Healing on the Sabbath

Yeshua often performed healings on the Sabbath. However, He did so on the basis of solid reasoning rooted in Jewish law.

Artwork from the Torah Club Jesus, My Rabbi study, lesson "Sukkot in Jerusalem". (Image and art © First Fruits of Zion)

Yeshua’s propensity to heal on the Sabbath angered some of the religious leaders of His day.

However, He justified Himself in John 7:23 by saying, “If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath so that the Law of Moses will not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made an entire man well on the Sabbath?”

Let’s break down His line of argument here.

The sages agreed that the positive commandment to circumcise on the eighth day supersedes the prohibition against forbidden labor on the Sabbath. Everyone agreed that the Sabbath could be broken in order to deliver a baby. Assisting a woman in childbirth falls into the category of breaking the Sabbath to save a life. The Mishnah argues that if it is permissible to break the Sabbath to deliver a child, it must be permissible to break the Sabbath to circumcise that same child eight days later. “They deliver a woman’s baby on the Sabbath even if it requires violating the Sabbath. They will summon a midwife from a distant place, and they violate the Sabbath on account of the mother. They also violate the Sabbath when they tie the umbilical cord in a knot … They also cut it. Likewise, they perform everything necessary for a circumcision on the Sabbath.” The same legal discussion provides a vivid description of how many ways the Sabbath must be broken in order to carry out the circumcision ritual: “They perform everything necessary for a circumcision on the Sabbath. They cut, tear, suction, dress with poultice and cumin.” (Mishnah).

Whenever the eighth day falls on a Sabbath, the family of the child must set aside the Sabbath prohibition and perform the circumcision. The rabbis said, “Great is circumcision, since it overrides the prohibition of the Sabbath, which is subject to strict regulations” (Mishnah). They considered the surgical procedure of circumcision as medical correction, an improvement to the body. They said, “Despite all the commandments which Abraham our father observed, he was called complete and whole only when he had circumcised himself, as it says [in Genesis 17:1], “Walk before Me, and be perfect.”

Yeshua reasoned, “If it is then permissible to make a medical adjustment to one small part of the body to correct it, how much more so should it be permissible to make a medical adjustment to correct the rest of the body?” The Master’s logic follows a simple line of legal reasoning:

  1. A surgical procedure constitutes work (melachah) forbidden on Sabbath.
  2. Circumcision is a surgical procedure and should, therefore, not occur on Sabbath.
  3. Yet, the commandment to circumcise supersedes the Sabbath prohibition.
  4. Circumcision is a surgical procedure performed for the sake of only one body part.
  5. Therefore, the healing of man’s whole body should supersede the Sabbath all the more.

He employs the same line of reasoning when He asks the Pharisees, “Have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?” (Matthew 12:5). In other words, there are situations where the Torah requires us to violate the Sabbath. A discussion from a collection of early legal arguments makes the same points using some of the same logic:

Lest one suppose that circumcision or the Temple service or a potential loss of life are subject to the prohibitions of the Sabbath, the Scriptures make a distinction … There are times that you must rest on the Sabbath, and times that you must not rest on the Sabbath. Rabbi Eliezer says, “As to circumcision, why do they allow it to supersede the prohibitions on the Sabbath? It is because they are liable to being cut off from Israel if it is not accomplished at the proper time. Now behold, this can be argued from the light to the heavy. If they override the Sabbath on account of a single member of the body, how much more should they override the prohibitions of the Sabbath to save the whole body?”

Rabbi Akiva made a similar argument based upon the Temple service:

Did the Torah impose greater stringency on the Temple service or on the Sabbath? It was more stringent in regard to the Temple service than the Sabbath, for the Temple service overrides the prohibitions of the Sabbath, but the Sabbath does not override the Temple service. Now argue the matter from the light to heavy. If the Temple service supersedes the prohibitions of the Sabbath and a matter of potentially saving a life overrides it [i.e., the Temple service], how much more so should the potential of saving a life supersede the Sabbath, which is superseded by the Temple service. Thus you have learned that the potential of saving a life overrides the Sabbath. (Tosefta)

The sages agreed with Yeshua’s reasoning up to a point. Rabbi Eliezer, a disciple of Yochanan ben Zakkai, might have heard the Master’s conversation that day with the sages and derived his argument from Yeshua. As Rabbi Eliezer articulates in the argument above, the Sabbath should certainly be set aside for the sake of saving a life, even if the threat to life is uncertain. Eliezer did not go so far as to say that the Sabbath should be set aside to heal a person even when no threat to life is present. In the words of Johannine commentator C. K. Barrett, “The principles drawn from the practice of circumcision on the Sabbath refer only to cases where life is in immediate danger. This condition was not satisfied in the Sabbath healings recorded in the Gospels, certainly not in [John] 5:1-9; a man who had waited 38 years might well have waited one more day.” Messianic Jewish luminary Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein explains, “There are several instances in which he healed the sick on the Sabbath. For the thinking of Yeshua was that even when life is not in danger (that is, in immediate danger), it is permitted to heal on the Sabbath.”

Notice that Yeshua’s argument falls apart if He did not believe that healing constitutes a legitimate violation of the Sabbath prohibitions. If He believed that healing did not fall into the category of “work” forbidden on the Sabbath, He should have framed the argument completely differently. Instead, His argument assumes that circumcision is a legitimate violation of the Sabbath, and yet the Torah requires it to take place on the Sabbath. Likewise, the argument assumes that healing—even miraculous healing—breaks the Sabbath prohibitions, yet the priority of compassion for human beings requires it.

As noted above from Eliezer’s argument in the Tosefta, Rabbi Yeshua’s argument was so cogent and well-reasoned that the sages themselves seem to have adopted it for application in cases that involved a potential threat to life:

Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah answered, “If circumcision, which involves a remedy for only one of the 248 parts of the human body, supersedes the Sabbath, how much more does saving the whole body supersede the Sabbath!” (Talmud)

The rabbis commonly engaged in this type of halachic reasoning in their disputations. They did so to keep the sacred charge Moses issued to the judges and legislators: “Judge the people with righteous judgment” (Deuteronomy 16:18). The Great Assembly of Ezra’s generation reiterated the charge: “Be deliberate in judgment” (Pirkei Avot). Rabbi Yeshua reminded His colleagues of that responsibility when He concluded His halachic argument with an allusion to Deuteronomy 16:18: “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24).

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