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.
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.
migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan
A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.
The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."
An ancient Jewish book that retells the stories of Genesis with added references to angels, fallen angels, and prophecy. It was highly regarded by early Christians and the Jews from Qumran, and is still considered canonical to Ethiopian Jews and Christians.
A collection of rabbinic interpretations of biblical law. The Mishnah records the judgments of a group of rabbis called tannaim (as distinct from the amoraim, whose interpretations of the Mishnah are recorded in the Talmud). According to tradition, the Mishnah was compiled and edited by a rabbi named Judah the Prince around 200 C.E.
Devotion to a divinity and the expression of that devotion.
A rule commanding someone not to do something.
Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.
religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E.
The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.
The historical period during which the second temple was standing in Jerusalem, from its dedication around 516 B.C.E. until its destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E.
2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;3you shall have no other gods before me.4You shall not make for y ... View more
6I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;7you shall have no other gods before me.8You shall not make for y ... View more
The Ten Commandments
1Then God spoke all these words:2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;3you shall h ... View more
Six Days of Creation and the Sabbath
1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face o ... View more
The Ten Commandments
1Moses convened all Israel, and said to them:
Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances that I am addressing to you today; you shall lear ... View more
Bezalel and Oholiab
1The Lord spoke to Moses: 2See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: 3and I have filled hi ... View more
Israel's Continuing Rebellion
1In the seventh year, in the fifth month, on the tenth day of the month, certain elders of Israel came to consult the Lord, and sa ... View more
12The Lord said to Moses:
15Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death ... View more
5Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp.” 36The whole congregation brought him outsi ... View more
3You shall kindle no fire in all your dwellings on the sabbath day.
Bread from Heaven
1The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Si ... View more
32When the Israelites were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the sabbath day.
21Thus says the Lord: For the sake of your lives, take care that you do not bear a burden on the sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem.
5saying, “When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the s ... View more
31and if the peoples of the land bring in merchandise or any grain on the sabbath day to sell, we will not buy it from them on the sabbath or on a holy day; and ... View more
15In those days I saw in Judah people treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on donkeys; and also wine, grapes, f ... View more
6People could neither keep the sabbath, nor observe the festivals of their ancestors, nor so much as confess themselves to be Jews.