In the Old Testament, a man who “gathers sticks” (Num. 4:32 ff.) is considered a violator of the Sabbath law and punished by death. In the later development, not only work in our modern sense is forbidden, but activities like the following: making any kind of fire, even if it is for convenience’s sake and does not require any physical effort; pulling a single grass blade or flower from the soil; carrying anything, even something as light as a handkerchief, on one’s person. All this is not work in the sense of physical effort; its avoidance is often more of an inconvenience and discomfort than the doing of it would be. Are we dealing with extravagant and compulsive exaggerations of an originally “sensible” ritual, or is our understanding of the ritual perhaps faulty and in need of revision?
A more detailed analysis of the symbolic meaning of the Sabbath ritual will show that we are dealing not with obsessional overstrictness, but with a concept of work and rest which is different from our modern concept.
To begin with the essential point – the concept of work underlying the Biblical and the later Talmudic concept – is not simply that of physical effort but can be defined thus: “Work” is any interference by man, be it constructive or destructive, with the physical world. “Rest” is a state of peace between man and nature. Man must leave nature untouched, not change it in any way, neither by building nor by destroying anything; even the smallest change made by man in the natural process is a violation of “rest.” The Sabbath is the day of peace between man and nature; work is any kind of disturbance of the man-nature equilibrium. On the basis of this general definition, we can understand the Sabbath ritual. Indeed, any heavy work like plowing or building is work in this as well as our modern sense. But lighting a match and pulling up a grass blade, while not requiring much effort, are symbols of human interference with the natural process, are a breach of the peace between man and nature. On the basis of this principle, we understand also the Talmudic prohibition of carrying something of even little weight on one’s person. In fact, the carrying of something as such is not forbidden. I can carry a heavy load within my house or my estate without violating the Sabbath ritual. But I must not carry even a handkerchief from one domain to the other, for instance from the private domain of the house to the public domain of the street. This law is an extension of the idea of peace of the street. Just as man must not interfere with or change the natural equilibrium, he must refrain from changing the social order. That means not only not to do business but also the avoidance of this most primitive form of transference of property, namely its local transference from one domain to the other.
The Sabbath symbolizes a state of complete harmony between man and nature and between man and man. By not working – that is to say, by not participating in the process of natural and social change – man is free from the chains of nature and from the chains of time, although only for one day a week.
Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language: An Introduction to the Understanding of Dreams, Fairy Tales and Myths (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1951), 243-245.