In my fifth and final column on the greatest guide ever devised for a good world — the Ten Commandments — I offer my readers what may well be the best single thing you can do — that you are probably not doing now — to improve the quality of your life, your family’s life and, ultimately, the life of our society.
Many people — even among those who revere the Ten Commandments — do not think that the fourth commandment, the Sabbath Day, is particularly important, let alone binding.
Once you understand it, however, you will recognize how both life-changing and world-changing it is.
The fourth commandment reads: “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.”
Here are six reasons why is this so important.
First, it uniquely elevated the human being. For nearly all of human history, life consisted overwhelmingly of work. In effect, humans were beasts of burden. This commandment changed all that by insisting that people cease working one day out of seven.
Second, no matter how materially poor we may be, at least on the Sabbath Day, we are not just material beings. We are elevated. Recall that the commandment tells us to keep the day holy, not merely not to work. It is enough for animals not to work; we are to make the day holy. No matter what our circumstances, we must remind ourselves at least one day a week that we are sacred beings; we have a soul to feed, not just a body.
Third, more than any other commandment, the Sabbath Day reminds people that they are meant to be free. As the second version of the commandment — the one summarized by Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy — states, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” In other words, remember that slaves cannot have a Sabbath; only free men and women can.
In light of this, in the Biblical view, unless necessary for survival, people who choose to work seven days a week are essentially slaves — slaves to work or perhaps to money, but slaves nonetheless. The millionaire who works seven days a week is simply a rich slave.
Fourth, while the Bible could not universally abolish slavery, the Sabbath commandment greatly humanized that terrible institution and ultimately helped make slavery impossible. Prior to the Ten Commandments, by definition, a slave owner was under no obligation to allow a slave to ever rest, let alone to rest one day every week. Yet, that is exactly what the fourth commandment commanded. Even a slave has fundamental human rights — one of them being a Sabbath day of rest. Therefore a slave is a human being, too.
Fifth, the Sabbath almost singlehandedly creates and strengthens family ties and friendships. When a person takes off from work one day every week, that day almost inevitably becomes a day spent with other people — namely, family and/or friends. It has similar positive effects on marriages. Ask anyone married to a workaholic how good it would be for their marriage if the workaholic would not work for a day each week and you can appreciate the power of the Sabbath Day.
There are those who argue that without God commanding a Sabbath, people could surely decide on their own to stop working a day each week and spend the day with their spouse, family and friends. But the truth is that almost no one does. There will almost always be some reason not to take that day off — an important work project, housework, shopping, etc.
Sixth, the Sabbath commandment granted animals dignity. Even one’s animals had to rest one day a week. It is, to the best of our knowledge, the first law in history on behalf of animals. And its benefits to animals surely went beyond a mandatory day of rest. People who felt divinely obligated to give their animals a day of rest were much less likely to treat their animals cruelly any day of the week.
All six of these life-changing and society-changing benefits of the Sabbath are available to anyone. You don’t have to be a Jew, a Christian, or even a believer in God to derive all these benefits — though, for reasons noted, the reality is that those who believe in the God of the Ten Commandments are the ones who have kept the Sabbath alive.
The God factor plays another role in the Sabbath. Just as faith in God brings people to the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath brings people to faith in God. In our secularized modern societies, very few activities bring people to a relationship with God as effectively as devoting a day each week to the spiritual, not just the material.
Not bad for one day a week.
That’s why the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments. No wonder that those who have it in their lives are often happier, with richer family lives, more serenity, a community of friends, and, yes, are even healthier.
You might want to give it a try. You will indeed have a Happy New Year.
You can see my five-minute video on the fourth commandment on my website.
Dennis Prager’s latest book, “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph,” was published by HarperCollins.