black and white photo of two shabbat candles burning
(Photo/Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

What I learned about Shabbat: Keep it, or else!

As a non-Jew with a deep connection to Judaism, I find I am always defining myself in relation to the thing I am not. Unbaptized and ostensibly but irreligiously Christian, I have remained for decades unconverted and yet (somewhat) Jewishly observant. To borrow an old Woody Allen joke: I like to say that I am Jew-ish.

After a lifetime of searching in secular literature for the redemption I never found in the Bible, I turned back to that same text and discovered the wisdom and values of Judaism. Somehow the identical words of the Torah have spoken to me in a way the Old Testament never did.

One of the fundamental teachings of Judaism is the importance of observing the Sabbath. God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh — as should we.

But how important is this, really?

In our busy lives, we have so many things we aren’t able to get done the rest of the week. On Saturday we finally have time to attend to all the errands and household tasks that have piled up during those previous five days.

Of course, unlike God (and thanks to the labor movement), we’re fortunate to have two days of rest and only five days of work. Which makes one wonder what would have been left undone on that sixth day if God had been resting instead of working. A quick Google search refreshes the memory — that was the day God created us.

It is there in Parshat Beresheit (Genesis 2:2-3) that the Sabbath is first mentioned as the day God rested:

“On the seventh day, God had completed the work that had been done, ceasing then on the seventh day from all the work that God had done.

“Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy and ceased from all the creative work that God had chosen to do.”

Observation of the Sabbath is listed as the fourth of the Ten Commandments both in Judaism and for most Protestants (though for Lutherans, and for Catholics, it comes in at No. 3):

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”

When the topic of the Sabbath comes up again later in Parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 31:12-17), God tells Moses to tell the people they must observe it as a holy day — as a sign of the covenant between God and the people. There is an additional mention here pointing back to Beresheit and referencing that God rested on the seventh day.

It’s surprising there isn’t some scriptural passage about the importance of repeating things over and over given the incredible level of redundancy and repetition in the Torah.

But this is also the moment where God gets serious about how important it is to keep the Sabbath. Somehow this line isn’t popularly known. It has been curiously eliminated from the contemporary liturgy. OK, maybe not so curiously.

God even repeats it twice (of course). The lead-in sentence we already know. Here’s the phrasing from the version at

“Therefore, keep the Sabbath, for it is a sacred thing for you.”

 But the next line may be surprising to you:

“Those who desecrate it shall be put to death.”

Yup, that’s what God says. And then, in the very next line, like the lecturing, repetitive, seriously-I-mean-it parent that they are, God says:

“Whoever performs work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.”

No wiggle room here. No question. No suggestion to do the best you can. No forgiveness or second chances. Just certain death.

Given what we know of most people’s actual real-life capacity for observing even the most basic aspects of Shabbat, I suppose it’s understandable this alarming threat is not included in the standard Reform liturgy. But maybe being reminded of it could help remind us all how important it really is?

In my non-Jewish observance of Judaism, my favorite text has always been Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, a unique and amazing LGBTQ prayerbook that was created in 2009 by San Francisco’s LGBTQ synagogue, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav.

Over the years, each week in services with my Jewish then-wife and our kids, we would read those familiar lines from Parshat Ki Tisa (without mention of the potentially fatal consequence for the nonobservant). That section of the siddur is helpfully titled “Keeping Shabbat.”

In my personal copy of the book at home, I now have a Post-it Note that adds back in the missing text. I’ve also retitled the prayer a bit more forcefully to read: “Keeping Shabbat … Or Else.”

Jenni Olson

Jenni Olson is a queer filmmaker, film historian and writer based in Berkeley. She is the proud proprietor of