1902 Encyclopedia > Sabbath


SABBATH (nati>), the day of sacred rest which among the Hebrews followed six days of labour and closed the week.

1. Observance of the Sabbath.—The later Jewish Sabbath, observed in accordance with the rules of the Scribes, was a very peculiar institution, and formed one of the most marked distinctions between the Hebrews and other nations, as appears in a striking way from the fact that on this account alone the Romans found themselves com-pelled to exempt the Jews from all military service. The rules of the Scribes enumerated thirty-nine main kinds of work forbidden on the Sabbath, and each of these prohibi-tions gave rise to new subtilties. Jesus's disciples, for example, who plucked ears of corn in passing through a field on the holy day, had, according to Rabbinical casuis-try, violated the third of the thirty-nine rules, which for-bade harvesting; and in healing the sick Jesus Himself broke the rule that a sick man should not receive medical aid on the Sabbath unless his life was in danger. In fact, as our Lord puts it, the Rabbinical theory seemed to be that the Sabbath was not made for man but man for the Sabbath, the observance of which was so much an end in itself that the rules prescribed for it did not require to be justified by appeal to any larger principle of religion or humanity. The precepts of the law were valuable in the eyes of the Scribes because they were the seal of Jewish particularism, the barrier erected between the world at large and the exclusive community of Jehovah's grace. For this purpose the most arbitrary precepts were the most effective, and none were more so than the complicated rules of Sabbath observance. The ideal of the Sabbath which all these rules aimed a* realizing was absolute rest from everything that could be called work ; and even the exercise of those offices of humanity which the strictest Christian Sabbatarians regard as a service to God, and therefore as specially appropriate to His day, was looked on as work. To save life was allowed, but only because danger to life " superseded the Sabbath." In like manner the special ritual at the temple prescribed for the Sabbath by the Pentateuchal law was not regarded as any part of the hallowing of the sacred day; on the contrary, the rule was that, in this regard, " Sabbath was not kept in the sanctuary." Strictly speaking, therefore, the Sabbath was neither a day of relief to toiling humanity nor a day appointed for public worship; the positive duties of its observance were to wear one's best clothes, eat, drink, and be glad (justified from Isa. lviii. 13). A more directly religious element, it is true, was introduced by the prac-tice of attending the synagogue service; but it is to be remembered that this service was primarily regarded not as an act of worship but as a meeting for instruction in the law. So far, therefore, as the Sabbath existed for any end outside itself it was an institution to help every Jew to learn the law, and from this point of view it is regarded by Philo and Josephus, who are accustomed to seek a philosophical justification for the peculiar institutions of their religion. But this certainly was not the leading point of view with the mass of the Rabbins; and at any rate it is quite certain that the synagogue is a post-exilic institution, and therefore that the Sabbath in old Israel must either have been entirely different from the Sabbath of the Scribes, or else must have been a mere day of idleness and feasting, not accompanied by any properly reli-gious observances or having any properly religious mean-ing. The second of these alternatives may be dismissed as quite inconceivable, for, though many of the religious ideas of the old Hebrews were crude, their institutions were never arbitrary and meaningless, and when they spoke of consecrating the Sabbath they must have had in view some religious exercise of an intelligible kind by which they paid worship to Jehovah.

Indeed, that the old Hebrew Sabbath was quite differ-ent from the Rabbinical Sabbath is demonstrated in the trenchant criticism which Jesus directed against the latter (Matt. xii. 1-14 ; Mark ii. 27). The general position which He takes up, that " the Sabbath is made for man and not man for the Sabbath," is only a special application of the wider principle that the law is not an end in itself but a help towards the realization in life of the great ideal of love to God and man, which is the sum of all true religion. But Jesus further maintains that this view of the law as a whole, and the interpretation of the Sabbath law which it involves, can be historically justified from the Old Testa-ment. And in this connexion He introduces two of the main methods to which historical criticism of the Old Testament has recurred in modern times : He appeals to the oldest history rather than to the Pentateuchal code as proving that the later conception of the law was unknown in ancient times (Matt. xii. 3, 4), and to the exceptions to the Sabbath law which the Scribes themselves allowed in the interests of worship (ver. 5) or humanity (ver. 11), as showing that the Sabbath must originally have been de-voted to purposes of worship and humanity, and was not always the purposeless arbitrary thing which the schoolmen made it to be. Modern criticism of the history of Sabbath observance among the Hebrews has done nothing more than follow out these arguments in detail, and show that the result is in agreement with what is known as to the dates of the several component parts of the Pentateuch

Of the legal passages that speak of the Sabbath all those which show affinity with the doctrine of the Scribes— regarding the Sabbath as an arbitrary sign between Jehovah and Israel, entering into details as to particular acts that are forbidden, and enforcing the observance by severe penalties, so that it no longer has any religious value, but appears as a mere legal constraint—are post-exilic (Exod. xvi. 23-30, xxxi. 12-17, xxxv. 1-3; Num. xv. 32-36); while the older laws only demand such cessation from daily toil, and especially from agricultural labour, as among all ancient peoples naturally accompanied a day set apart as a religious festival, and in particular lay weight on the fact that the Sabbath is a humane institution, a holiday for the labouring classes (Exod. xxiii. 12 ; Deut. v. 13-15). As it stands in these ancient laws, the Sabbath is not at all the unique thing which it was made to be by the Scribes. " The Greeks and the barbarians," says Strabo (x. 3, 9), " have this in common, that they accompany their sacred rites by a festal remission of labour." So it was in old Israel: the Sabbath was one of the stated religious feasts, like the new moon and the three great agricultural sacri-ficial celebrations (Hosea ii. 11); the new moons and the Sab-baths alike called men to the sanctuary to do sacrifice (Isa. i. 14); the remission of ordinary business belonged to both alike (Amos viii. 5), and for precisely the same reason. Hosea even takes it for granted that in captivity the Sab-bath will be suspended, like all the other feasts, because in his day a feast implied a sanctuary.

This conception of the Sabbath, however, necessarily underwent an important modification in the 7th century B.C., when the local sanctuaries were abolished, and those sacrificial rites and feasts which in Hosea's time formed the essence of every act of religion were limited to the central altar, which most men could visit only at rare intervals. From this time forward the new moons, which till then had been at least as important as the Sabbath and were celebrated by sacrificial feasts as occasions of religious gladness, fall into insignificance, except in the conservative temple ritual. The Sabbath did not share the same fate, but with the abolition of local sacrifices it became for most Israelites an institution of humanity divorced from ritual. So it appears in the Deuteronomic decalogue, and presumably also in Jer. xvii. 19 sq. In this form the institution was able to survive the fall of the state and the temple, and the seventh day's rest was clung to in exile as one of the few outward ordinances by which the Israelite could still show his fidelity to Jehovah and mark his separation from the heathen. Hence we understand the importance attached to it in the exilic literature (Isa. Ivi. 2 sq., lviii. 13), and the character of a sign between Jehovah and Israel ascribed to it in the post-exilic law. This attachment to the Sabbath, beautiful and touching so long as it was a spontaneous expression of continual devotion to Jehovah, acquired a less pleasing character when, after the exile, it came to be enforced by the civil arm (Neh. xiii.), and when the later law even declared Sabbath-breaking a capital offence. But it is just to remember that without the stern discipline of the law the community of the second temple could hardly have escaped dissolution, and that Judaism alone preserved for Chris-tianity the hard-won achievements of the prophets.

The Sabbath exercised a twofold influence on the early Christian church. On the one hand, the weekly celebration of the resurrection on the Lord's day could not have arisen except in a circle that already knew the week as a sacred division of time; and, moreover, the manner in which the Lord's day was observed was directly influenced by the synagogue service. On the other hand, the Jewish Chris-tians continued to keep the Sabbath, like other points of the old law. Eusebius (H.E., iii. 27) remarks that the Ebionites observed both the Sabbath and the Lord's day; and this practice obtained to some extent in much wider circles, for the Apostolical Constitutions recommend that the Sabbath shall be kept as a memorial feast of the crea-tion as well as the Lord's day as a memorial of the resur-rection. The festal character of the Sabbath was long recognized in a modified form in the Eastern Church by a prohibition of fasting on that day, which was also a point in the Jewish Sabbath law (comp>. Judith viii. 6).

On the other hand, Paul had quite distinctly laid down from the first days of Gentile Christianity that the Jewish Sabbath was not binding on Christians (Rom. xiv. 5 sq.; Gal. iv. 10; Col. ii. 16), and controversy with Judaizers led in process of time to direct condemnation of those who still kept the Jewish day (e.g., Co. of Laodicea, 363 A.D.). Nay, in the Roman Church a practice of fasting on Satur-day as well as on Friday was current before the time of Tertullian. The steps by which the practice of resting from labour on the Lord's day instead of on the Sabbath was established in Christendom and received civil as well as ecclesiastical sanction will be spoken of in SUNDAY; it is enough to observe here that this practice is naturally and even necessarily connected with the religious observance of the Lord's day as a day of worship and religious glad-ness, and is in full accordance with the principles laid down by Jesus in His criticism of the Sabbath of the Scribes. But of course the complete observance of Sunday rest was not generally possible to the early Christians before Christendom obtained civil recognition. For the theological discussions whether and in what sense the fourth commandment is binding on Christians, see DECALOGUE, vol. vii. p. 17.

2. Origin of the Sabbath.—As the Sabbath was origin-ally a religious feast, the question of the origin of the Sabbath resolves itself into an inquiry why and in what circle a festal cycle of seven days was first established. In Gen. ii. 1-3 and in Exod. xx. 11 the Sabbath is declared to be a memorial of the completion of the work of creation in six days. But it appears certain that the decalogue as it lay before the Deuteronomist did not contain any allusion to the creation (see DECALOGUE, vol. vii. p. 16), and it is generally believed that this reference was added by the same post-exilic hand that wrote Gen. i. 1-ii. 4a. The older account of the creation in Gen. ii. 4b sq. does not recognize the hexaemeron, and it is even doubtful whether the original sketch of Gen i. distributed creation over six days. The connexion, therefore, between the seven days' week and the work of creation is now generally recognized as secondary. The week and the Sabbath were already known to the writer of Gen. i., and he used them to give the framework for his picture of the creation, which in the nature of things could not be literal and required some framework. At the same time, there was a peculiar ap-propriateness in associating the Sabbath with the doctrine that Jehovah is the Creator of all things ; for we see from Isa. xl.-lxvi. that this doctrine was a mainstay of Jewish faith in those very days of exile which gave the Sabbath a new importance for the faithful.

But, if the week as a religious cycle is older than the idea of the week of creation, we cannot hope to find more than probable evidence of the origin of the Sabbath. At the time of the exile the Sabbath was already an institution peculiarly Jewish, otherwise it could not have served as a mark of distinction from heathenism. This, however, does not necessarily imply that in its origin it was specifically Hebrew, but only that it had acquired distinguishing features of a marked kind. What is cer-tain is that the origin of the Sabbath must be sought within a circle that used the week as a division of time. Here again we must distinguish between the week as such and the astrological week, i.e., the week in which the seven days are named each after the planet which is held to preside over its first hour. If the day is divided into twenty-four hours and the planets preside in turn over each hour of the week in the order of their periodic times (Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon), we get the order of days of the week with which we are familiar. For, if the Sun presides over the first hour of Sunday, and therefore also over the eighth, the fifteenth, and the twenty-second, Venus will have the twenty-third hour, Mercury the twenty-fourth, and the Moon, as the third in order from the sun, will preside over the first hour of Monday. Mars, again, as third from the Moon, will preside over Tuesday (Dies Martis, Mardi), and so forth. This astrological week became very current in the Roman empire, but was still a novelty in the time of Dio Cassius (xxxvii. 18). This writer believed that it came from Egypt; but the old Egyptians had a week of ten, not of seven days, and the original home of astrology and of the division of the day into twenty-four hours is Chaldsea. It is plain, however, that there is a long step between the astrological assigna-tion of each hour of the week to a planet and the recog-nition of the week as an ordinary division of time by people at large. Astrology is in its nature an occult science, and there is not the slightest trace of a day of twenty-four hours among the ancient Hebrews, who had the week and the Sabbath long before they had any acquaintance with the planetary science of the Babylonian priests. Moreover, it is quite clear from extant remains of Assyrian calendars that our astrological week did not prevail in civil life even among the Babylonians and Assyrians : they did not dedicate each day in turn to its astrological planet. These facts make it safe to reject one often-repeated explanation of the Sabbath, viz., that it was in its origin what it is in the astrological week, the day sacred to Saturn, and that its observance is to be derived from an ancient Hebrew worship of that planet. In truth there is no evidence of the worship of Saturn among the oldest Hebrews; Amos v. 26, where Chiun (Kaiwan) is taken by many to mean Saturn, is of uncer-tain interpretation, and, when the tenses are rightly rendered, refers not to idolatry of the Israelites in the wilderness but to the time of the prophet.

The week, however, is found in various parts of the world in a form that has nothing to do with astrology or the seven planets, and with such a distribution as to make it pretty certain that it had no artificial origin, but suggested itself independently, and for natural reasons, to different races. In fact the four quarters of the moon supply an obvious division of the month; and, wherever new moon and full moon are religious occasions, we get in the most natural way a sacred cycle of fourteen or fifteen days, of which the week of seven or eight days (determined by half moon) is the half. Thus the old Hindus chose the new and the full moon as days of sacrifice; the eve of the sacrifice was called upavasatha, and in Buddhism the same word (updsatha) has come to denote a Sabbath observed on the full moon, on the day when there is no moon, and on the two days which are eighth from the full and the new moon respectively, with fasting and other religious exercises.

From this point of view it is most significant that in the older parts of the Hebrew Scriptures the new moon and the Sabbath are almost invariably mentioned together. The month is beyond question an old sacred division of time common to all the Semites ; even the Arabs, who re-ceived the week at quite a late period from the Syrians (Biruni, Chronology, Eng. tr., p. 58), greeted the new moon with religious acclamations. And this must have been an old Semitic usage, for the word which properly means " to greet the new moon " (ahalla) is, as Lagarde (Orientalia, ii. 19) has shown, etymologically connected with the Hebrew words used of any festal joy. Among the Hebrews, or rather perhaps among the Canaanites, whose speech they borrowed, the joy at the new moon be-came the type of religious festivity in general. Nor are other traces wanting of the connexion of sacrificial occa-sions—i.e., religious feasts—with the phases of the moon among the Semites. The Harranians had four sacrificial days in every month, and of these two at least were determined by the conjunction and opposition of the moon.

That full moon as well as new moon had a religious significance among the ancient Hebrews seems to follow from the fact that, when the great agricultural feasts were fixed to set days, the full moon was chosen. In older times these feast-days appear to have been Sabbaths (Lev. xxiii. 11; comp. PASSOVER, vol. xviii. p. 344).

A week determined by the phases of the moon has an average length of 29|-^4 = 7f days, i.e., three weeks out of eight would have eight days. But there seems to be in 1 Sam. xx. 27, compared with vv. 18, 24, an indication that in old times the feast of the new moon lasted two days—a very natural institution, since it appears that the feast was fixed in advance, while the Hebrews of Saul's time cannot have been good enough astronomers to know beforehand on which of two successive days the new moon would actually be observed. In that case a week of seven working days would occur only once in two months. We cannot tell when the Sabbath became dissociated from the month; but the change seems to have been made before the Book of the Covenant, which already regards the Sabbath simply as an institution of humanity and ignores the new moon. In both points it is followed by Deuteronomy.

The Babylonian and Assyrian Sabbath.—The word " Sabbath " (______), with the explanation "day of rest of the heart," is claimed as Assyrian on the basis of a textual emendation made by F. Delitzsch in II. Bawl., 32, 16. The value of this isolated and uncertain testimony cannot be placed very high, and it seems to prove too much, for it is practically certain that the Babylonians at the time of the Hebrew exile cannot have had a Sabbath exactly corresponding in conception to what the Hebrew Sabbath had be-come under very special historical circumstances. What we do know from a calendar of the intercalary month Elul II. is that in that month the 7th, 14th, 19th, 21st, and 28th days had a pecu-liar character, and that certain acts were forbidden on them to the king and others. There is the greatest uncertainty as to the details (compare the very divergent renderings in Records of the Past, vii. 160 sq. ; Schrader, K.A.T., 2d ed., p. 19 ; Lotz, Qu. de historia Sdbbati, 39 sq.); but these days, which are taken to be Assyrian Sabbaths, are certainly not " days of rest of the heart," and to all appearance are unlucky days, and expressly designated as such. If, therefore, they are " Assyrian Sabbaths " at all, they are exactly opposite in character to the Hebrew Sabbath, which Hosea describes as a day of gladness, and which never ceased to be a day of feasting and good cheer.

Etymology of the word " Sabbath."—The grammatical inflexions of the word " Sabbath " show that it is a feminine form, properly shab-bat-t for shabbat-t, from TOW II. The root has nothing to do with resting in the sense of enjoying repose; in transitive forms and applications it means to "sever," to "put an end to," and intran-sitively it means to "desist," to "come to an end." The gram-matical form of shabbath suggests a transitive sense, "the divider," and apparently indicates the Sabbath as dividing the month. It may mean the day which puts a stop to the week's work, but this is less likely. It certainly cannot be translated "the day of rest."

Sabbatical Year.—The Jews under the second temple observed every seventh year as a Sabbath according to the (post-exilic) law of Lev. xxv. 1-7. It was a year in which all agriculture was remitted, in which the fields lay unsown, the vines grew unpruned, and even the natural produce was not gathered in. That this law was not observed before the captivity we learn from Lev. xxvi. 34 sq.; indeed so long as the Hebrews were an agricultural people with little trade, in a land often ravaged by severe famines, such a law could not have been observed. Even in later times it was occasion- ally productive of great distress (1 Mac. vi. 49, 53 ; Jos., Antt., xiv. 16, 2). In the older legislation, however, we already meet with a seven years' period in more than one connexion. The release of a Hebrew servant after six years' labour (Exod. xxi. 2 sq.; Deut. xv. 12 sq.) has only a remote analogy to the Sabbatical year. But in Exod. xxiii. 10, 11 it is prescribed that the crop of every seventh year (apparently the self-sown crop) shall be left for the poor, and after them for the beasts. The difference between this and the later law is that the seventh year is not called a Sabbath, and that there is no indication that all land was to lie fallow on the same year. In this form a law prescribing one year's fallow in seven may have been anciently observed. It is extended in vcr. 11 to the vineyard and the olive oil, but here the culture necessary to keep the vines and olive trees in order is not forbidden ; the precept is only that the produce is to be left to the poor. In Deuteronomy this law is not repeated, but a fixed seven years' period is ordained for the benefit of poor debtors, apparently in the sense that in the seventh year no interest is to be exacted by the creditor from a Hebrew, or that no proceedings are to be taken against the debtor in that year (Deut. xv. 1 sq.). (W. R. S.)


2 The others—according to the Fihrist, 319,14—are the 17th and the 28th.

The above article was written by: Professor William Robertson Smith, LL.D.

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