Bible says what? ‘Those who break Shabbat will be put to death’

Bible says what? ‘Those who break Shabbat will be put to death’

Rabbi Danny Rich takes a controversial topic in the Torah and applies a Liberal response

The concept of Shabbat – a regular period of cessation from
the daily tasks and an opportunity to recuperate and reflect on the natural world and on the human being and its capacity to be free –
is perhaps Judaism’s greatest gift to humanity.

But, if reading the Torah literally, there will be few verses as personally worrying as this one: “One who profanes the Shabbat shall be put
to death; those who do work on Shabbat shall be cut off from their kin.” (Exodus 31: 14)

Exodus was written at a time when it was believed that coercion, whether by local authorities or divine intervention, was the best method of persuading Jews to keep Shabbat.

Today, in Progressive Judaism at least, we try things a bit differently.

Like Jews of all denominations, Liberal Jews seek to make Shabbat special by gathering their families and friends, visiting neighbours, studying Jewish texts, lighting candles, attending synagogue and concluding with havdalah.

But where we differ is that, in celebrating Shabbat, Liberal Jews will use technology – including public and private transport – if it facilitates that celebration and brings a dose of oneg (joy).

In seeking to make Shabbat both different and special, we should abstain from daily work and tasks that may be onerous or prevent the possibility of the appreciation of Shabbat. But it is crucial to understand, however, that Liberal Jews both ‘do’ and ‘do not do’ on Shabbat, because it makes the beauty and purpose of Shabbat real and not out of fear from neighbourly disapproval or Divine retribution.

The best way of encouraging Jews to keep Shabbat is not via death threats, but to invite them to experience its beauty.

  • Danny Rich is the Senior Rabbi of Liberal Judaism
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