If it’s Shabbat, your shower’s going to be late

Jewish Men old city

An Orthodox Jewish man walks through Jerusalem with his sons. From their dress, to their diet, to their fervent efforts to take a day off, families like this provide a “living classroom” for all readers of the Bible. (William Haun photo.)

For nearly two weeks, we had hiked through Israel searching for lessons from the Bible.

We had walked through a canyon-like wadi in the Judean wilderness in blistering, 117-degree heat. We had explored the ruins of a dozen ancient cities. Just that morning, we had climbed Mt. Carmel, re-living the most famous story from Elijah the prophet.

But the most profound, biblical lesson of our entire journey was about to be learned in a modern, air-conditioned, pristine-clean hotel lobby.

Her name was Debbie, and she spoke with a South African accent. She was the manager in charge of our hotel rooms, and only four of our rooms were ready when we walked in the door. We needed 15 more rooms.

“I’m sorry there’s a problem,” she said, peering over her reading glasses. “But it’s Shabbat.”

At that point, there was only silence.

I looked at Debbie, waiting on a better answer. She looked at me, expecting me to know the answer.

And well I should have known. For more than half a century, I’ve heard the command to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” For the past two decades, I’ve preached the same commandment. And over the past ten years, I’ve seen the Orthodox community in Israel take Shabbat seriously, to say the least.

On Shabbat – sundown Friday to sundown Saturday – concrete road barriers are in place in some Jewish communities, keeping unwanted cars from wandering into the neighborhood. Shabbat wires are strung around smaller communities, helping the faithful keep track of how far they can walk on the holy day. Restaurants and shops are closed. Traffic is slim. Breakfast is cold that day, the coffee kept warm only because it was prepared the afternoon before. Dentists don’t pull teeth that day, teachers don’t work on lesson plans, and hotel guests don’t leave early just because a few grimy Americans are waiting in the lobby.

I’d seen all that, but on this particular Saturday night, all I wanted was a shower and a fresh change of clothes. My feet hurt, and my socks stunk. But because it was Shabbat, the shower would have to wait.

“I won’t lie to you,” Debbie said. “It might be after 8 o’clock before we have rooms for you.”

The problem? The hotel had filled unexpectedly with Jewish guests the day before. Most of them wouldn’t leave, wouldn’t carry their luggage away, until they were satisfied that 24 hours of rest was finally over. Until the sun went down, they weren’t coming down.

I walked into my room around 9:30 that night.

By the next morning, it occurred to me how seldom I have actually taken 24 hours straight to simply rest. Keeping the Sabbath? The Shabbat Jesus would have known would have included the best meal of the week, games with the entire family, a romantic night for married couples, and not a single chore the entire day, sundown to sundown. No homework for the students, no washing dishes for the cook. No yard work, no appliance repair, no running to the store for some extra milk.

The Jewish community has kept Shabbat holy for centuries, and from all outward appearances have benefitted greatly from it. Jews have won 23 percent of all Nobel prizes, 51 percent of the Pulitzer prizes for non-fiction and 54 percent of world chess championships. Despite intense persecution, they’ve excelled in the arts, in academia, and in the sciences. Could it be that the reason Jewish people have been so productive on the first day of the week is directly related to their discipline of taking Day Seven off?

How ironic that Christians have turned Sunday into one of the busiest days of the week! How sad that our doctors have seen so many Jesus-following pastors with worn-out hearts, bleeding ulcers and a host of illnesses exasperated by stress and a lack of rest.

I have this recurring vision that I’m going to get to heaven 10 years too early, and God Himself is going to ask me, “Didn’t you read the instructions?”

The changes I’m making in my own life? First of all, we’ll never change hotels in Israel again on a Saturday night. More importantly? I’m taking a day off this week!

Care to join me?