LCN Article
Did Jesus Break the Sabbath?

September / October 2023

Wayne Tlumak

Many people today claim that Jesus and His disciples consistently violated the Fourth Commandment, thereby demonstrating that it was no longer in effect. So, did Jesus Christ break the Sabbath? Did He allow His disciples to violate the Sabbath command?

One fact that becomes abundantly clear in reading the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is that the Jewish leaders had incredible animosity toward Jesus and what He did and taught. He received particular criticism for how He and His disciples behaved on the Sabbath day. Jesus was repeatedly “called out” by the Pharisees and others in response to something He or His disciples did on the Sabbath.

One such accusation came when Jesus and His disciples were walking through a field of grain on the Sabbath. “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, ‘Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!’” (Matthew 12:1–2).

As Christians, we understand that what the disciples were doing in plucking the grain from someone else’s field was permissible, as seen in Deuteronomy 23:24–25. The statutes of God allowed one to eat from a field or vineyard while standing in it. However, this was a Sabbath day, and the Pharisees said the disciples violated the Sabbath command by plucking and eating the grain. So, did Jesus’ disciples violate the Sabbath with His approval, as the Pharisees claimed?

No, the disciples did not violate the Sabbath command that God defined in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. They were not guilty of sin—the transgression of God’s law—by plucking and eating the grain. What they were guilty of doing was violating what became known as rabbinical law. But what is rabbinical law?

A History of Interpretations

Rabbinical laws were rabbis’ oral traditions and their interpretations of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. These oral traditions, often called the “oral law,” are regarded in Judaism as definitive commentary on the Torah, explaining how its commandments are to be carried out in practical situations. These commentaries and regulations were eventually codified in the Talmud, which is the textual record of generations of rabbinic debates about law, biblical interpretations, and additional rules that some believe began to be codified circa 100 BC. The Talmud became the basis for what we know today as Rabbinic Judaism, which had become the predominant form of Judaism by the sixth century AD. However, these oral traditions and laws, as the Talmud indicates, were observed by the Jews long before the first century and recognized as underlying the “Thirteen Principles of Faith” by Maimonides (1138–1204), one of the greatest medieval Jewish scholars.

Within the Talmud are a set of specific laws pertaining to the Sabbath, which are called the 39 melachot. Most observant Jews consider the Talmud to be equal in importance to the Torah, and orthodox Jews go to great lengths to meet the technical requirements and prohibitions of the 39 melachot. These are extra-biblical laws—not laws found in the Bible regarding the Sabbath. Jewish authorities codified many of these oral laws before Jesus Christ arrived on the earth.

By reviewing some of these prohibitions, we can better understand why the Pharisees said that Jesus broke the Sabbath. According to the 39 melachot, actions prohibited on the Sabbath include plowing, planting, harvesting, separating, grinding, and sifting, to name a few. Perhaps it was the action of plucking the grain, seen as harvesting, that incited the Pharisees, or perhaps the disciples’ separating wheat from chaff by rubbing the grain between their hands.

A “Fence” Around the Law

One of the melachot prohibits carrying a burden on the Sabbath outside of your home or personal domain; this is Hotza’ah, the thirty-ninth prohibition. A burden, according to the rabbinical teaching, can be house keys, food, or even pushing a baby carriage. This prohibition means, for example, that Jewish women with small children could not leave their homes on the Sabbath or attend services in a synagogue. So, the religious leaders found a solution to that problem in the form of what they named eruvin. An eruv is a shortened variant of the Hebrew term eruv hazerot, which basically means the mixing of domains.

The eruvin can be compared to walls, fences, and other boundaries, and they often take the form of a wire mounted on poles. You would probably never notice these wires in Jewish communities because they are usually placed at about the height of a light pole. For observant Jews, the eruvin are symbolic boundary lines that define a mixing of their private domain with the public domain. An eruv extends the private domain to semi-public or public domains, so that burdens, as defined by rabbinical teaching, can be carried on the Sabbath outside the physical structure of a home—because they are still within the boundaries of the eruv.

As long as observant Jews stay within the boundaries of the eruv, they are permitted to push a baby carriage or carry food on the Sabbath. The concept of the eruv was first established almost 2,000 years ago, demonstrating the influence of the oral law in the first century. Today, the New York borough of Manhattan has one of the longest eruvin in the world. “A nearly invisible wire runs from 126th Street in Harlem, down to Battery Park and back up to 111th [street] along the East River” (“The Manhattan Eruv,”, 2017). That eruv has been in place since 1905, as part of a contractual agreement between the city of New York and the Jewish community. Clearly, the Jewish community takes these extra-biblical laws very seriously, and therefore Jesus and the disciples were constantly taken to task for their actions on the Sabbath.

Another prohibition of the 39 melachot is kindling a fire on the Sabbath; this is Ma’avir, the thirty-seventh prohibition. This means that for observant Jews, turning on light switches or lighting a burner or stove is considered by rabbinical teaching as violating the Sabbath. Again, observant Jews have devised workarounds to accommodate this prohibition because they value the commands in the 39 melachot as much as—or even more than—they do the law of God. Burners are ignited before the Sabbath begins and a special metal cover is placed on the burner so food can be heated up during the Sabbath. Lights are turned on before the Sabbath or controlled by an automatic timer. The light in the refrigerator needs to be disabled for the Sabbath so that opening the refrigerator door doesn’t turn on the light. Appliance manufacturers even make Sabbath-compliant stoves and refrigerators.

In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which is home to a large Jewish population, there are a few public housing developments that are mainly populated by observant Jews; Independence Towers is one of them. The elevator in this building has a special controller that causes the elevator to automatically stop on every floor; it is activated before every Sabbath, so the observant Jews in the building don’t have to push any buttons to leave and enter the elevator on the Sabbath. Residents simply stand there and wait for the elevator to open on their floor, and when they get in, wait for it to stop at the floor where they want to get off. Independence Towers has 23 stories—so, as you can imagine, it could take 20 minutes or more to get out of the building using the elevator on the Sabbath.

A Release from the Burden of Working Around Burdens

Now, why did the Jewish teachers and rabbis add these extra prohibitions regarding the Sabbath? No doubt their motives were sincere in wanting to protect and safeguard the Torah commandments by building a “fence” around them. But, as you can see in the account of Jesus’ disciples and the heads of grain, human reasoning did get out of hand. While most observant Jews would deny that these oral laws and the 39 melachot are an unnecessary burden, what we find is that rabbinical teaching has established many ways to circumvent these prohibitions to make it easier for Jews to maintain the normal activities of life. Jesus Christ understood the burden imposed by the traditions, saying that “they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers’” (Matthew 23:4).

Had Jesus violated the commandments, we would not have a Savior, and the Apostle Paul stated, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Numerous times, Jesus was challenged by the Pharisees and others in response to something He or His disciples did on the Sabbath—like healing people. Yet Jesus Christ never violated God’s Sabbath command, nor did He ever endorse His disciples doing so. He did break several of the oral traditions and extra-biblical prohibitions—human-made laws—that were eventually codified in the 39 melachot of the Talmud. However, doing so did not constitute sin, which is the violation of God’s laws (1 John 3:4).

Men can’t “out-righteous” God. He gave us a complete law, codified in Scripture’s commandments and statutes, that illuminates His very mind—so that we, in turn, can learn to make wise decisions in our walk before Him. No code or interpretation of man can ever improve upon what God has given for our teaching and guidance.