Shabbat: Practical Advice for Messianic Gentiles

When Gentile believers discover the Jewish roots of their faith, the first questions that arise usually surround the Sabbath. Once they realize that Shabbat has not been done away with questions arise as to practical application.

If they are not obligated to the Sabbath in the same manner as Jews but wish to partake in the blessings of the seventh day, what should their Sabbath observance look like? How should a Gentile believer’s Sabbath differ from that of a Jewish believer?

First, in regard to a Jewish believer’s Sabbath, I will borrow from my colleague Daniel Lancaster’s book The Sabbath Breaker: Jesus of Nazareth and the Gospels’ Sabbath Conflicts. There he writes:

As a Gentile teacher, I am in no position to tell Jewish believers how to keep the Sabbath. While I hope to encourage every Jewish disciple of our Master to reassess his or her relationship to the holy Sabbath, I am not qualified to recommend a halachah (legal code), nor is it my place to tell Jewish people how to be Jewish.

I believe that Jewish believers have a covenantal responsibility to the Torah’s laws regarding keeping Shabbat, which in my mind is outworked in the traditional thirty-nine categories of work in halachah. But beyond that, it is for my Jewish brothers and sisters to figure out what that observance looks like.

As for Gentile believers, there remain aspects of the Sabbath for them as well. But when non-Jews observe the Sabbath, it is important that they honor the Jewish people’s unique relationship with the Sabbath.

Rav Yoel Schwartz, an expert in Jewish law as it relates to non-Jews, writes: “A [non-Jew] should not observe the Shabbat in the manner that a Jew does.” [1] While at first glance many of us might balk at this, we have to remember that to Rabbi Schwartz, full observance of Shabbat involves the full weight of the thirty-nine prohibitions of Shabbat halachah, including not using any electricity or driving in a car or even carrying an object in one’s pocket. At the same time, Rabbi Schwartz tries to find a balance between allowing Gentiles to receive the blessings of the Sabbath day and compromising the distinct sign of Israel. He goes on to say:

There is room to suggest that the [Gentiles], even nowadays, by accepting to fulfill the seven commandments, are in the same category as a Ger Toshav [“resident alien”] and should, according to Rashi, be required or at least allowed to keep the Shabbat. [2]

Practically, he goes on to suggest a Sabbath day where Gentiles refrain from work, enjoy festive meals, and study Torah. Bear in mind, though, that he does not have believers in view, and therefore takes no thought for how Gentile believers might relate more to a Jewish observance of the Sabbath. The Chemdat Yisrael even comments that “if a non-Jew were to commit himself exclusively to God, and ascribe influence to Him alone, it would be allowed and even fitting for him to rest on Shabbat like his Maker does.” [3] Thus, there is a precedent in Jewish literature for Gentiles “remembering” the Sabbath.

Gentiles in Messiah should feel free to honor the Shabbat and join in with the rest of Israel, even observing some of the customs of the Jewish people. After all, Shabbat was originally a universal expression (Genesis 2:1-3). On the other hand, it may not be advisable for a Gentile to embrace a fully halachic observance of the Sabbath, especially outside of a Jewish community. At the same time, although a Gentile will probably not be observing all of the traditional stringencies that Jewish law places around the Sabbath, he should have respect for his Jewish brother who does.

Practically, this will look different for people in different situations. For example, the Sabbath practice of a Gentile who attends a Messianic Jewish congregation will look different than the practice of someone who stays at home alone. Here are a few suggestions:

1) Everyone will have to decide for themselves on what level they want to take on some of the traditional prohibitions of Shabbat. A person need not take on the whole load of halachic prohibitions in order to keep the spirit of ceasing from those activities on the Sabbath. For example, a person might decide to avoid writing on the Sabbath or to avoid gardening or other acts of production. If you can, cook your Sabbath food ahead of time so that you don’t need to be cooking on the holy day. At the very least, to observe Sabbath one would have to attempt to take off work. Yet even if this is not possible, try just having a nice family dinner Friday night or something similar. A little Sabbath is better than no Sabbath at all.

2) The three meals of the Sabbath (Friday evening, Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon) can be very helpful in setting up a structure and consistency for Shabbat even if one does not attend a congregation. The table prayers, blessings, and songs can greatly increase the joy and spirituality of one’s Sabbath observance. Other aspects of Jewish liturgy such as the evening and morning prayers can enhance the day and provide structure as well.

3) The Sabbath should not only be a time of rest but also a time to connect with God and study the Scriptures. The weekly Torah portion schedule is a great way to stay connected with greater Israel and at the same time dig into God’s word. You can find the Torah schedule here. Additionally, it is a great time to get to reading all those books you’d like to read but never have a chance to during the week.

4) Take a break from the internet, TV, and your cell phone. Of course emergencies will arise and there will be other special circumstances but in general these activities tend to keep us from fully resting with God, family, and community.

5) If the weather is nice, get out into nature. Rabbi Shwartz writes: “If possible, they should go out to the fields or a park so as to feel close to the Creator of the world.” [4] Enjoying God’s creation helps one remember the Genesis aspect of the Sabbath and provides a place of peace and tranquility for meditation and prayer.

6) Honor the spirit of the Sabbath as best you can by abstaining from travel on the Sabbath day. If you are not traveling to attend a Messianic synagogue or join with other believers on the Sabbath, it might be better not to travel at all. If you don’t need to use your vehicle, leave it in the driveway. Be flexible with these standards, but make an effort to set the Sabbath apart as a different kind of day.

7) If at all possible, a person desiring to honor the Sabbath should abstain from financial transactions. Sabbath is not a day for going shopping, making purchases, conducting business, eating out, etc.

Jew and Gentile both need to set aside a holy day for rest and sanctification. We need a time to reconnect, both with our family and with God himself. Sabbath is the day we prepare for ahead of time, so all that we have left to do is to enjoy and delight in this precious gift. You might even say that as the world becomes more and more hectic and our lives become more and more busy, the practice of Shabbat becomes more and more important. Orthodox rabbi Shmuley Boteach envisions a time when many from all nations will begin to observe a seventh day of rest:

In this epoch of cell phones, beepers, E‑mail, and fax machines, humans are subjected to work and noise seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. We are rarely afforded a moment of solitude. I predict that more and more people, Jews and non-Jews, will begin to embrace that particularly Jewish observance of the Sabbath as a way to quiet the clamor and to regain a sense of balance and peace. Get ready to see non-Jewish families setting aside one day a week in which they don’t answer the telephone, rent videos, or surf the net. Modern-day amusements are as incarcerating as they are liberating, and we all need a break. Every Saturday will be designated as an uninterrupted family day, during which cell phones and Palm Pilots are switched off. [5]

May it be for the whole world! Yet, how much more so is this applicable to those of us from the nations who have been grafted into the olive tree of Israel through Messiah! As God-fearing Gentile believers, we can find solidarity with the first God-fearing believers who chose to observe Sabbath out of love for God and love for Israel. We can help spread the light of the universal principle of Sabbath, a principle in which all mankind can find benefit, goodness, holiness, and blessing.

  1. Rabbi Yoel Schwartz, “Noahide Commandments,” in Service from the Heart (ed. Rabbi Michael Katz et al.; Rose, OK: Oklahoma B’nai Noah Society, 2007), 262.
  2. Ibid., 262.
  3. Rabbi Meir Dan Polachi, Chemdat Yisrael, 227.
  4. Schwartz, “Noahide Commandments,” 263. In an interesting parallel Pseudo Ignatius advocates keeping the Sabbath in “a spiritual manner” by “rejoicing in meditation on the law” and “admiring the workmanship of God” (Magnesians 9:3‒4). Although he clearly sees the literal observance of the Sabbath as done away with, it is interesting that he touches on practices similar to rabbinic Noachide proscriptions.
  5. Shmuley Boteach, Judaism for Everyone: Renewing Your Life through Vibrant Lessons of the Jewish Faith (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002), 3.

Source: First Fruits of Zion