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).

Outside the Pentateuch, evidence relating to the practical observance of the Sabbath is not overabundant, but it is more extensive than that found for most laws. During the monarchical period (ca. 1050-586 BCE), the Sabbath (as well as the New Moon) was marked by visits to prophet and Temple (2 Kings 4:23; Isaiah 1:13). Business activity came to a halt (Amos 8:5). The Sabbath was a joyous day, much like the festivals (Hosea 2:13; Lamentations 2:6).

Observance, Non-Observance and Enforcement

Its desecration was severely attacked by Jeremiah, who lashed out against those who carried burdens from their houses or through the gates of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 17:19-27). During the period of the restoration, Nehemiah enforced observance of the Sabbath by locking the city gates of Jerusalem in order to prevent traders from selling their wares (Nehemiah 13:15-22). Contemporary documents from a Jewish colony in Elephantine, Egypt, likewise mention the Sabbath, attesting to its recognition by Diaspora (i.e., non-Palestinian) Jews in the fifth century BCE.

In addition to these features of popular observance of the Sabbath, one can also piece together a picture of Sabbath observance in the Temple. The Pentateuchal prescriptions of additional sacrifices and changing of the showbread of the Sabbath (Leviticus 24:8; Numbers 28:9-10) apparently reflect accepted practice (cf. Ezekiel 45:17; 46:4-5; 1 Chronicles 9:32; 23:31; 2 Chronicles 2:3; 8:13; 31:3). The sacrificial service may have been accompanied by a special psalm (Psalms 92:1). There is also a somewhat cryptic reference to the changing of the royal guards at the Temple on the Sabbath (2 Kings 11:4-12).

Why Sabbath?: The Biblical Take

Two major rationales for Sabbath observance are presented in the Pentateuch. The concept of the Sabbath as a memorial of God’s resting from the work of creation is expressed in Genesis 2:1-3 and repeated in Exodus 20:11 and 31:17. The latter passage broadens the concept in defining the Sabbath as “a sign forever between me and the people of Israel.” Although God had already sanctified the seventh day at the time of creation, he did not reveal its special status to humankind at large, but only to his people Israel. Thus, Israel’s observance of the Sabbath underscored its special relationship with God. This rationale was emphasized by Priestly writers.

Along with the theological rationale, a distinctly humanistic approach is to be found in Exodus 23:12 and Deuteronomy 5:14-15, both of which ground the observance of the Sabbath on the need to give servants, strangers, and work animals an opportunity to rest. The added reminder in Deuteronomy 5:15 of Israel’s experience in Egypt most likely intends to bolster the owner’s feeling of compassion for the weak and destitute (cf. Deuteronomy 15:15; 16:12).

A Primary Mitzvah for Prophets

Sabbath observance took on an added significance with the prophets active shortly before and during the period of exile in Babylonia (6th century BCE). Jeremiah attaches the very fate of Jerusalem to the observance of the Sabbath, thereby expressing a radical new conception (Jeremiah 17:19-27; cf. Nehemiah 13:17-18). Ezekiel subscribes to the same line of thought in equating the Sabbath with all other commandments (Ezekiel 20:11-24).

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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