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For the authors of the Hebrew Bible and other ancient Jewish groups, the Sabbath was an important day of rest, but these groups differ in regard to the significance of the Sabbath and how to observe the festival.


What does the Bible say about the Sabbath?

The Sabbath (Hebrew: Shabbat) is perhaps the most important festival described and prescribed in the Hebrew Bible. In most texts, proper observance of the Sabbath is linked to resting or to abstention from work on the seventh day. However, the historical origins of the Sabbath and the details of its observance remain contested.

The two forms of the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:2-17 and Deut 5:6-21) in the Hebrew Bible offer distinct origins and justifications for the observance of the Sabbath. The Ten Commandments of Exod 20, along with the creation story of Gen 1:1-2:4, claims that the Sabbath is a commemoration of God’s rest on the seventh day after the creation of the world. According to this tradition, individuals who observe the Sabbath mimic God during the act of creation. However, according to the other set of Ten Commandments found in Deut 5, the Sabbath is linked to the exodus from Egypt, with the observation of the Sabbath acting as a commemoration of the exodus event.

There are yet other explanations given for the origins of the Sabbath. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the Sabbath is linked to a covenant between God and Israel, such as at Exod 31 (see also Ezek 20), where God proclaims the Sabbath as a “sign between me and them, so that they might know that I the Lord sanctify them” (Exod 31:12). Regardless of its origin, it is clear that the Bible presents the Sabbath as an important part of God’s relationship with God’s chosen people.

How does one observe the Sabbath, and what is the significance of this practice?

But how does one actually observe the Sabbath according to the Hebrew Bible? This question is pressing especially when punishment for working on the Sabbath is typically death (Exod 31:15; Num 15:35-36). Specifically, what does it mean to rest from work? Biblical texts offer few details except that work includes kindling a fire (Exod 35:3), gathering food (Exod 16) or sticks (Num 15:32), and carrying burdens, especially through city gates (Jer 17:21). Other texts add performing business transactions to the list of prohibited work (Amos 8:5; Neh 10:31; Neh 13:15-19). However, these details do not begin to cover all the activities of everyday life. Later traditions of the Second Temple and rabbinic periods fill in the blanks. For example, the book of Jubilees offers more detailed instructions for observing the Sabbath, including the requirements to abstain from preparing food and drink or drawing water from a well (Jub. 2.24.17-33).

It is also during the Second Temple period that observance of the Sabbath becomes a primary way in which ancient Jews asserted their Jewish identity. For example, the author of the apocryphal book of Judith describes Judith as committed to the observance of the Sabbath and other festivals to emphasize her piety (Jdt 8:6). The authors of 2 Maccabees also connect the Sabbath to Jewish identity by claiming that a Greek prohibition against observing the Sabbath prohibited them from “confessing themselves to be Jews” (2Macc 6:6). After the destruction of the second temple, the ancient rabbis continue to emphasize the importance of the Sabbath and develop a systematic definition of work. In the Mishnah’s tractate on the Sabbath, the rabbis define work as any of the thirty-nine activities that were necessary for the construction of the tabernacle, including building, weaving, and baking (m. Shabb. 7:2). Through these detailed discussions, the rabbis provide a more concrete system by which to observe the Sabbath that continues to inform the practices of many modern Jewish communities.

  • Bonesho-Catherine

    Catherine E. Bonesho is Assistant Professor of Early Judaism in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research focuses on the ways ancient Jews navigated living under Greek and Roman rule. She is currently finishing her first monograph on foreign time in early Jewish literature.