Glossary of Terms



Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

sabbath, meaning "rest." A day set aside for rest from work, for an assembly, and for special sacrifices. One day each week was a sabbath. It began at sundown on Friday (in our way of reckoning) and lasted until sundown on Saturday. A sabbath day was part of each of the feasts. There was also a sabbath year, the seventh year, during which the land was supposed to lie uncultivated, debts were to be settled, and slaves given their freedom. Ex. 20:8-11; Lev. 23:26-32; Neh. 10:31; Matt. 12:1-8; Luke 13:10-17.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

Sabbath (from Heb. shabbat, ‘to cease, desist’), the weekly day of rest and abstention from work enjoined upon the Israelites.

Origin: An etiological origin for the Sabbath is supplied in Gen. 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. While 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.

Observance: 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 (Exod. 20:8-11; 23:12; 31:12-17; Lev. 23:3; Deut. 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 (Exod. 16:29-30; 34:21; 35:3; Num. 15:32-36). The positive specifications of Sabbath observance include giving rest to one’s servants and animals (Exod. 20:10; 23:12; Deut. 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 monarchial period (ca. 1050-586 b.c.), the Sabbath (as well as the New Moon) was marked by visits to prophet and Temple (2 Kings 4:23; Isa. 1:13). Business activity came to a halt (Amos 8:5). The Sabbath was a joyous day, much like the festivals (Hos. 2:13; Lam. 2:6). Its desecration was severely attacked by Jeremiah, who lashed out against those who carried burdens from their houses or through the gates of Jerusalem (Jer. 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 (Neh. 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 b.c.

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 on the Sabbath (Lev. 24:8; Num. 28:9-10) apparently reflect accepted practice (cf. Ezek. 45:17; 46:4-5; 1 Chron. 9:32; 23:31; 2 Chron. 2:3; 8:13; 31:3). The sacrificial service may have been accompanied by a special psalm (Ps. 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).

Purpose: 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 Gen. 2:1-3 and repeated in Exod. 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 Exod. 23:12 and Deut. 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 Deut. 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. Deut. 15:15; 16:12).

Sabbath observance took on an added significance with the prophets active shortly before and during the exilic period. Jeremiah attaches the very fate of Jerusalem to the observance of the Sabbath, thereby expressing a radical new conception (Jer. 17:19-27; cf. Neh. 13:17-18). Ezekiel subscribes to the same line of thought in equating the Sabbath with all the other commandments (Ezek. 20:11-24). The prophecies in Isaiah 56:2-7 and 58:13-14 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 attest to its importance in this period.

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 (Ezek. 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.

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 (Lev. 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.

In the earliest Christian community, observance of Sabbath regulations fell into disuse among Christians of Jewish descent, principally because Jesus himself had been lax in his obedience to them (e.g., Matt. 12:1-8; Mark 3:1-5; Luke 13:10-17; John 5:1-10) even though he continued to take part in synagogue services held on the Sabbath (e.g., Luke 4:16). Jesus’ claim to lordship over the Sabbath (Mark 2:28) was an important element in the hostility he aroused in those who felt that Sabbath traditions were incumbent on all Jews (e.g., Mark 3:6; John 5:18). Jesus’ attitude toward the Sabbath, coupled with the tradition that his resurrection occurred on the first day of the week (Sunday; cf. Matt. 28:1), meant that Sunday rather than the Sabbath (Saturday) became the chief liturgical day for Christians.

Bibliography Greenberg, M. ‘Sabbath.’ Encyclopaedia Judaica. Vol. 14. Pp. 557-62. Porten, B. Archives from Elephantine. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1965. Pp. 122-33, 150, 173.


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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