The Origin of the Shabbat


The Sabbath is the only holiday mentioned in the Ten Commandments. In a way, the Sabbath was the first labor law known to exist. Where the Shabbat came from and how it evolved over time?

Below are excerpts from articles by people with different opinions:

  1. The traditional (religious) view and how it evolved over time.
  2. A historical review claiming that Shabbat was an ancient goddess.
  3. The difficulties that the biblical prophets had trying to impose the Shabbat
    rules on the Israelites.
  4. How the Israelites were trained to observed the Shabbat
    during their 40 years journey in the desert.
  5. A discussion whether or not the Shabbat was borrowed from the Babylonians.
  6. Orthodox reasoning for not using electronic devices during the Shabbat

The traditional (religious) view

“Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shall you work and do all your tasks. But the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord your God. You shall do no manner of work… For in six days, God made heaven, earth and sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, God blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11) Biblical law forbids us to work on Shabbat. While the Torah does not define which labors are forbidden, the rabbis took it upon themselves to do so in the Mishna. There are thirty-nine forbidden forms of work. As noted above, these include, plowing, reaping, slaughtering an animal, baking, carrying, dyeing wool, weaving, etc. The last of these is that we are forbidden to carry an object from a person’s private dwelling to another. However, we are allowed to carry things within our own dwelling. (As a result, in many communities, Jews would not be allowed to push their babies in baby carriages to go to Synagogue because they are carrying a baby from their private dwelling to that of another. []

…Many events have shaped the modern observance of the Sabbath. Notably, beginning during the middle ages in particular, notable Rabbis (such as Moses ben Maimon – Maimonedes also known as RaMBaM, and Rashi — Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchaki) wrote monumental works, cataloging every single law in the Torah, and elucidating them for every conceivable situation. Sabbath observance figured prominently among these, although detailed procedures and regulations exist for all of the 613 commandments that are held by Judaism to be found in the Torah. Many of these details date from the publication of the Shulchan Aruch — ‘The Prepared Table,’ which lays down many laws and regulations of Judaism, and other works. Sabbath law is organized according to 39 categories of activities that are specifically prohibited by the Torah, and these activities, known as the ‘39 Melachot‘ — types of ‘work’ — are related to various daily activities that are also thus prohibited by Torah. This body of work is known as ‘Rabbinical Law,’ and its validity is accepted without reservation by fundamentalist strands of Judaism, such as Orthodox Judaism, and varied streams of Chassidic Judaism therein. Other strains, such as the Conservative movement, and Reform, Progressive, and Humanistic movements place a progressively lesser importance on Rabbinical law, and even discount it entirely. []

…After 70 CE, when the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, the ancient rabbis worked intensively to adapt biblical traditions and teachings to the reality: of Jewish religious life in the absence of a sacred center. In the process, they created the foundation of rabbinic Judaism, which serves as the basis of modern Jewish life. One of the major thrusts of the rabbinic enterprise was establishing rules for observance of the Shabbat, putting their own stamp on existing popular tradition.Based on a seemingly random interpolation of the law to cease working on Shabbat in the midst of a description of how the Israelites were to build the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary (Exodus 31:13), the rabbis of antiquity deduced that all labors necessary for constructing such a sanctuary and its appurtenances should serve as the blueprint for Shabbat prohibitions. Identifying 39 basic categories of labor, the rabbis determined that these activities, and any that were similar or related to them formed the basis of future Shabbat restrictions. Their choices thus focused Shabbat prohibitions on activities involving creating and destroying, and they added to this list other activities not specifically banned, in their view, but nevertheless inappropriate to the Sabbath. The rabbis also translated into concrete liturgical acts the Torah’s positive admonitions to “remember” and “keep” the Sabbath “[in order] to sanctify it.” Thus the Rabbis created the ritual of kiddush or “sanctification” (a special blessing usually said over wine) and an elaborate Shabbat liturgy as the required active content of Shabbat observance to go along with the prohibition of labor. []

Ancient goddess

Among the goddesses representing either the female side of Yahweh or his consorts, such as Asherah, Shekhina, Anath, and Lilith, Shabbat Hamalka has a unique personality and origin. Her myth strongly influenced Jewish thought, and contributed to the strength of home and family that had improved the odds for physical and spiritual Jewish survival. The name means Queen of the Sabbath, and the entity is the personification of the Jewish day of rest, Saturday. She still possesses a prominent position in Judaic mythology. For example, Israeli children, even in completely nonreligious surroundings, still sing songs to her every Friday afternoon (in Hebrew “Erev Shabatt” meaning the Sabbath Eve) before the Queen “descends” from Heaven to grace the world for twenty-four hours. When the Jews started their return to Palestine, long before the state of Israel was declared, new mythology had to be created or recreated. Shabbat Hamalka, prominent and romantic, was one of the first candidates. The great National Poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, who was an expert on folklore and mythology, had a lot to do with preserving the image of the Queen in the renewed home of the Jewish People. He invented “Oneg Shabbat,” meaning “Sabbath Joy,” and combined the customs of group study, festive dinner, lectures, and singing of both old and new songs. The custom spread to the United States and is still observed by many. Her origin is extremely ancient, and as the centuries rolled, Shabbat Hamalka acquired magical qualities, combining the character of Queen, Bride, and Goddess. In addition, she took on strong erotic/romantic and cosmic/spiritual significance. The usual Judaic connections to Akkadian myths exist in her image, because the word Shabbat resembles the name of the Akkadian feast of the full moon, Shabbatu. The romantic character of the two holidays also had much in common. For example, marital intercourse on Friday night was considered a sacred duty, exactly like the sacred sexual activity during Shabbatu. However, the Akkadians never had a weekly day of rest – the idea seems to start in the second chapter of Genesis. In the thundering, dramatic first chapter of Genesis, God spends six days engaged in the creation of the world. In chapter 2, the story continues in a gentler fashion: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.” (King James Version). Interestingly, the Sabbath is the only holiday mentioned later in the Ten Commandments. In a way, the Sabbath was the first labor law known to exist. []

The difficulties of the  biblical prophets

That the Sabbath was either improperly observed or sometimes, perhaps, altogether ignored in the time of the Prophets seems to be evidenced by their writings. Amos castigates those that are impatient for the passing of the Sabbath because it interferes with their usurious business. Isaiah is equally emphatic in condemning his contemporaries for their unworthy celebrations. Jeremiah exhorts his people to refrain from carrying burdens on the Sabbath. Ezekiel describes the laxness of the fathers, for the purpose of impressing upon his auditors the importance of observing the Sabbath, evidently neglected in his day. In his scheme of reconstruction the hallowing of the Sabbath holds a prominent place. According to him the burnt offering for the Sabbath, provided by the prince, consisted of six lambs and a ram, with an entire ephah of meal-offering and a “hin” of oil to every ephah. Isaiah conditions Israel’s triumph on the observance of the Sabbath, which may not be set aside for secular pursuits; its observance should be a delight. The colonists under Nehemiah charged themselves yearly with a third of a shekel to provide, among other things, for the burnt offerings of the Sabbaths. Nevertheless Nehemiah took them to task for profaning the day, and to prevent them from continuing to turn it into a market-day he ordered the gates to be closed and kept closed until the end of the Sabbath. This measure, after a while, had the desired effect. Under the stress of the Syrian persecution, faithful compliance with the strictest interpretation of the Sabbath commandment came to be regarded as a sign of loyalty to God, especially since previously the Sabbath had been habitually desecrated. Many of the refugees in the mountains, thousands in number, preferred to die rather than violate the Sabbath by hurling stones upon their assailants. This made it necessary for Mattathias to issue an imperative order that the Jews, if attacked, should defend themselves. []

Excercising the Shabbat in the desert

The etiology of the Sabbath is given in Genesis 1:1–2:3, although the name of the day does not appear there: God worked six days at creating the world; on the seventh he ceased working (shavat mi-kol melaʾkhto), blessed the day, and declared it holy (see 2:1–3). The special status of the seventh day and its name were disclosed to Israel in the episode of the manna. God supplied each day’s need of manna for five days; on the sixth, a double portion was provided to last through the seventh day, on which no manna appeared. Correspondingly, the Israelites were commanded to go out, collect, and prepare each day’s portion for the first five days; on the sixth, they were to prepare for two days; on the seventh they were not to go out at all but were to remain at home. Thus they learned that the seventh day was “a Sabbath of the Lord,” which they must honor by desisting from their daily food-gathering labor (Ex. 16:22). The fourth “word” of the *Decalogue generalizes the lesson of the manna. All work (melaʾkhah) is banned on the Sabbath, which here for the first time is given a rationale, drawn directly from the formulation of Genesis 2:1–3 and expressly identifying the Sabbath with the seventh day of creation (Ex. 20:8–11). The meaning of the “blessedness” and “sanctity” of the day is inferrable from the manna experience. []

The Babiloniyan angle 

…The Babylonians believed that the seventh, fourteenth, twenty-first, and twenty-eighth days of the month (flowing the phases of the moon) were evil days and, therefore, the physician, the oracular priest, and the king ceased all labor on those days. The cessation of work on the day they called Sabattu was based upon fear and had no relation to the biblical concept of the Sabbath as a day of rest, joy, and refreshment of the soul. Other scholars contend that the Hebrews borrowed the concept from the Canaanites, whose primitive agricultural calendar was based on a seven-day week. The Canaanites regarded the number seven to be evil and unlucky, a potential source of ill fortune to be avoided at all costs. They viewed this final day of the week as one on which evil spirits abounded and, therefore, as a day on which human labor would not prosper. The ancient Hebrews, however, transformed this negative character of the seventh day into one of joy, refraining from labor because it was a day of gladness of the spirit. None of the scholarly theories explain how and why the Jews, who were supposed to have borrowed the Sabbath from the Canaanites or Babylonians, accomplished this transformation. Traditionally, Judaism teaches that the Sabbath was unique to ancient Hebrew culture and was not influenced by others. It contends that the Sabbath as a day of rest and joy is our special contribution to the world, a gift from the Jewish people to all humankind. []

…An etiological origin for the Sabbath is supplied in Genesis 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..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…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 (Exodus 20:8-11; 23:12; 31:12-17; Leviticus 23:3; Deuteronomy 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 (Exodus 16:29-30; 34:21; 35:3; Numbers 15:32-36). The positive specifications of Sabbath observance include giving rest to one’s servants and animals (Exodus 20:10; 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14) []

Orthodx Jewish view: Why use of electronic devices is phorbiden on Shabbat

Question: …May electrical appliances and electronic devices be used on Shabbat? If not, than why not? If so, then with what restrictions?

Response…observers of God’s gifts of life and liberty requiring us to act in distinctive patterns on the seventh day, refraining from actions which result in a durable physical change and actions and even thoughts which compromise the tranquility of Shabbat and erode the distinctiveness of the seventh day. []