Beth Elohim Messianic Synagogue
Buying and Selling on the Sabbath
To understand the section of scripture we are going to discuss, we need to understand what was going on at the time. Ezra had arrived in Jerusalem from Babylon in 457 B.C E. (the seventh year of the king). The temple had been built previously, but things were in disarray by the time Ezra arrived. He oversaw a correction of the people in the area of marriages to strange women. The Jews had begun to marry the people in the surrounding areas. Ezra put an end to this during his time in Jerusalem, but it did not last. There was buying and selling of food and wares on Shabbat. There is much to say on this subject because it is important for us to understand G-d’s perception of buying and selling on Shabbat and for us to follow His instruction concerning it. But first, let us look at one Christian denominations rationalization, minimalization, and justification for their choice to disregard G-d’s design for Shabbat. We are going to explore the perspective of the United Church of G-d (UCG).
The argument for buying and selling on Shabbat:
According to the UCG, Nehemiah’s indictment was only against G-d’s people setting up businesses on the Sabbath as well as spending the entire day purchasing goods and services. They argue that spending an hour or two enjoying a meal at a restaurant does not come close to that practice and therefore must be acceptable to G-d: “There is a huge difference between opening up a market or going to market on the Sabbath day and eating a meal in a restaurant.”
What the UCG fails to say is what G-d thinks of that restaurant and what it is doing on holy time. At no time do they admit that operating such a business on the Sabbath is an evil that G-d abhors. They omit some very important questions relating to this issue. For example, would Nehemiah have permitted restaurants to operate during the day or would he have closed them down too? Would he have commanded the Jews of his day to cease and desist from buying their goods? If restaurants today are desecrating what G-d made holy, why would any minister of that G-d teach His people to patronize such sin?
There is not one chance in a million that Nehemiah would not have shut every restaurant down on Shabbat and instructed the Jews not to buy their goods on Shabbat.
When describing the narrative we are addressing today, the UCG paints a picture that parallels our society today. They believe that G-d’s people can go out into the world on Shabbat if only for an hour or two, even though G-d commanded that the Israelites not leave their places on Shabbat (Ex. 16:4) (to be explained later).
The UCG derives consolation from a belief that because Nehemiah was the first to mention the words “buying” and “selling” on Shabbat, that this was not actually part of G-d’s instructions. The Manna Principle will be discussed shortly to show otherwise. Now let’s take a closer look at what was going on at the time of Nehemiah.
Nehemiah left Jerusalem and returned to the king for “certain days” (Neh. 13:6). When he later returned to Jerusalem, he found that virtually all the agreements that had been made were abandoned. He was so grieved, he cried out to G-d to remember him for the good that he had done and not the end result he saw in Judah (Neh. 13:14).
Nehemiah was the king’s cupbearer (or special assistant) when he heard of the difficulties in Jerusalem, The king gave him his leave to travel to Jerusalem to resolve the existing problems. He became governor of Judea. This was now the 20th year of the king or 13 years after Ezra had gone to Jerusalem. Again, he found things in disarray. The temple was not being maintained, the wall had not been rebuilt, and Jerusalem was a broken –down city. Nehemiah saw the evil that was being done by the high priest in giving a room in the temple to Tobiah. He became so angry that he threw all his belongings out of the temple area. He then reopened the treasuries for the tithes. He saw people treading grapes on the Sabbath- working in clear violation of the Sabbath command (Ex. 20:8-11: Deut. 5:12-15). They were loading up their produce and bringing it into Jerusalem to sell.
Nehemiah brought about another reform, similar in some ways to the one previously brought about by Ezra. He also set about to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem. The wall was finished in 52 days in spite of the many obstacles that lay before them (Neh. 6:15). After the wall was rebuilt, another reform was instituted by Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra read from the law to the people (Neh. 7) and the people responded positively. After this, Nehemiah proposed a covenant for the people. This covenant agreement is outlined in Neh. 9:38 through 10:29. “And because of all this, we make a sure covenant and write it; our leaders, our Levites, and our priests seal it. Now those who placed their seal on the document were Nehemiah the governor, the son of Hacaliah, and Zedekiah…” (Neh. 9:38-10:1). There were seven distinct expectations for the Jews in this covenant (Neh. 10:29-39).
1. Obedience to “G-d’s Law, which was given by Moshe the servant of G-d.” (Neh. 10:29).
2. No marriages within the habitants of the land.
3. Any wares or victuals (food) brought into Jerusalem would not be purchased by the Jews on the Sabbath day or any Holy Day.
4. The land was to rest in the seventh year and all debts forgiven according to the year of release.
5. There was to be a temple tax to take care of the upkeep of the temple.
6. The Levites were to receive the tithes and the firstfruits.
7. The Levites were to contribute a tithe of the tithe to the temple
Some of these can be found in the “law of Moshe” but some go beyond the law itself. In the case of the Sabbath, this is the first mention of a prohibition concerning commerce on the Sabbath. Jewish scholars contend that it was the first time the issue of buying and selling on the Sabbath was even addressed. However, we need to look at what G-d declared nearly a thousand years before Nehemiah leveled his rebuke to the Jews in Jerusalem. It is interesting to note that G-d used the acquisition and preparation of food on the Sabbath to make his point. Let’s take a look at the Manna Principle:
When G-d delivered the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt, He introduced them to Shabbat. This was done prior to the giving of the 10 Commandments. In Exodus chapter 16, He explains how He planned to nourish them physically. He would provide them with food every day- with the notable exception of Shabbat. He would not rain down manna on the seventh day because that day was holy. Just as He rested from His labor on the first Shabbat during creation week, He never ceased the practice.
G-d then gave His people three specific instructions concerning food on this day. Furthermore, He said that these instructions were given to prove whether His people would obey His law (Ex. 16:4). The three instructions were:
1. Food was not to be acquired on the Sabbath
2. Food was not to be prepared on the Sabbath
3. His people were not to leave “their place” on the Sabbath
The UCG position on this issue contradicts every aspect of G-d’s command with respect to eating on Shabbat. First, they assert that they may acquire their Shabbat meals on the seventh day by purchasing them at a restaurant. They also assert that Shabbat meals may be prepared for them by chefs who profane Shabbat. Finally, they teach that G-d’s people may go outside their community of faith to procure their food as well as to consume it. It is interesting that the phrase “going out to eat” is used when describing this activity. Furthermore, they interpret Neh. 13:15-17 as dealing only in the context of a market day. The UCG maintains that a market day is not a restaurant nor does it have anything to do with eating a meal. It was a market day. The Shabbat had become the one day in the week for going to market. The UCG maintains that the prohibitionwas against setting up a market on Shabbat or a Holy Day. There is no mention of eating or not eating on Shabbat. They state that the Jews had made the Sabbath a secular day in which it was acceptable to go to market. Going to market was an all-day activity because it took so much time. They use this analogy to support their idea that it is ok to go out for “a little while.” What the UCG advances is pure deception. First, they conveniently omit Nehemiah’s command that the Jews were not to buy ANYTHING on Shabbat (Neh. 10:31). This is because doing business on Shabbat is an act of desecrating the holy. G-d’s point was that Nehemiah makes no mention of dining out on Shabbat, according to the UCG. But this is not true.
The word “victuals” used in Nehemiah’s indictment comes from the Hebrew word tsayid. This word means “game,” “lunch,” or “that which is taken in hunting.” This being the case, Nehemiah was excoriating the Jews for buying food on the Sabbath. It is also important to note that those who were selling food on Shabbat were “non-believers” just as those who work in restaurants on Shabbat today. These people were from the city of Tyre:
“There dwelt men of Tyre also therein, which brought fish, and all manner of ware, and sold on the Sabbath unto the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem” (Neh. 13:16). These vendors did not know G-d. They were totally ignorant of His law and His instructions to men. However, this fact was irrelevant to Nehemiah. To him, ignorance was no excuse. The truth is borne out in the actin he took.
At this point, it is important to understand that there were numerous options available to Nehemiah. For example, he could have reasoned “These people are going to sell their products regardless of what we do. Therefore, what difference does it make?” Or, he could have said, “We are not causing them to work. They would be working anyway.” Nehemiah could also have drawn his conclusions based on the practice of his predecessors. He could have thought, “Other respected men of the past have purchased foodstuffs on Shabbat. Why should I pass judgment on such a thing? After all, it will only stir up contention. “
Each of these responses was available to Nehemiah. Furthermore, they remain rationalizations used today. Sadly, many of the clergy today take a different path if any than the one Nehemiah chose to take. They balk at becoming involved under the guise of wanting for everyone to be tolerant of each other and just get along. However, Nehemiah, faithful and uncompromising did not hesitate when addressing what he saw was an egregious evil- and make no mistake about it, that is exactly how he perceived buying or selling on Shabbat. To him, this practice represented a mortal threat to G-d’s people. Furthermore, he realized that the very future of his nation hung in the balance of this issue. We read of Nehemiah’s action in Chapter 13 vv. 17-19:
Then I contended with the nobles of Judah and said unto them, ‘What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers thus, and did not our G-d bring all this evil upon us and upon this city? Yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the Sabbath.’ “And it came to pass, that when the gates of Jerusalem began to be dark before the Sabbath, I commanded that the gates should be shut, and charged that they should not be open till after the Sabbath: and some of my servants set I at the gates, that there should no burden be brought in on the Sabbath day.”
With these words, Nehemiah was warning Judah that they were in captivity in no small part because they had profaned the Sabbath. Specifically, they were buying and selling on that day. Nehemiah was so concerned over this sin that he took what could only be regarded as radical measures. He expelled the street vendors from the city. When they returned the following Shabbat, Nehemiah was furious. He actually threatened them with physical force if they dared to return to sell their products on Shabbat:
So the merchants and sellers of all kind were lodged without Jerusalem once or twice. Then I testified against them, and said unto them, ‘Why lodge ye about the wall? If ye do so again I will lay hands on you.’ From that time forth they came no more on the Sabbath.” (Neh. 13:20).
The UCG retort by stating the merchants referred to in Neh. 13 were knowingly defying the Sabbath in a culture where Sabbath-keeping was a legally protected national custom. Note they refer to obeying Shabbat as a “custom.” They say this is not the case in our culture today. The Advisory Committee for Doctrine from the UCH stated “We do not consider eating out on the Sabbath as paying for ‘the fruit of their sacrilege.’ Much of the food sold in grocery stores may have been harvested or packaged on the Sabbath. By your definition, these products would also be ‘the fruit of their sacrilege.” The conditions that existed then were in some ways more similar to those of the Millennial rule of Christ than to conditions in our culture today. In these two sentences, the UCG argues that there is no difference between us going to the market on Monday and purchasing food that “may have been” the product of Sabbath labor, and them going out to a restaurant on the Sabbath where it is absolutely essential that profane labor be done. There is no Biblical prohibition against purchasing products that may have come into contact with Shabbat labor, provided that labor was not done at our request. The Sabbath was part of the law of the land, which Nehemiah had authority to enforce. The nation was being restored to the worship of the one true G-d after having been in captivity. These factors do not exist today.”
“G-d’s people today are a minority group seeking to live G-d’s way in a world that rejects many of the laws of G-d., especially the true Sabbath. We are widely scattered, which requires travelling many miles on the Sabbath to attend services. Church pastors have to travel even more, which could result in the need to purchase fuel on the Sabbath. These are not excuses for not keeping the Sabbath, but these and other factors pose challenges to Sabbath –keepers to determine how to keep the Sabbath in a way that will result in the blessings that G-d intended the Sabbath to give us. We believe that the key to achieving these positive results lies in understanding the basic principles in the context of our culture, not by taking specific instructions from Old Testament passages that relate to very different and even unique historical contexts.” In other words, this advisory committee is stating that G-d changes and so do His commands and we may change them as we see fit at will. Yes, we do not make animal sacrifices at this time because there is no temple. But, they will be reinstituted just as they were practiced during the Temple times and the concepts for sacrificial giving and repentance remains unchanged.
The UCG then argues that if G-d’s people had the authority to shut down businesses on the Sabbath like Nehemiah did, they (the UCG) would do so. However, because they do not htave this authority, G-d now approves of them paying these Sabbath-breakers to labor on their behalf on holy time. They do this despite the fact that G-d’s Shabbat law shouts out that what takes place in a restaurant every Shabbat is a sin.
Today G-d’s people can do just what Nehemiah did. We have the power to lock the merchants out of our lives on Shabbat. We also have the power not to purchase their goods and services.
The UCG also contends that what took place in Jerusalem during the days of Nehemiah involved turning the entire Shabbat day into a market day, and therefore, does not apply to them. They then imply that Nehemiah would not have had a problem with the Jews just spending an hour or two paying Sabbath-breakers to make them a meal on holy time. This is an argument that would make any criminal defense attorney proud. The strategy is simple and used throughout Christianity by stating everything they do not want to follow was “nailed to the cross!” Find a way to prove that it is impossible to obey G-d in this matter because the scriptures are not specific enough to address their particular situation. This tactic can be very successful if it is creative enough. For example, if the Jews during Nehemiah’s day were only eating lunch at a restaurant on Shabbat, the UCG could argue that the scriptures are silent about breakfast or dinner. Or if the people were buying meat on Shabbat, the UCG could say that there is no prohibition against buying vegetables. We see this all the time in Christianity. By translating Hebrew scripture or even the Greek to what they want it to say, they can then build an entire doctrine around the mistranslation. Words such as ecclesia translated as “Church” is a prime example. This one intentional mistranslation and replacing Israel with the “Church” serves as the basis for Church replacement theology.
The example of Nehemiah’s uncompromising love of G-d’s law is a great lesson for us. This champion of faith boldly confronted those who were complicit in causing G-d’s people to profane His Sabbath. His remedy was forceful and reflected G-d’s thinking about engaging in commerce on the day He made Holy. G-d not only abhorred the practice then, He abhors it now. The whole point Nehemiah was trying to make was that Judah or anyone who considers themselves a true believer were and are not to patronize businesses on this day(unless it is an emergency).
Today it would be impossible to do what Nehemiah did during Judah’s captivity. G-d’s people do not have that kind of freedom or power. WE cannot lock up restaurants or prevent vendors from selling on Shabbat. However, we can lock them out of our lives on Shabbat and explain to anyone who asks us the reason for our actions.
Rabbi Tamah Davis-Hart