The Meaning of Sabbath

By Rev. Carol Bodeau



Dear friends,

Many of us have heard the word “sabbath” in relation to particular religious traditions. In specific, we usually think of it in relationship to Judaism, where Shabbat is kept from sundown on Friday through the appearance of the first three stars in the sky on Saturday night. In Christianity, the phrase “keep holy the Sabbath” is often used to urge followers to attend church on Sunday. For Unitarian Universalists, this idea of an enforced religious day may be simply forgotten, a little uncomfortable, or downright upsetting. But there’s more to the concept of “sabbath” than simple religious rule-making.

The word “sabbath” itself is originally Hebrew, translated via Greek and Latin, and it means ‘to rest.’ I think about this concept a lot on the farm. For agrarian people, work is never ceasing. There’s no ‘work schedule’ or ‘weekend’ or ‘days off.’ For those who work the land and care for animals, every day requires getting up at sunrise and working pretty much until sunset. The weeds don’t stop growing, the weather doesn’t stop interfering, the animals don’t stop needing care, just because we’ve fulfilled our 40 hours (or even 60 or 80 hours) of work. In this way of living, one must consciously and intentionally set aside time to rest, because life will not offer it to you the way a 9-to-5 desk job might.

So the idea of a religion enforcing a Sabbath time makes perfect sense to me, and it doesn’t seem like a bad thing. In fact, I kind of wish we had more social pressure in our household to take a sabbath! During sabbath time, one is allowed to only do work that is absolutely necessary, and instead focus on rest, family, spirituality, and study. That sounds idyllic to me! Many ministers take their weekly sabbath day on Monday, as Sunday is such a full work day. But on the farm, Monday is a big work day (and my partner Tracy takes his sort-of-sabbath on Saturday afternoons, because he gets up for the Saturday markets at 4am).

When do you take real sabbath time, if at all? And I don’t just mean ‘free time’—sabbath is intentional. It’s time for reflection, deep personal connection to loved ones, to nature, to the sacred. It’s not just time to ‘do whatever you feel like because you’ve got nothing else to do.’ In Western cultures, vacations certainly don’t often fit this deeper description of sabbath, filled as they often are with manic ‘doing’ and very little ‘being.’

Some of you may know that UU ministers (like university professors) take sabbaticals every few years of their ministries. These are extended sabbaths, usually occurring about every 5 years in which ministers take a few months off to rest, recuperate, reflect and renew their spirits after the hard work of ministry (which is also a 24/7 kind of calling). In the coming months, you’ll be hearing more about my upcoming sabbatical season, which will be spread out over the next couple of years. In the meanwhile, I invite you to contemplate the idea of sabbath as it applies to your life. How do you take intentional time to reflect on your life, to deepen connections and spiritual awareness, to study in a way that enriches you, or to be fully present? I hope that hearing about my upcoming time of renewal will spark some ideas in you about how you might incorporate this sort of intentional sabbath into your own life, as well.

In shared commitment to the community of all life,

Rev. Carol

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