Among the most distinctive features of biblical law is the requirement to keep sabbath every seven days. This requirement is laid down in all the sources of the Torah and regularly echoed in the later books of the Old Testament. The sabbath is also a significant focus in postbiblical Judaism and in early Christianity.

Old Testament: Pentateuch.

The Pentateuch measures time in two different units of seven: a sabbath day and a sabbatical year. Each follows a set of six ordinary units of time and each is distinguished from those times in both law and (in the first case) narrative.

The sabbath day.

The priestly narrative of creation ends with the report (Gen 2:1–3) that after six days of creative activity, God “rested” (an even better translation is “ceased working”) on the seventh and therefore declared it holy. This is the first mention of the seventh day in scripture, and it gives no sign of distinctive activities or regulations associated with the holy day. There is also no indication at this point of a connection with the people of Israel: the sabbath is portrayed as preexisting the nation, its patriarchal ancestors, or its sacred covenant with the creator. By contrast, at a later point the sabbath is identified as a distinctive “sign” of God’s covenant with his people (Exod 31:12–17).

In Exodus 31, the sabbath is first connected to the Israelites after the Exodus from Egypt, in connection with God’s daily provision of manna to feed the people in their wanderings. A sufficient portion descends each day, except that on the day before the sabbath a double portion descends and then none on the sabbath (Exod 16, a text that seems to mingle the Priestly source [P] with the Yahwistic source [J]). The people have already been established as resistant to Moses’s instructions (16:20), so it comes as no surprise that some go looking for manna on the sabbath day, despite having been told they would not find any (16:27–30). This gave Moses the opportunity to explain to the people what the sabbath should be: a “day of cessation” that had been given to them as a means of testing their obedience (16:4; 28—29). It is hard to determine from Moses’s language whether he was telling them so for the first time or reminding them of something they had already heard; in any case this is the first appearance in scripture of the word šabbāt.

Further on in Exodus, the instruction to gather materials for building the Sanctuary is preceded by a warning that the sabbath must not be violated (Exod 35:1–3), just as another reference to the sabbath (Exod 31:12–17, mentioned above) concludes the instructions for building the shrine; to be sure neither passage explicitly connects the sabbath with the construction project. These two passages also introduce the rule that violation of sabbath rest is to be punished with death (Exod 31:14; 35:2).

The sabbath is included in a detailed calendar of festivals in Leviticus 23:3, but not in a shorter list in Deuteronomy 16. Special sacrifices for the sabbath are also included in the cultic catalog found in Numbers 28:9–10.

Most famous of all, the sabbath appears in both occurrences of the Decalogue (Exod 20:8–11; Deut 5:12–15), though each gives a different explanation of the purpose and the meaning of the observance. In Exodus the sabbath is a reminder (“Remember … ”) that God created the world in six days. In Deuteronomy the day is said to have been established so that all who labor (including slaves and farm animals) can have a periodic day of rest. A similar idea to the latter appears at Exodus 23:12, and is perhaps echoed in a briefer parallel at Exodus 34:21. The Decalogue in Deuteronomy does not mention creation at all, but does connect the sabbath to Israel’s release from Egyptian bondage through the power of God. Neither Decalogue specifies any penalty for violating its instructions.

In summary, the Pentateuch offers four different rationalizations of the principle of sabbath rest: as an acknowledgment of Creation; as a sign of God’s covenant with Israel; as a recollection of the Exodus from Egypt; and as social legislation on behalf of those who labor. There seems to be no clear correlation between any of these explanations and the individual source documents from which the Pentateuch was compiled.

Pentateuchal law provides the death penalty for violating the sabbath, but offers almost no detail as to which actions constitute such violation. Some of the passages mentioned above seem to have agricultural fieldwork in mind, others are implicitly connected to the construction of the Sanctuary, but still others are entirely vague. Exodus 35:3 specifically bans the making of fire, and a single narrative in Numbers 15:32–36 reports that during the desert wandering a man was found “gathering sticks” (an obscure phrase) on the sabbath, and that the people did not know what to do with him. God instructed Moses that he was to be stoned, and the instruction was carried out. This textual ambiguity gave rise to a situation in which different groups and subgroups might develop widely diverse conceptions of proper observance of the day.

The sabbatical year.

Leviticus 25:2–6 (see also 25:19–22) commands that every seventh year be treated as a sabbath for the land. The people of Israel are forbidden to sow or prune, and everything that grows by itself is to be considered public property, available to all and not only to the owner of the field. The next chapter, in portraying the devastation that will come upon Israel’s land if they defy God’s commandments, specifically explains that the desolate country will finally enjoy (or recoup) the sabbaths that were ignored while the people lived there (Lev 26:14–46).

Other rules also specify six- or seven-year intervals, though the term “sabbath” does not appear in these connections. Deuteronomy 15:1–11 commands the cancellation of debts every seventh year. Two different law codes limit the servitude of Hebrew slaves to six years (Exod 21:2–6; Deut 15:12–18). It is not clear that all these intervals ran concurrently.

Old Testament: Outside the Pentateuch.

Several texts (2 Kgs 4:23; Isa 1:13; 66:23; Amos 8:5) from various periods seem to view the sabbath and the new moon as similar in character, and some have drawn the conclusion that the sabbath began as a monthly full-moon observance. All of the Pentateuchal sources, however, take for granted that the sabbath comes once every seven days, so this is unlikely. It is possible that a joyous Babylonian full-moon celebration called sappatu, or a contrasting Babylonian conception that every seventh day was evil when undertakings should be avoided, lies in the prehistory of the Israelite sabbath. These two hypotheses, however, conflict with one another, while the actual biblical evidence offers scant support for either.

Both prior to the Babylonian Exile and after, biblical writers deplore widespread folk resistance to proper sabbath observance. Amos 8:5 (eighth century B.C.E.) complains that merchants are impatient for the sabbath to be over so they can resume their immoral dealings. Jeremiah 17 (ca. 600 B.C.E.) implies that merchants openly violate the sabbath by carrying merchandise around and into the city. Jeremiah also condemns “the princes and the people” because they have defied the law that slaves should go free after six years (Jer 34:14).

In a long rehearsal of Israel’s repeated betrayals of the covenant, Ezekiel (sixth century B.C.E.) mentions the sabbath “as a sign between [God] and them, that they might know that I Yahweh sanctify them” (Ezek 20:12), but the people profaned the sabbath and so were subject to God’s anger (Ezek 20:13, 16, 21, 24). In his instructions for the restored cult, Ezekiel also describes special arrangements for the prince and the priests on the sabbath day (Ezek 46:1–5).

Enforcement of the sabbath was an element in Nehemiah’s religious program (mid-fifth century B.C.E.). In Nehemiah 10:31 (Heb 10:32), the people promise to abstain from commerce on the sabbath day to avoid the produce of the seventh year, and to release all debts. In Nehemiah 13:15–22, however, Nehemiah reports that the people (Jews as well as people from Tyre) were flagrantly violating the sabbath, so he stationed his “servants” (i.e., soldiers) at the gates of the city and drove off the merchants who would gather there.

Psalm 92 carries the heading“for the Sabbath day,” though its contents make no reference to the sabbath. In the Septuagint, Psalm 93 carries the heading “for the day before the Sabbath,” but this is missing from the Hebrew text. Both superscriptions probably reflect later Temple practice.

Late Second Temple Judaism.

Different movements and groupings during the Second Temple period developed varying interpretations of sabbath rest. The last chapter of Jubilees (second century B.C.E.) contains a very strict list of sabbath prohibitions and prescribes death even for those who merely discuss business matters and for those couples who engage in conjugal intercourse on the sabbath (50:8). The Damascus Document from Qumran (possibly dating to the second century B.C.E.) also contains a brief list of rigorous sabbath regulations though without indicating a penalty (CD 10:11—11:18). By contrast, when Mattathias and his followers at the start of the Maccabean rebellion (168 B.C.E.) saw that they would be mowed down if they refused to defend themselves on the sabbath, they set aside the traditional restrictions in order to live and fight another day (1 Macc 2:32–41). Josephus reported several occasions when an attacker conquered Jerusalem by waiting for the sabbath when the inhabitants would not fight back (J.W. 1.146; Ant. 12.4) but also others when Jews did fight or bear arms on the sabbath (Ant. 12.76, 18.319, 354). Philo offers several encomia of the sabbath (Mos. 2.217–219; Spec. 2.56ff.), and describes Jews’ weekly attendance at the synagogue, but offers little information about the details of sabbath observance in his environment.

New Testament.

All four gospels report disputes between Jesus and others with respect to sabbath observance. In the Synoptic Gospels, two stories are always combined: one reports that Jesus allowed his hungry disciples to pluck grain on the sabbath, the next that he performed a miraculous healing on the sabbath (Matt 12:1–14; Mark 2:23—3:6; Luke 6:1–11). These stories may reflect the beginnings of Christian rejection of the sabbath on principle, but this is not certain. Jesus’s defense of these actions combines citation of Old Testament precedent (1 Sam 21:1–6, not really about the sabbath), as though the issue only concerned proper legal interpretation, with a more sweeping assertion of his own authority over the sabbath and its rules. This assertion cites a proverb (“the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath”) that also appears with different wording in rabbinic literature (Mekhilta, Ki Tissa), though without reference to a Messianic figure. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus justifies his actions (the details are different) through a similar combination, presenting quasilegal argument (John 7:22–23) but also associating his authority with that of his Father (5:17).

The letters of Paul (or those attributed to him) flatly reject the principle of sabbath observance (Rom 14:5, Gal 4:10; Col 2:16); in Galatians, Paul rejects all Jewish calendar observances as a kind of slavery. There is scholarly debate as to whether this rejection was meant only for Paul’s Gentile converts or for born Jews as well.

Offhand references in the New Testament presume well-known features of Jewish sabbath observance: weekly gatherings in the synagogue for homilies and the study of scripture (Mark 1:21; Luke 4:31; Acts 13:15, 44), prohibitions of medical treatment and plucking grain (as above), and the distance (later fixed at 2,000 cubits or 1,000 yards) that a person might walk outside his town on the sabbath (Acts 1:12).

Rabbinic Judaism.

As noted above, the Torah twice juxtaposes abstention from work on the sabbath and the construction of the desert shrine. Rabbinic interpreters concluded that the construction involved 39 distinct kinds of labor and built an elaborate classification of forbidden activities around these “fathers of labor” and their “descendants” or subcategories (m. Šabb. 7:2). Separate from this, early rabbinic authorities or their forerunners also forbade other activities that struck them as conducive to violation of the biblical prohibitions (m. Beṣah 5:2).

Rabbinic teachings incorporated the prophetic idea that the sabbath ought to be a joyous day (see Isa 58:14). Thus, different forms of a rabbinic saying describe the sabbath as one-sixtieth, or an “unripe form,” or “in the nature” of the world to come (b. Ber. 57b; Rab. 17:5). According to rabbinic law it is forbidden to fast on the sabbath past midday (see also Josephus, Life 279). One should reserve one’s best clothing for that day and the most precious delicacies that one can afford (b. Beṣah 16a). In contrast to the nonrabbinic sources cited above, several rabbis’ teachings especially recommended conjugal intercourse on the sabbath, in one version as particularly appropriate for the learned (b. Ketub. 62b).

The penalties for sabbath violation taken for granted in rabbinic materials (death by stoning for intentional violation and the sacrifice of a sin offering for accidental) are derived from scripture but could not actually be put into practice after 70 C.E. Rabbinic authorities developed no other formal means of enforcement and relied on social pressure. There is a general tendency to see public sabbath violation as a kind of apostasy (ʿErub. 69a), but it is not clear that the public at large shared this view, and authorities apparently had no other means of enforcing sabbath observance on those whose observance did not meet their standards.

The rabbis developed procedures designed to mitigate the rigor of the biblical rules, but they could not impose their views on those who were disinclined to follow them. One of the 39 prohibited “fathers of labor” barred the transfer of any articles of property between one’s “private domain” and the “public domain” of the street (see Jer 17, cited above). This made it impossible for those who shared a courtyard to use that space on the sabbath or to share hospitality with one another. Rabbinic law provides for an ʿerub (“mixture”) of the various households into one putative private domain within which items could be moved around, but this procedure could not be carried out if the courtyard housed persons who would not join such a “mixing.” These persons might be Gentiles, but also possibly Jews who did not accept the validity of such extrascriptural practices (m. ʿErub. 6:2 specifies a Sadducee). Additional procedures therefore had to be worked out to neutralize the presence of such individuals. Another ameliorating enactment made it possible to extend the sabbath limit (see Acts 1:12) an additional 2,000 cubits in a selected direction; this would be arranged on an individual basis, so the complication just mentioned could not arise.

Finally, in keeping with the biblical idea that the sabbath is a mark of the Divine covenant with Israel, rabbinic teachings discouraged non-Jews from sabbath observance unless and until they became Jews (b. Sanh. 58b). In certain sectors of the modern Jewish world, candidates for conversion make a point of violating the sabbath at least once each week until their formal entry into the covenant.

Early Christianity.

From an early time, a powerful stream of Patristic thought followed Paul’s lead and developed a conception of Christianity in which old-style sabbath observance had no place. Ignatius (early second century) describes Christians as “no longer observing the Sabbath” (Ign. Magn. 9). Citing Isaiah 1:14, Tertullian (early third century) says that to Christians “Sabbaths are strange” (On Idolatry 14).

The presumption of Christian rejection of the sabbath can be seen strikingly in Augustine’s On the Letter and the Spirit (26–29; 412 C.E.). While defending the continuing spiritual value of the Decalogue, he must continually added the phrase, “except for the Sabbath,” or words to that effect. Otherwise the sabbath’s presence in that foundational text would be completely inexplicable.

To be sure, an alternate stream, perhaps consisting largely of Christians with a Jewish background, continued to maintain some form of Mosaic observance into late antiquity. These groups, such as the Ebionites or the Nazarenes, came to be called by the general (usually hostile) epithet “Judaizers,” and ultimately were excluded from the developing Catholic Church.




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Robert Goldenberg