Shabbat in the Bible

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

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The prophecies in Isaiah 56:2-7 and 58:3-14 likewise single out the Sabbath as the primary commandment, observance of which will bring personal as well as national salvation. The mention of the Sabbath in the Elephantine papyri and the appearance of the personal name Shabbetai, meaning "born on the Sabbath" (Ezra 10:15) likewise attests to its importance in this period.

Sabbath in the Outside World

This unique prophetic idea may stem from the ever-growing need for Israel to preserve its own identity in the face of a hostile pagan world. To this end, Ezekiel significantly draws from the Priestly formulation in describing the Sabbath as a "sign" between God and Israel (Ezekiel 20:12), though his stress on the national consequences of Sabbath desecration represents a new application of the Priestly concept.

Another explanation for the prominence of the Sabbath in the exilic literature is the fact that observance of the Sabbath was not dependent on the Temple cult. Although some of the old Sabbath practices, such as the additional sacrifices, became impossible with the destruction of the Temple, the continued observance of the Sabbath on the lay level would ensure Israel steadfastness to its faith.

Other "Sabbaths"

In addition to the weekly seventh day of rest, the term "Sabbath" and its related form Shabbaton occur elsewhere in the Pentateuch, referring to some of the festival days and to the seventh "Sabbatical" Year, on which the land was to lie fallow (Leviticus 16:31; 23:24, 32, 39; 25:2-6; 26:34, 35, 43). Each of these occasions shares the chief characteristic of the weekly Sabbath, namely, the restricting of work. It has been suggested that the Sabbath day and the Sabbatical Year express the belief that Israel's time and land belong ultimately to God.

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Dr. Jeffrey Tigay

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