Shabbat in the Bible

The Sabbath was a cornerstone of the Temple service and of popular observance in ancient Israel.

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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).

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Dr. Jeffrey Tigay

Dr. Jeffrey Tigay is A.M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania.