“And He entered the synagogue again, and a man was there who had a withered hand. So they watched Him closely, whether He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. And He said to the man who had the withered hand, “Step forward.” Then He said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they kept silent. And when He had looked around at them with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored as whole as the other. Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him.” Mar 3:1-6
The Torah is specific about what may and may not be not be done on the Sabbath:
“Six days you shall labor (abad) and do all your work (melakah), but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work (melakah), you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you.” Exo 20:9-10, see also Exo 23:12, 34:21, 35:2, Deu 5:13-14, Lev 23:3, Jer 17:22.
The Hebrew word for work is melakah (Strong’s H4399) meaning “deputyship; employment (never servile) or abstract or concrete work; property as a result of labor; business, occupation, workmanship.”
In Exo 23:12, the Hebrew word for work is ma’aseh (Strong’s H4639) meaning “an action or transaction; activity; product; property; act, art, business, labor, thing made, occupation, operation, workmanship, thing wrought.”
The Hebrew word for labor is abad (Strong’s H5647) meaning “to work in any sense; to serve; to till; to enslave; to be or keep in bondage; to husband; to be wrought.”
From the definitions of work and labor, we can see that what is meant is one’s employment by which one provides an income, whether it is as a laborer, a landowner, a businessman or merchant, or a craftsman. The work can be physical labor or mental labor (concrete or abstract work). Work includes commerce: for even if you are buying, your transaction requires someone to labor to provide you with that good or service (see also Neh 10:31, 13:15-22, Amo 8:4-6). Work also includes workmanship: so even doing what might be considered a hobby, and thus restful, such as building models or sewing, if a thing is wrought by effort, then that falls under the biblical definition of work.
Work includes bearing burdens (Jer 17:21-27), because if something is a burden, then it requires effort, exertion, to bear it. If something is not a burden, then bearing it is not work. Not everything is a burden. If we consider that God specifically banned bearing burdens on His day of Sabbath rest, which foreshadows the millennial reign of our Messiah, it gives a whole new meaning to 1 Pet 5:7, doesn’t it?
Work includes preparing food, a laborious task in the old days (Exo 16:22-26). I do the food preparation on Fridays. I think it is alright to combine previously prepared ingredients together to make a dish on Sabbath (like combining veggies and dressing to make a salad), or to place a previously prepared meal in the oven to cook or reheat on Sabbath. While monitoring something that was cooking was a laborious task in the old days, today it is not work to just set the oven temp and forget about your dish.
In Torah, work also includes kindling a fire (Exo 35:3). Kindling a fire was a laborious task in the old days. Is flipping a light switch or turning on an oven kindling a fire? Because of the nature of our appliances these days, I don’t think so – but that is my opinion. What about striking a match? Well, striking a match does kindle a fire, it just does so in a very non- laborious way. So while it probably isn’t work as it was in the old days, I avoid striking matches on Sabbath just because my heart wants to obey the Spirit of the Torah as well as its letter. 🙂
So if we take all the commands on the Sabbath together, we can see that the intent of the command was to provide a day of cessation of labor, and working to provide an income or to provide for needs, so that a person could rest. Even all the extra details, such as not kindling a fire or preparing food, were included because those daily tasks were often laborious.
Now over time, the Pharisees and teachers of the Torah had built up an elaborate system of dos and don’ts for the Sabbath, which amounted to if a person did anything at all, he was breaking the Sabbath. God did not prohibit every activity, just work. But the Pharisees, because they did not understand the spirit of compassion that was behind the command to rest, prohibited almost all activity, even doing good on the Sabbath. Jesus, in healing on the Sabbath, was showing Israel that it was lawful on the Sabbath to do good and to save life. He was showing us that the true spirit behind the letter of Torah is a soft heart of compassion for our neighbors, not a hard heart which hides from self- sacrificing love in self- righteousness and religious obligation.