Shabbat in the Bible

The Sabbath was a cornerstone of the Temple service and of popular observance in ancient Israel.


Reprinted from Harper’s Bible Dictionary, by Paul J. Achtemeier, et al., pages 888-889. Copyright (c) 1985 by The Society of Biblical Literature. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Origins–Creation, and (maybe) Babylonians

Shabbat is the weekly day of rest and abstention from work enjoined upon the Israelites.

An etiological origin for the Sabbath is supplied in Genesis 2:1-3, which speaks of God ceasing from the work of creation on the seventh day, blessing the day, and declaring it holy. Scholarly explanations of the Sabbath’s origins have focused on certain days in the Babylonian monthly calendar on which normal activities of the king and certain professions were restricted. These days, known as “evil days,” were determined by the lunar cycle, corresponding with the quarters of the moon.

biblical origins of shabbatWhile the postulating of a dependence on the Babylonian calendar is tempting, it cannot be objectively sustained. The biblical Sabbath was ordained as a weekly institution with no relation whatsoever to the lunar cycle. Moreover, the somber nature of the Babylonian “evil days” stands in stark contrast to the joyous nature of the Sabbath.

Of uncertain relation to the lunar “evil days” was the day of the full moon on the fifteenth of the month, known as shapattu, a term possibly related to sabbath. This day was described as a “day of pacifying the heart [of the god]” by certain ceremonies. No significant similarities between this day and the Sabbath are known, however.

The closest analogy between the biblical Sabbath and Babylonian culture is the shared literary motif of the god(s) resting after having created humans (see Enuma Elish 7.8, 34). Even here, the parallel is distant: the biblical God rests at the conclusion of his creative efforts, while the Babylonian gods are freed from the labors required to feed themselves since humans were created to relieve them of that task.

The Sources Are Full of the Sabbath

The Sabbath was a cornerstone of Israelite religious practice from earliest times. This can be seen from the consistent mention of the Sabbath throughout all the strata of Pentateuchal and extra-Pentateuchal sources, with the exception of wisdom literature. In the Pentateuch, Sabbath observance is legislated repeatedly in general terms (Exodus 20:8-11; 23:12; 31:12-17; Leviticus 23:3; Deuteronomy 5:12-15), though the types of work prohibited are relatively limited; those mentioned include gathering food, plowing and reaping, kindling a fire, and chopping wood (Exodus 16:29-30; 34:21; 35:3; Numbers 15:32-36). The positive specifications of Sabbath observance include giving rest to one’s servants and animals (Exodus 20:10; 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14).

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Dr. Jeffrey Tigay is A.M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania.

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