Keeping the Sabbath

Dear Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin.

I hope you are well. I have a question regarding something that has been ‘on my mind’ for some time and that is ‘what should non-Jews do in regard to observing the Sabbath?’

I was brought up as a Catholic by my parents and so became familiar with the New Testament and was only introduced to ‘snippets’ from the Old Testament (as they call it). In recent years I started to read the bible from the beginning and became more familiar with The Torah. In addition, I have learnt many things from your teachings including from the very interesting ‘Scrolling through Scripture’ course. The Torah makes it very clear that one should rest on the Sabbath. I presumed that this was something for ‘everyone’ to do as a respect for G-d due to the fact he created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th.

However, I was quite shocked when I read online that it is ‘strictly forbidden’ for non-Jews to keep the Sabbath. I did a bit of reading and found that this seems to be the general consensus. So, now I am feeling quite confused and am wondering if this is correct, and if so, what then should a non-Jew do with regard to observing the Sabbath?

I hope you don’t mind answering this question. I’m very grateful for all the work you do and thank you very much.

Kindest regards

Rachel

Dear Rachel–

We don’t mind answering your question at all. In fact, we regard doing so as a privilege. Thank you for being a Happy Warrior!

The Torah is mostly a descriptive document rather than a prescriptive one, Rachel. This is to say that it does not pronounce edicts as much as it informs us of how the world REALLY works! In this sense, it more closely resembles a physics textbook than it does a book of municipal ordinances.

We humans are locked into certain circadian rhythms, the most obvious of which is the 24-hour light/dark cycle. Another is the seven-day week, and observing the Shabbat is merely adjusting to this existing reality. Thus, it is in everyone’s best interests to observe one day detached from work and productivity every seven. The only difference is that Jews are penalized for not observing the Sabbath.

You ask about non-Jews keeping the Shabbat. Firstly, we don’t need to remind you that there is no quality control ‘online’ and one can see all kinds of things. Furthermore, translation is very often wrong. For instance, the notion that non-Jews ought not observe Shabbat doesn’t say “non-Jews”, instead it says ‘heathens’, people with no belief or belief in nature. (Not that there aren’t people like that around today, of course)


There is nothing wrong with anybody who has a relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, celebrating a Sabbath. The complete observation of Shabbat is meant only for Jews. However, this includes so many small details that the majority of Jews who view themselves as Sabbath-observant do their best but may well fall short in one area or another. There is not the slightest chance of anyone observing the Shabbat fully without meticulous study of Jewish law and much preparation.

Happily, it is not an all-or-nothing deal. While Sabbath-observing Jews try to be diligent about even the small things, there is no reason for a non-Jew to follow those stringencies in order to derive benefit from having a Sabbath in their weekly cycle.

We are enormously grateful for Shabbat. We see it as a lifeline, giving us a day to regroup and stop racing. It allows us to focus on God, on our families, and on our friends. We have often thought about what we would do with regard to Shabbat were we not Jewish and the answer is that we would avoid using electronics like our phones, computers, and accessing any TV or video. We would avoid thinking about or discussing work-related items. We would have at least one leisurely festive meal, either Friday night or Saturday lunch for family and friends, we would read, pray, take walks, spend meaningful time with family and no doubt would be as sad when it ends on Saturday night with the appearance of 3 stars, as we are now.

Very best wishes-and Shabbat Shalom to you,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

This Ask the Rabbi is dedicated in memory of Ayelet and Manny Godard, ages 63 and 73 who were murdered in their home by terrorists on October 7, 2023. Their bodies were only recovered close to two weeks later.

And with prayers for the safe return home of all the remaining hostages – (and the bodies of those murdered in Gaza) including Eden Alexander, age 19, who grew up in Tenafly, NJ, USA.


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