Sabbath In The Temple
The Law was not intended to be a burden for the Jews, but a great blessing. The term Sabbath means “resting”. It points to the origin and meaning of the weekly festival. The Rabbis held that it was not intended for the Gentiles, and most of them trace the obligation of its observance only to the legislation on Mount Sinai. The Sabbath-law itself rested on the original hallowing of the seventh day, when God rested from all His works.
But this was not the only rest to which the Sabbath pointed. There was also a rest of redemption, and the Sabbath was expressly connected with the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. Deuteronomy 5: 15 – ‘Remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that Jehovah thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore Jehovah thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath-day’.
At the close of the work-day week, there was the holy rest in the Lord; at the end of the labor and sorrow of Egypt, there was redemption and rest; and Hebrews 4:9 points to a better rest and ultimately to the eternal Sabbath of completed work, of completed redemption, and completed hallowing. All these things rolled up into one was the meaning of the weekly Sabbath.
It was also because the idea of festive rest and sanctification was so closely connected with the weekly festival that the term Sabbath was also applied to the great festivals. For a similar reason also, the number 7 was that of the weekly Sabbath. It became in Scripture-symbolism the sacred or covenant number.
By the time Jesus lived, the Rabbis had made the Sabbath a terrible burden for the people. One of their rules is mentioned in Luke 14:5 – the practice of taking an oxen out of a pit on the Sabbath. According to the law at the time, unless the animal was in actual danger of losing its life it was just to receive food and water until the next day, and was not to be taken out of the pit.
The whole Rabbinical legislation on the subject of the Sabbath rested on two sound underlying principles: negatively, the avoidance of all that might become work; and positively, the doing of all which, in the opinion of the Rabbis, might tend to make the Sabbath ‘a delight’. Hence, fasting and mourning were prohibited, but food, dress, and every manner of enjoyment that was not work, was prescribed to render the Sabbath a very pleasurable day. The Rabbis said that every day of the week had a pair except the Sabbath, which was alone, that it should be wedded to Israel. Israel was to welcome the Sabbath as a bride. It started out as a joyous day, but deteriorated to something that was very unenjoyable by the time of Jesus.
This day had become a day that there were almost numberless directions for what a person’s actions should be. All the many laws must have made this special feast day one of the days with the greatest labor that the people had each week.
All work was arranged under 39 chief classes, or ‘fathers’, with each of them having ever so many ‘descendants’, or subordinate divisions. Thus ‘reaping’ was one of the 39 chief classes, and ‘plucking ears of corn’ was one of the subordinate divisions. This perversion had been taken so far, that the people had to find ingenious ways to get around all the many laws so that they could even do minor things on this Holy Day.
The Schools of Shammai and Hillel
The school of Shammai was of the sect of the Essenes. They were the most stringent in the observance of the Sabbath. They held that the duty of Sabbath-rest extended not only to men and beasts, but even to inanimate objects. No process could be commenced on the Friday before that would go on of itself during the Sabbath. This included things such as laying out flax to dry, or putting wool into dye, etc.
The school of Hillel excluded inanimate things from the Sabbath-rest, and also allowed work to be given on a Friday to Gentiles, not being worried about whether it was completed before the Sabbath began. Both schools allowed the preparation of the Passover meal on the Sabbath. Also priests that were on their ministry in the Temple could keep up the fire in the ‘Beth Moked.’
This grave enforcement of the Sabbath-rest became occasionally dangerous to the nation, though. At one time the Jews would not even defend themselves on the Sabbath against a hostile attack of another army. They continued this until the Maccabees laid down the principle that defensive, but not offensive, warfare was lawful on the holy day. This principle was forever after continued by the Jews.
Scripture Rules for the Sabbath
The only directions given in Scripture for the celebration of the Sabbath in the sanctuary are those which talk about a sacred assembly; the weekly renewal of the shewbread; and an additional burnt-offering of two lambs with the appropriate meat- and drink-offering. This offering was added to the ordinary daily burnt-offering and drink-offering.
But the ancient records of tradition enable us to be able to form a very vivid conception of Sabbath-worship in the Temple at the time of Christ. Formally, the Sabbath commenced at sunset on Friday, with the day being divided by the Hebrews from sunset to sunset instead of sunrise to sunrise. Since there was no special hour, it would vary because of the seasons.
Thus, the Rabbis mention that the inhabitants of a low-lying city like Tiberias could observe the Sabbath a half-hour earlier than their brethren. If the sun was not visible, sunset was to be reckoned from when the fowls went to roost.
Long before this time, though, preparations for the Sabbath had commenced. Accordingly, Friday is called by the Rabbis the “eve of the Sabbath”. In the Gospels it is called ‘the preparation.’
There was no fresh business that was undertaken, no journey of any long distance was started. Everything started being purchased and made ready for the Sabbath feast. The dishes were placed in a heated oven and surrounded by dry substances to keep them warm. Early on Friday afternoon, the new ‘course’ of priests, Levites, and ‘stationary men’ started arriving in Jerusalem for their time of work in the Temple.
The approach of the Sabbath, and then the actual commencement of it, were announced by threefold blasts from the trumpets. The first three blasts were given when ‘one-third of the evening sacrifice service was over.’ This may have been about 3 P.M. on Friday. This was also the time when Jesus died on the cross.
With the first trumpet blasts, all business was to cease, and every kind of work was to be stopped. Next, the Sabbath-lamp was lit and the festive garments were put on. Even heathen writers of antiquity knew about this order of service.
For the second time the priests drew a threefold blast to indicate that the Sabbath had actually begun. But the service of the new ‘course’ of Priests had already begun and they were already going about their duties.
After the Friday evening service, the altar of burnt-offering was cleansed from its stains of blood. Then the outgoing ‘course’ handed over to the incoming ‘course’ the keys of the sanctuary, the holy vessels, and all else of which they had been in charge of. Next the heads of the ‘houses’ of the incoming ‘course’ determined by lot which of the families were to serve on each special day of their week of ministry, and also which ones were to discharge the various priestly functions on the Sabbath.
In the next text, we will cover the various functions that the priests had to do during their week of service.