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Signposts: Daily Devotions

Written by Susan Hanson

Monday, November 2

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you.
—Deuteronomy 5:12

When I was growing up in rural Texas, the meaning of “the Sabbath” was eminently clear: It was Sunday, and Sunday was a day of rest. After Sunday school and church, both of which were mandatory at my house, the family would come home for a typical noon meal of fried chicken or rump roast, served with mashed potatoes, gravy, and whatever green or yellow vegetable was currently on hand. The afternoon was devoted to “rest.”

In my early childhood, this meant simply hanging around the house reading the funny paper, napping, or, more often than not, whining about being bored. When I grew a little older, it implied watching football on TV with my father or going to the home of friends, where we’d sit around the kitchen table for hours, talking and eating homemade cake or pie. We couldn’t shop, thanks to Texas’ Blue Laws, but if the invitation came, “going to the show” was a viable option—provided, of course, I’d been to church and not malingered at home with some illness.

How any of this could be “holy” was beyond me.

Granted, our Sunday morning at church seemed to qualify, but little else we did appeared to fit. As I saw it, “observing the Sabbath” was a practice tinged with ambivalence and guilt; we could enjoy ourselves, but not too much—and not without remembering our fallen state. To me the only understandable reason for this custom was that taking things easy on Sunday was a way to get ourselves ready for another week of work.

In his classic The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel turns that notion on its head. “Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor,” he writes. “The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life…The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.”

Put another way, observing the Sabbath is not about doing, but about being. It’s a time—an hour, a day, a week—to forget about time, to imagine our lives as more than what we earn or spend. 

When Jesus observed that “[t]he sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath,” he was telling the religious folk of his day that there is something holy about stopping to remember where power and freedom truly lie: not in the commerce of our daily lives, but in the God who dwells in our hearts.

O God, when we are driven to perform, when we imagine that our days are measured solely by the things that we produce, let us remember the gift of your sabbath, and help us to let go of all that owns us.

These Signposts were originally published on in 2005.