Genesis 2:2 And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made, and he 
          rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had made. 3 And God blessed the 
          seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which   
          God created and made.
          Exodus 31:16 Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the 
          sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. 17 It is a sign between me 
          and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on 
          the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.

Religious leaders teach their followers that God rules the world, that everything that happens is according to His will. If this is so, if God is omnipotent, if He has been ruling the world without a pause since the creation without showing the least sign of fatigue, why was He so exhausted after a few days of creation that He had to take a day off?

Today there are those who, in a desperate attempt to reconcile the creation myth in the Bible with modern science, suggest that the word "day" in the creation myth does not mean 24 hours, but billions of years. They would be well advised not to insist, because if so, the seventh "day" also lasts billions of years -- in which case God is probably still on vacation, and all religions are so much nonsense anyhow.

At any rate, the above verses are the basis for a tremendous superstructure of laws, commandments, and prohibitions dictating not only the sabbath conduct of believers, but even their thoughts and emotions on the sabbath.

          Exodus 34:21 Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest: in earing 
          time and in harvest thou shalt rest.
          Exodus 23:12 Six days thou shalt do thy work, and on the seventh day thou shalt rest: 
          that thine ox and thine ass may rest, and the son of thy handmaid, and the stranger, may 
          be refreshed.
          Exodus 20:8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days shalt thou labour, 
          and do all thy work: 10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: on it thou 
          shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy 
          maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 11 For in six days    
          the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh 
          day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
          Deuteronomy 5:12 Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the Lord thy God hath 
          commanded thee. 13 Six days thou shalt labour, and do thy work: 14 But the seventh day 
          is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor they son, 
          nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor 
          any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy 
          maidservant may rest as well as thou. 15 And remember that thou wast a servant in the 
          land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand 
          and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the 
          sabbath day.

Defenders of the faith are fond of quoting these verses as proof of the high moral tone, the legislation of social welfare, in enlightened religion. It seems God rested on the sabbath to set an example for humanity, that work should not be endless, but that there should also be a respite from work. And He reminds His chosen people that they were once slaves, and therefore they should be considerate toward their children and their servants, and even their animals. It would be very impressive, except for the fact that, in all these lists of the beneficiaries of this social welfare, the one item missing is "your wife". Oh well, someone has to clean up after the delights of the sabbath.

But there is also another side to this coin:

          Exodus 31:14 Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that 
          defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul   
          shall be cut off from among his people. 15 Six days may work be done; but in the seventh 
          is the sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord: whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he 
          shall surely be put to death.
          Exodus 35:2 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an 
          holy day, a sabbath of rest to the Lord: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death. AND
          Numbers 15:32 And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man 
          that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day... 35 And the Lord said unto Moses, The man 
          shall surely be put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the 
          camp. 36 And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with 
          stones, and he died; as the Lord commanded Moses.

In his infinite mercy, God allows humanity a weekly respite from work. But if anyone needs to work on the sabbath, or simply wants to do something on the sabbath that is defined as work, God in his infinite mercy condemns him to death.

          Isaiah 58:13 If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my 
          holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honor 
          him, not doing thine own ways, not finding thine own pleasure, not speaking thine own 
          words: 14 Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the 
          high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth 
          of the Lord hath spoken it.

     Westminster Confession of Faith (1646)
          The Sabbath is to be kept holy unto the Lord when men... do not only observe an holy rest 
          all the day from their own works... but also are taken up the whole time in the public and 
          private exercises of His worship.

     Mormon Elder Spencer W. Kimball (1895-1985)
          Mere idle lounging on the Sabbath does not keep the day holy.

So, the sabbath was given to humanity as a day of rest -- but not exactly. One might think, innocently, that the sabbath affords an opportunity to do pleasurable things for which there is no time during the work week. But according to Isaiah (and not only Isaiah) such self-indulgence is sinful. The sabbath releases one from work so that one is free to joyfully devote the day to the service of God.

For example, a strictly observant Jew is obliged to conduct a candle-lighting ceremony with his family on Friday evening, and again on Saturday evening, and also to attend prayers at the synagogue on Friday evening, and three times on Saturday: morning, afternoon, and evening. He can forget about sleeping late in the morning, or an afternoon siesta, on his day of "rest". He is also obliged to copulate with his wife Friday night, and of course the fact that this is a commandment often turns it into an onerous duty. If he manages to fulfill all these duties, he is probably exhausted by the end of sabbath, and thankful that tomorrow is merely a workday.

          Mark 2:27 And he said unto them, the sabbath was made for man, not man for the 

This saying of Jesus (repeating a saying of several rabbis) seems to be more humane, expressing the idea that the laws governing the sabbath should not be oppressive. But more detailed examination shows that this is not really the case. The saying was said in the context of the story of the disciples plucking grain on the sabbath, and the Pharisees objecting. Jesus justified this by comparing it to the story of David eating the showbread from the temple (1 Samuel 21:6). He concluded by saying that "the Son of Man is Lord also of the sabbath" (Mark 2:28). This story also appears in Matthew 12.1-8 and Luke 6.1-6, but without Mark's verse 27, leading to the surmise that Mark's verse 27 is a later interpolation. The main point is not that the law is too oppressive. but that Jesus has more authority than the sabbath,

An observant Jew is obliged to receive the sabbath as a queen, joyfully (even his joy is legislated!). According to Jewish tradition, the sabbath gives one a taste of what the world will be like after the Messiah has come. Seventh-Day Adventists also believe that the sabbath gives us "a foretaste of our eternal future in God's kingdom."

Actually, the laws governing the sabbath are tyrannical. The prohibitions are so numerous, it is a wonder that anyone gets through the day without falling foul of them. For example, the Mishnah Tractate "Shabbat" 7:2 (part of the Talmud setting forth the laws governing the sabbath) lists 39 categories of prohibited activities, and details many specific activities contained in these categories. Here are some of the more extreme examples:

Selecting is prohibited on the sabbath -- meaning separation of mixed materials which renders 
     something edible.
          Therefore, it is forbidden to filter polluted water to make it drinkable.
          Therefore, it is forbidden to pick the bones out of a fish while eating it. One solution for this 
               was the invention of gefilte fish: the skin of a whole fish stuffed with the flesh that     
               has been deboned and ground.
Baking is prohibited on the sabbath -- meaning the application of heat to food to make it edible or 
          One solution for this was the invention of cholent: stew brought to a boil on Friday 
               afternoon, and left to simmer for 20 hours until Saturday lunch.
Sewing is prohibited on the sabbath.
          Therefore, it is forbidden to staple pieces of paper together.
Tearing is prohibited on the sabbath.
          Therefore, it is forbidden to tear toilet paper. Squares of torn toilet paper must be prepared 
               before the sabbath begins. (How lucky that defecating is not prohibited!)
Slaughtering is prohibited on the sabbath.
          Therefore, it is forbidden to swat a fly or trample on a cockroach.
Cutting hide into pieces is prohibited on the sabbath.
          Therefore, it is forbidden to cut paper with scissors.
          Therefore, it is forbidden to clip one's fingernails or toenails.
Building is prohibited on the sabbath -- meaning joining the several pieces of something together 
     to make a whole.
          Therefore, it is forbidden to turn on electricity to complete a circuit, even going so far as to 
               disable the bulb that lights inside the refrigerator when the door is opened -- or not to 
               open the refrigerator at all.
Tearing down is prohibited on the sabbath.
          Therefore, by the same reasoning, it is forbidden to turn off electricity.
Igniting a fire is specifically prohibited in the Bible:
     Exodus 35:3 Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.
          Therefore, it is forbidden to smoke.
          Therefore, it is forbidden to operate a motor that burns fuel.
          Therefore, it is forbidden to turn on electricity.

The prohibition against igniting a fire makes no sense. Apologists say that, once upon a time, it was hard work to strike a spark and kindle a fire. Apparently, a family whose fire had gone out on a sabbath in the dead of winter was expected to freeze to death while praising God. The days when it was hard work to strike a spark are long gone, but this pointless prohibition and all its onerous supplements still make the sabbath irksome for the believers.

The first rabbis who were confronted with questions about electricity ruled that electricity is a kind of fire, even though they had not the faintest idea what they were talking about. Since religious laws are changed only by increasing their rigidity, those ignorant rulings are still in force, and observant Jews undergo unbelievable contortions with all sorts of automatic timers in a vain attempt to live through the sabbath without returning to the Middle Ages.

I discussed this with an acquaintance, an observant Jew, and for once got a straight answer. He said that he knows full well that electricity is not fire, but he does not feel that he has the right to be a law unto himself. And there you have it in a nutshell: like George Orwell's "doublethink" (in his book 1984) he knows that the ruling is ignorant and ridiculous, but he obeys it devoutly because it expresses the will of God. "The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord." (Psalms 111:10) so he ignores his own knowledge and common sense, keeps his head down, buttons his lip, and suppresses his heretical thoughts to prevent himself from suffering a crisis of faith -- and on the sabbath he fiddles with automatic timing devices. 

Extinguishing a fire is prohibited on the sabbath, even if terrible damage will result.
          Therefore, by the same reasoning, it is forbidden to turn off electricity.
Transferring between domains is prohibited on the sabbath -- meaning carrying something 
     somewhere else, for example: from the private to the public domain, or from outside the city 
     into the city, as in the following quotes from the Bible:
          Exodus 16.29 See, for that the Lord hath given you the sabbath, therefore he giveth you   
          on the sixth day the bread of two days; abide ye every man in his place, let no man go out 
          of his place on the seventh day.
          Jeremiah 17.21 Thus saith the Lord; Take heed to yourselves, and bear no burden on the 
          sabbath day, nor bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem; 22 Neither carry forth a burden out 
          of your houses on the sabbath day, neither do ye any work, but hallow ye the sabbath    
          day, as I commanded your fathers... 27 But if ye will not harken unto me to hallow the 
          sabbath day, and not to bear a burden, even entering in at the gates of Jerusalem on the 
          sabbath day; then will I kindle a fire in the gates thereof, and it shall devour the palaces of 
          Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched.
          Nehemiah 13.19 And it came to pass, that when the gates of Jerusalem came to be dark 
          before the sabbath, I commanded that the gates should be shut, and charged that they 
          should not be opened till after the sabbath: and some of my servants set I at the gates, 
          that there should no burden be brought in on the sabbath day.
     Therefore, it is forbidden to travel, or to leave or enter a town or settlement, or to walk more 
          than a minimal distance.
Mourning is prohibited on the sabbath -- meaning that during the obligatory week of mourning  
     after the death of a close relative or spouse, the funeral may not take place on the sabbath, 
     and the mourners must conduct themselves normally on the sabbath, and show no signs of 
     grief until the sabbath ends.

Conspicuously missing from this exhaustive list of prohibitions, is a law forbidding cleaning up and washing dishes on the sabbath, This is understandable in view of the absence of "your wife" from the lists of those who are commanded to rest on the sabbath (that include your ox and your ass). As I said before, someone has to clean up after the delights of the sabbath.

In the USA, which advertises itself as the bastion of religious freedom, repressive sabbath laws have been in effect since colonial times. Such puritanical laws are named "blue laws" after the laws passed by the Colony of New Haven (now part of Connecticut) in 1655.

     from the "Blue Laws" of New Haven
          No one shall run on the sabbath day, or walk in his garden or elsewhere, except reverently 
               to and from meeting.
          No one shall travel, cook victuals, make beds, sweep house, cut hair, or shave, on the   
               sabbath day.
          No woman shall kiss her child on the sabbath or fasting day.

     The General Assembly of East New Jersey passed a law in 1677 prohibiting "the singing of 
     vain songs or tunes" on Sunday.

It has become common for drug stores in the USA to sell groceries, office supplies, housewares, ice cream, soft drinks, etc. because for a long time blue laws allowed only drug stores to remain open on Sunday.

Beginning around 1890, many cities passed laws forbidding the making of soda water on Sunday. Ice cream parlors began to offer their Sunday customers an ice cream soda without the soda, calling it a Chocolate Sunday, Strawberry Sunday, etc. Even this did not satisfy the guardians of the sanctity of the sabbath, so the spelling of the name was changed from Sunday to Sundae.

As of 2008, there are still coercive blue laws in effect in "the land of the free".
The sale of alcoholic beverages on Sunday is prohibited in 4 states. Limitations of various sorts 
     on the sale of alcoholic beverages on Sunday are imposed in 15 states. Such prohibitions or 
     limitations were repealed in Washington State in 1978; in Virginia in 1988; in Pennsylvania in 
     2003; and in Colorado in 2008.
Opening stores for business on Sunday is subject to limitations in North Dakota, South Carolina, 
     and two counties in New Jersey. Such limitations were repealed in Washington State in 1966, 
     and in Connecticut in 1970.
The sale of automobiles on Sunday is prohibited in 9 states. Automobile dealerships in these 
     states may not open on Sunday.
Horse racing on Sunday is prohibited in Illinois.
Hunting on Sunday is prohibited in Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
Sporting events on Sunday are subject to limitations in South Carolina.

The courts have consistently refused to rule that these blue laws are unconstitutional. The answer always is, that such laws are not "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion, in the words of the First Amendment -- and furthermore, that the First Amendment begins: "Congress shall make no law..." leaving the states free to enact such laws.

Thus, the pressure of hidebound religious fanatics to try to prevent people from doing what they want on their wonderful "day of rest" is just as insistent today as it was thousands of years ago. Like everything in organized religion, the sabbath laws leave no room for individual differences, nor for personal preferences, nor for a changing world. Sabbath laws legislate what believers must do on the sabbath, and especially what they must not do, and when they must be joyful, when loving, when worshipful -- as long as they are never independent.