Anarchy X: The Fourth Commandment


“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.”

I remember when I was a kid, you pretty much couldn’t go anywhere on Sunday because everything was closed. Not just shorter hours mind you, but closed. I’m not sure if this was because of blue laws or just tradition, but I do remember my dad being put out about it more than once. Everybody rushed to the grocery store on Saturday because you weren’t going shopping on Sunday. The idea that the Supreme Court could get behind a government mandated day of rest boggles my mind, but then, I guess I figured I left being told when to take a nap behind when I graduated from kindergarten.

So what does all of this have to do with the Fourth Commandment? Surprisingly, not much. Maybe it’s just my libertarian prejudices peeking through again, but I don’t see anything to object to in this Commandment, so long as those who are believers read it the same way I do. Yes, it’s quite clear about mandating a day of rest, and I am always a fan of taking a day off, but a careful reading shows that there are lines as to exactly just how far that prohibition on work extends.

I see a lot there about “thou shalt not do any work” (the believer), “nor thy son, nor thy daughter” (the believer’s immediate household), “thy manservant, nor thy maidservant” (any hired laborers you have around), ” nor thy cattle” (any beasts of burden you own), ” nor thy stranger that is within thy gates” (any guests or outsiders in your home). Pretty much to me this reads as “don’t try to weasel out of this on a technicality, just accept that you won’t be getting any work done today and set the day aside”. That doesn’t extend to “everyone in the world, whether they believe in your religion or not, has to set the day aside”, especially since it specifically denotes the stranger “within thy gates”, not “the stranger who lives down the street”.

Something even more positive I can take out of this is an argument for property rights. It might be seen by some as a bit of a stretch, but follow me on this one. That one clause about “nor thy stranger that is within thy gates” is an assertion of the supremacy of a person’s beliefs within the domain of their home. If I enter a person’s home, I’m not converting to their religion, but I am giving tacit acceptance to the social norms they live by. If I’m not comfortable with those norms, I’m free to leave at any time, but by no means do I have a right to try to force my views on them.

I’ve always been a big believer in the idea of “my house, my rules”, and that knife cuts both ways. Come Sunday, if I visit the home of someone who holds the Sabbath holy, I’ll abide by the conventions they consider appropriate, and if they decide to come over to my place, I’ll expect them to do the same. Of course there is a certain give and take in a polite society, and if I am aware that they are prohibited by their beliefs from engaging in work on the Sabbath I won’t ask them to pick up a hammer and help me out with a project, but by the same token I’ll expect them to respect my belief that there’s nothing wrong with me going ahead with what I’m doing (although anyone who knows me knows that’s unlikely on any day, but you get my point).

UPDATE: By special request, my thoughts on mandated rest – I’m a big fan of taking a break every now and then (as my wife will gladly attest to). However, I’m also a big believer in personal responsibility, and it just rubs me the wrong way to think that people would need to be told, or even forced by their beliefs, to take a day off. There have been times in my life, particularly when I was younger and still acting, when I was working seven days a week, ten to twelve hours a day. It was exhausting but exhilarating. Was it the right choice to make? I don’t honestly know. I certainly wouldn’t do it now. But there are times now when I have to work every day of the week to keep up with my job and school, and if one considers writing for this blog to be work (which by the definitions of this Commandment I believe it would be) I work every day of the week, and if I didn’t I would never have enough time to get everything done. Even if I did get everything done, my six days of working every week would be miserable, and I would prefer to just spread some of that work into the extra day.

As far as mandating a rest for one’s servants and animals, I believe that in a proper libertarian system, the problem would take care of itself. First, slavery would not be an issue, as it would be outlawed. People would have the right to make whatever contracts they felt were appropriate, as noted above. And if you work your animals to death, eventually you won’t have animals at all. I know that sounds rather cold blooded, but there is an alternative: the principle of shame. Shame is a powerful motivator, and if a community finds the actions of one person to be outside the bounds of acceptable behavior, but within the bounds of legal behavior (the grey zone, if you will), simply refusing to associate with them and letting them know why can often change their behavior very quickly. It works very well in those societies that practice shunning and the like. It also preserves the element of free will; if you really think you’re in the right, keep doing what you’re doing, just don’t expect me to agree.

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2 Comments on “Anarchy X: The Fourth Commandment”

  1. rachel bar says:

    I would have liked to see the post include a discussion on the value of mandated rest, especially at the time the text was written. This was an extemely radical and progressive commandment at the time, when no one thought that their slave/servant/animal deserved to rest.

    There’s a short book The Sabbath, by A. J. Heschel, which talks about what happens to our spirit, our lives and our psyches when we pause. A very well written book and quite inspiring, despite the fact that I’m an atheist or agnostic (it changes daily).


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