Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Hebrew Sabbath

After much research on the origin and meaning of the biblical Sabbath, I will now present my findings.

The four different sources cite four completely different reasons for observing the Sabbath.

J (jehovah) says that the Sabbath is for our own benefit so that we can rest. This is stated in the only J text that ever mentions the Sabbath: Six days you may work and on the seventh day you shall cease; you shall cease from plowing and harvesting (Exodus 34:21). Since no further explanation is given, it seems that there is no particular reason for the seventh day rest other than our own benefit.

E (elohim) says that the Sabbath is designed for the benefit of one's animals and servants. Six days you may do your work, and on the seventh day you shall cease: so that your ox and ass may rest, and the son of your handmaid and the stranger, may be refreshed. (Exodus 23:12). Again, this is the very only mention of Sabbath in the entire E text and the reason is stated clearly. We rest for a very practical reason: to give our animals and servants a chance to rest and refresh so that they can work well in the following week.

P (priestly). The priestly text has numerous references to the Sabbath, yet they are all consistent. According to P, it all started with God's creation of the universe. He created everything in seven days and he ceased on the seventh day. "God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it for on it he ceased from all the work which god created and made." (Genesis 2:3)

Later, when God chose the Hebrew nation as his people and made a covenant with them, observance of the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant. This means that when Hebrews observe the Sabbath they demonstrate their connection and special status with Yahweh, for Yahweh also rested from creation on the seventh day.

You shall keep my Sabbaths: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that you may know that I am Yahweh who sanctifies you. ... Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant: it is a sign between me and the children of Israel forever. For in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed. (Ex 31:13)

This theme is also mentioned in the so-called Ten Commandments (note that these are not the real ten commandments; the real ten commandments are in Exodus 34):

"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. You shall labor six days, and do all your work,
but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God. You shall not do any work in it, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your man-servant, nor your maid-servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates; for in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day, and made it holy. (Ex 20:8-11)

And finally, the Deuteronomist puts his own twist on the meaning of Sabbath. According to the Deuteronomist we keep the Sabbath so that our servants may rest and we will thus be reminded of our own servitude and Egypt and our deliverance therefrom by Yahweh.

Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as Yahweh your God commanded you. Six days shall you labor, and do all your work but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God. You shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your man-servant, nor your maid-servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. So that your man-servant and your maid-servant may rest as well as you and you will recall that you were once a servant in the land of Egypt, and Yahweh your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm. Therefore Yahweh your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:12-16)

The J and E statements can be combined by pointing out that the rest is designed for our own benefit AND that of our animals and servants. However, the reason for Sabbath provided by the P text and the D text cannot be integrated into this scheme.

Which one is the true reason?

Since JE is considered the be the most ancient text, it is therefore safe to assume that the JE outlook of Sabbath preceded the ones posited by the P and E texts. The primordial Hebrew Sabbath was practical; we cannot work incessantly and so we divide the week into seven parts and we rest on every seventh part. This could also be provided as the reason for Shemitah - the abandonment of one's fields on every seventh year. Such resting periods are good for us, for our animals and servants and -as we now know- for the soil.

There is still much debate among contemporary scholars as to which source was written first, between P and D. From an Etiological standpoint (study of origin) neither reason for Sabbath observance seems to resemble the JE reason more than the other and so I will not speculate further on this. It does seem, though, that the JE natural reason for the observance of Sabbath came to be seen as insufficient and this prompted the priestly classes of Judah (Aaronid priesthood in Jerusalem) and Israel (Levite priesthood in Shiloh) to come up with stronger, more binding reasons for the observance of Sabbath. At this point in the development of the Hebrew religion, Sabbath observance was considered binding on everyone, even on those who wished to forgo on their right to a day of rest.

Furthermore, the spectrum of prohibited work was expanded during the PD temple period (circa 700 BC - 600 BC). In the JE text, only plowing and harvesting are prohibited and possibly cooking and baking (Exodus 16:23). Casual, non-laborious tasks are not prohibited in JE but we see that P considers "mekashesh etsim" -- which is conventionally understood to mean gathering of sticks -- to be a profanation of Sabbath (Numbers 15). I must note here that the proper translation of "mekashesh" is to pound or strike, not to gather. This is the true meaning of the Semitic root /kss/ and this is the only way the term can be understood in 1 Kings 17:12
"behold, I am gathering two sticks". Accordingly, the man was engaged in laborious work and not just casually gathering sticks.

Still, we see that P prohibits burning a fire on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:3) which literally means that a fire may not burn for cooking OR lighting purposes anywhere in a Hebrew dwelling and this is how the verse was construed by the Karaaites of the tenth century. And if we take a look at the prophesies of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Nehemiah we see clearly that range of unacceptable work had been expanded.

If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words. Isa 58:13

Thus saith the LORD; Take heed to yourselves, and bear no burden on the sabbath day, nor bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. Jer 17:21

And if the people of the land bring ware or any victuals on the sabbath day to sell, that we would not buy it of them on the sabbath, or on the holy day: and that we would leave the seventh year, and the exaction of every debt. Ne 10:31

Thus, in this environment of growing and toughening Sabbath prohibitions, additional reasons for Sabbath observance were suggested so as to support those newly proscribed non-laborious works.

The Real Origin of Sabbath

The real origin of Sabbath lies not in JE, P or D. The Hebrews did not "invent" the concept of resting on the seventh day. We know that ancient near east cultures never invented new philosophies or norms; they simply modified existing traditions and integrated the cultures and myths of their surroundings into their own culture. Thus, the Hebrews must have adopted the concept of Sabbath from some other culture. We do find that the Babylonians spoke of a day called "shappitu", a day of rest. This was later identified as being the 15th day of the month, the day when the moon is full. Moreover, it is possible that the the Hebrew root for Sabbath /sbt/ was derived from the babylonian shappitu and meant "to cease" just like the shappitu signaled the cessation of the waxing of the moon.

If this connection of the Hebrew Sabbath and the Babylonian shappitu is correct, then it seems likely that the original Hebrew Sabbath was not very strongly connected to the number seven, if at all. Rather, there was one major Sabbath on the 15th of the month, a Sabbath that started at sunset of the 14th --when the moon becomes visible-- and lasted until the sunset of the following day. I can only speculate that in time more Sabbaths were added throughout the month at seven day intervals i.e. 2, 8, 15, 22, 29. The seven-day interval was employed for it conveniently subdivided each half of the month into two weeks, even though these weeks did not always consist of exactly seven days. Thus, the 14th or 15ht day of the month was always a Sabbath regardless of what the weekly day count was up to that point.

In the case of the ancient Hebrews during the time of the Judges and possibly even later, I believe that a new week started with the new moon of each month. Thus, the 7, 14, 21 and 28 days were Sabbaths. After the last Sabbath of the month, a new week did not begin until the new moon appeared 1-2 days later. And so, the Sabbath rest and temple sacrifices of the early Hebrew was based on the lunar month and only occurred in seven-day intervals until the 28th of the month. I will now point to evidence within the scriptures for this.

The Jehovist mentions Sabbath as an integral part of Pesach

As pointed out earlier, the only J commandment to observe the Sabbath is in Exodus 34. Here is it what it says (numbers are according to topic):

  1. You shall keep the feast of Unleavened bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month Abib; for in the month Abib you came out from Egypt.
  2. All that opens the womb is mine; and all your cattle that is male, the firstborn of cow and sheep. The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb: and if you will not redeem it, then you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem. No one shall appear before me empty.
  3. Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest: in plowing time and in harvest you shall rest.
  4. You shall observe the feast of Weeks with the first-fruits of wheat harvest,
  5. and the feast of Gathering at the year`s end.
  6. Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord Yahweh, the God of Israel. For I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your borders; neither shall any man desire your land when you go up to appear before Yahweh, your God, three times in the year.
  7. You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leavened bread;
  8. neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the Passover be left to the morning.
  9. You shall bring the first of the first-fruits of your ground to the house of Yahweh your God.
  10. You shall not boil a young goat in its mother`s milk.

The Sabbath commandment is number three but the question is: what is it doing here, sandwiched between the 1, 4 and 5 commandments to observe the three festivals of Unleavened Bread (pesach), Weeks (shabaoth) and Gathering (Asiph = Sukkoth)?

The answer is that command #3 does not refer to the weekly Sabbath, so commonplace in the P text. It talks about the holidays of plowing time and harvest time. Thus, there is no mention in J of any weekly Sabbath other than Exodus 16. Since that text is mixed between J and P I will quote the reconstructed J text below:

Ex 16:4
Then said Yahweh to Moses, "Behold, I will rain bread from the sky for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day`s portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law, or not.
Ex 16:5
It shall come to pass on the sixth day, that they shall prepare that which they bring in, and it shall be twice as much as they gather daily."
Ex 16:19
Moses said to them, "Let no one leave of it until the morning."
Ex 16:20
Notwithstanding they didn`t listen to Moses, but some of them left of it until the morning, and it bred worms, and became foul: and Moses was angry with them.
Ex 16:22
It happened that on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one, and all the rulers of the congregation came and told Moses.
Ex 16:23
He said to them, "This is that which Yahweh has spoken, `Tomorrow is a solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to Yahweh. Bake that which you want to bake, and boil that which you want to boil; and all that remains over lay up for yourselves to be kept until the morning."
Ex 16:24
They laid it up until the morning, as Moses asked, and it didn`t become foul, neither was there any worm in it.
Ex 16:25
Moses said, "Eat that today, for today is a Sabbath to Yahweh. Today you shall not find it in the field.
Ex 16:26
Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day is the Sabbath. In it there shall be none."
Ex 16:27
It happened on the seventh day, that some of the people went out to gather, and they found none.
Ex 16:28
Yahweh said to Moses, "How long do you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws?
Ex 16:29
Behold, because Yahweh has given you the Sabbath, therefore he gives you on the sixth day the bread of two days. Everyone stay in his place. Let no one go out of his place on the seventh day."
Ex 16:30
So the people rested on the seventh day.
Ex 16:31
The house of Israel called the name of it Manna, and it was like coriander seed, white; and its taste was like wafers with honey.

This account does not contain any command for generations. It is merely a historical anecdote of how Sabbath was distinguished in the Sinai wilderness in the eyes of our Hebrew forefathers.