath in ploughing time or harvest”. And it was the picking and the grinding (rubbing) of the hands together (Luke 6:1) to separate the wheat from the husks that was in violation of Secondary Sabbath Laws.

Technically it was perceived as “Work.” Jesus justified their actions by saying, “Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, the day should never take precedence over a human being, the needs of the Disciples to eat was greater than observing a rule. There is one other thing that Jesus said, which is often overlooked in disputes about whether he declared his Deity or not. In these Sabbath interactions with the Pharisees, Jesus said, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8).

To the average person this might not mean much, but if ever there was a claim to his Deity this was it. Jewish literature and myths references “God of the Sabbath” and ‘Lord of the Sabbath”. The Pharisees would’ve known exactly what he meant. For me it is reminiscent of what the Apostle John said, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”, “All things were made through him and without him nothing was made.  (John 1:1-3). That includes Sabbath.

Perhaps it is with this mindset that Jesus approached the incident at the Pool of Bethsaida. Since he was Lord of the Sabbath and that he was the one who instituted Sabbath in the first place. It was an outrageous claim to make, and the Pharisees rightfully saw it as making himself equal with God. Let’s look again at the events as they unfolded on that Sabbath Day. There was a man who sat patiently at the Pool of Bethsaida hoping to receive a healing miracle, he’d been disabled for thirty-eight years.  

Of all the days, the Sabbath was chosen for the waters of the Pool to be supernaturally stirred. At which point, people jumped into the Pool and received their healing. Due to his disability the man was unable to lower himself into the Pool. And, personally, I think the Carrying Laws would’ve stifled any hope of others carrying him into the water. As I understand it, Jesus healed him where he was sitting and there was no need for him to be lowered into the water. But the breach occurred when Jesus asked him to take up his bed and walk, which meant breaking what Jeremiah said in Ch.17:21-22.

I can’t help thinking this was intentional on Jesus’s part, to show that mercy should out way rules. It was merciful to not let that man wait any longer and all things considered, his chances of getting into the Pool were pretty limited. Which brings me to another highly controversial topic in this whole scenario. Jesus said, “My Father has been Working until now and I have been Working” (John 5:17). It is clear that even John believed that an Angel stirred the waters (John 5:4). But my understanding is that the Father, stirred the waters, prompting Jesus to say, “My Father is Working.” What does that say about Genesis Ch.2:2 (God’s rest) was it a one-off? And does God in fact Work on the Sabbath?

If we are to take Jesus’s statement about the Father Working on Sabbath at face value, then God’s rest in Genesis 2:2 was not for his benefit but for our benefit. “The Sabbath was made for man.” It’s clear from all other Scriptures that God never tires, slumbers, or sleeps. So, it seems ironic to me that after creation, God got tired and needed a rest. Instead, what God did, was create a day, which he blessed to create a separation from labour. Jesus never denied a day of rest, but for him it was about getting our priorities right. Whether we believe God stirred the waters or an Angel stirred the waters is irrelevant. Even if the Angel stirred the waters, then God instructed the Angel to Work on Sabbath.

On this whole question on whether God Works on the Sabbath, there is a passage in Talmud which suggests a minim challenged the Rabbi’s on this very topic.  Why does God not keep Sabbath? Since the incident occurred in 95 AD, it’s not likely a Christian minim although that cannot be ruled out. But it is my understanding that Philo first raised the issue about God working on Sabbath. According to the Rabbi’s God does Work on Sabbath. Since the heavens and the earth are his dominion, he can move about freely and work just like humans can move about in their homes on Sabbath. Make of that what you will.

In concluding, if there is any one creed that epitomizes Judaism, it is the Sabbath. The Sabbath is an Eternal Covenant between God and the Jews! I tend to agree that it is only for the Jews, because of the complexities that have surrounded it. Jubilees and Talmud state that Sabbath is for the Jews and the concept of Rest was created for them and not for Gentiles. Although Jesus did say, the Sabbath was given to man in general, which for me means all peoples. But as a day of rest and reflection, not as a day of rules and regulations.  

“My Father has been Working until now and I have been Working” (John 5:17). Is what Jesus said, despite us having a preconceived notion that God observed Sabbath from Genesis 2:2. The idea that God does work on Sabbath was explained away by 1st Century AD Rabbi’s as God working in his own house which happened to be Heaven and Earth. While on this earth, Jesus, and his Disciples didn’t always obey Sabbath rules. Not all of the rules they disobeyed were from the Rabba’s or Talmud, some were also from the Prophets like Jeremiah. Jeremiah defined Carrying Laws but since then these laws have grown enormously. This is because of Midrash and the need to clarify and expound on Biblical Laws.

Two cows working on farmland

Biblical Sabbath in my opinion is part of the Mosaic and Talmudic Law. As a Christian, I cannot keep Sabbath as a Law. If I kept it as a Law, then I would also have to accept the punishment for breaking it. The punishment for not keeping Biblical Sabbath as a Law is Capital Punishment, death by stoning (Exodus 31:12-18; Numbers 15:32-36), Rest or Die! I’m not sure about you, but I am not at liberty to go around killing people for picking up a few sticks to light a fire.

Since Messianic Judaism (which is an oxymoron by the way, there is no such thing) arrived on the scene, Christians have been caught up in many Jewish practices, and keeping Sabbath is just one of those practices. They light candles which is from a Talmud they’ve never read, and they sing Sabbath songs to the Queen of Heaven. Yet Jesus tells us that his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. The greatest burden you can bear is the burden of guilt and shame for not following a myriad of Sabbath rules and regulations. And the only burden you need to bear as a Christian is to share the Gospel with a lost world.

Cheryl Mason


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My 2016 video on Jesus Broke The Sabbath.

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