Lesson Five: Sabbath and Servitude
Primary Scripture: Exodus 31:12–18; 35:1–29; 36:1–7
“Things My Grandmothers Taught Me”
People often ask me, “How do you celebrate Sabbath?”
My answer to that question varies, but I find myself falling back on this rule of thumb: “If you work with your hands, sabbath with your mind; if you work with your mind, sabbath with your hands.”
That’s a quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose wisdom on Sabbath has guided generations of Jews and Christians. I love the simplicity of his advice, and I must have been thinking along similar lines when I started an embroidery project back when I was a seminary student.
Seminary involves a lot of working with one’s mind. Don’t get me wrong—it’s important work! (If it weren’t, I wouldn’t have spent the last three decades teaching future pastors!) But even as a seminarian myself, I think I knew that there was a lot to be said for giving my brain a break.
The back story to this balance goes back to my grandmothers. Grandma Dena loved to teach, read, and write. Grandma Winnie loved to cook, garden, and sew. I learned a lot from both of them, but I think Grandma Winnie must have been whispering to me from heaven when she suggested I put down my Hebrew flashcards once a week to do a little embroidery.
Not willing to stray too far from my studies, I chose an embroidery kit for a challah cover. (Challah is the traditional braided bread that is an important feature of the family meal at the beginning of the weekly Sabbath celebration.) Covers vary widely in style, but not in beauty. It’s as if the beauty of the cover is meant to make us hungry for the bread beneath—a feast for both the senses and the soul.
As the weeks and months went by, I enjoyed the way the colorful thread awakened the pattern of the wheat and the grapes that wound their way around the traditional star of David. But I’ll never forget the day when I realized that I was beginning to recognize some of the Hebrew words that encircled the star. (My Hebrew class was working!) They were the words to the traditional Sabbath blessing: “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”
I completed that challah cover and still use it, and I thought about it as I wrote this lesson on the building of the Tabernacle. Did you notice how much joy—and honor— is given in this story to the work that the people do with their hands? Although I never heard my Grandma Winnie read from Exodus 35, I can just imagine how she must have smiled when she read that “all the skillful women spun with their hands, and brought what they had spun in blue and purple and crimson yarns and fine linen” (v. 25). And Bezalel, the supervisor, even gets a shout-out for embroidery (v. 35)!
Grandma Dena—eager for equal time, I suppose—is whispering to me from heaven that I should close with this quote from C. S. Lewis. I found it in one of the books that I inherited from her. Lewis, talking about a finely wrought psalm says, “. . . this poem is not, and does not pretend to be, a sudden outpouring of the heart . . . It is a pattern, a thing done like embroidery, stitch by stitch, through long, quiet hours, for love of the subject and for the delight in leisurely, disciplined craftsmanship.”
I’m so grateful for the things my grandmothers taught me. (And for Merryl Blair’s wonderful PW Bible Study by that title last year!) But I think they would both agree that balance is a beautiful thing. So, if you work with your mind, consider celebrating Sabbath with your hands. If you work with your hands, consider celebrating Sabbath with your mind. Either way, I pray you will experience Shabbat shalom. Sabbath peace.
 In Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958) 58–59.
Carol M. Bechtel
author of the 2022-2023 PW/Horizons Bible Study
Additional resources to use with this lesson:
Here is a website with challah cover designs and kits: https://www.pinterest.com/eminadya/challah-cover/
Suggested Hymn: “For You, My God, I Wait,” Glory to God 791. This hymn pairs well with the primary emphasis of Lesson Five: “Work without Sabbath is Servitude.”
Presbyterian Women in the PC(USA), Inc. publishes an annual Bible study. Celebrating Sabbath: Accepting God’s Gift of Rest and Delight is the study for this year. Purchase a Celebrating Sabbath bible study book and study along with us.Call 800/533-4371 and order product #HZN22100 or order online
This blog is the fifth in a series of nine blogs written by the study’s author Carol M. Bechtel. PW will post a blog each month through April 2023.