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SBL e-journal

David Frankel





Did God Bless Shabbat?





APA e-journal

David Frankel





Did God Bless Shabbat?








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Did God Bless Shabbat?

“And the Lord Blessed the Seventh Day and Consecrated It” (Genesis 2:3). Can time be blessed?


Did God Bless Shabbat?


The creation story ends with the statement:

בראשית ב:ג וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶת יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ
Gen 2:3 And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy.

To consecrate or sanctify a day means that the day is to be dedicated to divine worship and not to be put to profane use. Many days in the Hebrew calendar are said to be מקראי קדש, days of holy convocations, when profane activity is strictly forbidden (see Leviticus 23). The fact that Gen 2:3 speaks of the sanctification of the seventh day is clearly why this passage is traditionally included as the introductory passage for the Friday night Kiddush, which sanctifies the day in preparation for the Shabbat meal.

What, however, might it mean to “bless” the seventh day?

Interpretations of Blessing the Day: Traditional and Modern

The People Are Blessed: Gaonic

Avraham ibn Ezra quotes the Gaon (likely a reference to Saadia, 882-942), who suggests that the verse refers to those who observe the sanctity of the Sabbath.

אמר הגאון כי טעם ויברך שב אל השומרים, שיהיו מבורכים.
The Gaon said that “and he blessed” should be understood as referring to those who keep [the Shabbat], that they should be blessed.

Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) justly criticizes this interpretation, since the verse speaks about the day itself, not its observers.[1] What is more, there would not have been anyone to observe the Sabbath until the Israelites would come to learn of it at a much later date.[2]

Blessed with Manna: Genesis Rabbah and Rashi

According to Rashi (1040-1105), following Gen. Rab. 11:2 (3rd cent. CE),[3] the blessing refers to the future double provision of manna that would come to the Israelites of the wilderness on the sixth day, in preparation for the Sabbath (see Exodus 16:5, 22).

ויברך ויקדש – ברכו במן, שכל ימות השבת יורד להם עומר לגולגולת ובששי לחם משנה, וקדשו במן שלא ירד בו כלל, והמקרא כתוב על העתיד.
And he blessed and he sanctified – he blessed it with manna, since on all the days of the week an omer-measure per person would fall but on the sixth day double would fall. He sanctified it with manna which would not fall [on Shabbat] at all. The verse is describing the future.

This interpretation is obviously midrashic and does not reflect the simple meaning of the text, as nothing in the text connects the reader to the story of the manna and one would expect a text about the creation of the world to refer to a blessing that lasted more than forty years in the wilderness.[4] Moreover, as Ramban already noted, the text does not seem to refer to something that will occur in the future, but to something that occurs immediately, at the time of creation.[5]

Shabbat Invigorates the Body and Soul: Ibn Ezra

Avraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167) believes that the seventh day was invested with unique properties that allow it to invigorate both the body and the soul, providing them with added powers.[6] This cannot be the meaning of the verse, however, as his approach is informed by medieval astrological concepts that are completely foreign to the biblical way of thinking. Ramban sarcastically critiques ibn Ezra when he says of this interpretation, דברו בזה נכון למאמינים בו, “his speech concerning this is correct for those who believe in it.”[7]

Blessing and Sanctifying as a Single Act: Rafi Weiss

The Israeli scholar, Rafi Weiss (1940-1974) offered an intriguing interpretation of the verse.[8] He noted that the subject אלוהים (God) is mentioned only after ויברך (“and he blessed”) and is not repeated in relation to ויקדש (“and he sanctified”). This indicates that the two verbs really express a single act rather than two distinct acts. The implication is that the blessing and sanctifying are basically one in the same, that is, the blessedness of the day consists of the fact that it was made sacred.[9] The fact that the text offers a single reason for God’s act – he ceased working on the seventh day – further support’s Weiss’ assertion that the two verbs indeed represent a single act.

This interpretation is unlikely, however, because the terms ויברך and ויקדש are not related to each other and do not form a natural pair. To consecrate something is to dedicate it to God whereas to bless something is to bestow it with fertility and good fortune. When God blesses the fish and birds in Genesis 1:22, he does not thereby impart holiness onto them. Nor does Isaac impart holiness to Esau when he gives him the “remaining” blessing (Genesis 27:38—40).

Conversely, when God has the Israelites sanctify their firstborn children and animals in Egypt (Exodus 13:1—2) he does not imply that they are blessed. The pure firstborn animals are to be sacrificed on the altar. This hardly amounts to a blessing for them! Nor is blessing ever mentioned with regard to any of the holidays that are referred to as מקראי קדש, “holy convocations.” In fact, the terms ויברך and ויקדש never appear together in the Bible anywhere else (with one important exception, also regarding Shabbat, that will be dealt with later), and this is likely not an accident.

ויברך Is a Copyist Error

These facts lead me to question the accuracy of the reading ויברך, and suggest that it the product of a copyist’s mistake. Several considerations support this contention:

1. Israel sanctifies (but doesn’t bless) the Sabbath day – While Israel or Israel’s priests are required to sanctify the Sabbath, as God does in Gen 2:3,[10] neither Israel nor the priests ever “bless” the Sabbath day. Thus, God commands Israel in the Decalogue, זכור את יום השבת לקדשו, “remember to sanctify the Sabbath day” (Exodus 20:8; cf. also Jeremiah 17:22, 24; Ezkiel 20:20) and he declares to Ezekiel that it is the task of the priests of the line of Zadok to do the same – ואת שבתותי יקדשו. The Sabbath must be sanctified, not blessed. Similarly, according to Exodus 16:23; 31:15 and Nehemiah 10:32, the Sabbath is a “holy” day, not a “blessed” day.

2. Time is not generally blessed in the Bible – The very concept of blessing time rather than living beings is extremely rare in biblical literature. The closest parallel is Jeremiah’s rhetorical plea that the day of his birth not be blessed (Jeremiah 20:14). But this kind of usage never appears in Priestly writing, to which our passage belongs. In P, as in most of the Bible,[11] only living beings can be blessed.

3. Blessing goes with proliferation – In Priestly writing, whenever God blesses something, he makes it proliferate (Gen 1:22, 28; 9:1; 17:16, 20; 28:3). It would be meaningless, however, for God to make the seventh day proliferate!

And God Separated (ויבדל) the Seventh Day

If the word ויברך is indeed the product of textual corruption, what might the original text have read? I suggest that the original verb was ויבדל, “and he separated,” for the following reasons:

1. Fits the context – In the story of creation, God performs several acts of separation and the term that is used is ויבדל (vv. 4, 7, 14, 18). It is only natural that God would conclude His acts of separation within the cosmos with the separation of the seventh day from the six days of the week.

2. Separation and consecration are a natural pair – The idea of “separation” goes together very well with “consecration,” since one separates and puts aside that which is to be consecrated. For example, Leviticus 20:26, notes:

וִהְיִיתֶם לִי קְדֹשִׁים כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְ-הוָה וָאַבְדִּל אֶתְכֶם מִן הָעַמִּים לִהְיוֹת לִי׃
You shall be holy to Me, for I YHWH am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.

God “separates” the Israelites and therefore expects them to be “holy.” Similarly, Moses responds to Korah’s claim that all the Levites are equally “holy” and should, therefore, share in the prerogatives of the Aaronite priests (Numbers 16:3) by stating (vv. 9-10):

הַמְעַט מִכֶּם כִּי הִבְדִּיל אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהַקְרִיב אֶתְכֶם אֵלָיו… וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם גַּם כְּהֻנָּה.
Is it a small thing that the God of Israel separated you from the community of Israel to bring you near unto him… that you also seek priesthood.

Here, again, the Levites are sanctified through their separation from the Israelites.

3. Liturgical usage – The idea that God separated the seventh day from the profane days of the week is highlighted in the traditional Jewish Havdalah service for Saturday night (cf. Ber. 33a), in which we say:

המבדיל בין קדש לחול בין אור לחושך בין ישראל לעמים בין יום השביעי לששת ימי המעשה.
Who separated between holy and ordinary, between light and dark, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of work.

Similarly, the phrase הבדלת וקדשת (you have separated and sanctified) appears in the Kiddush service for festivals that fall on Saturday night. All this goes to show that separation and sanctification are a natural pair. The pair appears in the Bible and continues to appear in post-biblical literature.

4. Fits well with the variant reading – The cogency of the suggested reading is particularly apparent using the version of Gen 2:2 in the Samaritan Pentateuch, the LXX, and the Syriac Peshitta that has God finishing his work on the sixth day instead of the seventh, a reading that is preferred by many scholars.

ויכל אלהים ביום הששי מלאכתו אשר עשה וישבת ביום השביעי מכל מלאכתו אשר עשה.
God finished the work that He had been doing on the sixth (MT seventh) day, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done.

The verse in this form highlights the differentiation between that which God did on the sixth day (completed his work) and that which he did on the seventh day (ceased to work).[12] The sentence leads most elegantly into the following statement:

ויבדל אלהים את יום השביעי ויקדש אותו.
So God set aside the seventh day and sanctified it.

How did the Mistake Occur?

Scribes often made copying errors, whether based on graphic similarities between words, or their eyes jumping from one spot to another, or because of interference of/confusion with similar verses. Two reasons for the accidental replacement of ויבדל with ויברך in this case present themselves:

1. Orthography – The two words look similar, orthographically speaking. The both begin with ו-י-ב, and the fourth letter ד looks very much like a ר. This is true both for our current script as well as ancient Paleo-Hebrew script. In fact, the Bible contains many examples of the ר being mistaken by a copyist for a ד and vice versa. For example,[13]

  1. כטיט חוצות אדקם
    (Sam 22:43)
    כטיט חוצות אריקם
    (Ps 18:43)

  2. ובני יון אלישה ותרשיש כתים ודדנים
    (Gen 10:4)
    ובני יון אלישה ותרשישה כתים ורודנים
    (1 Chron 1:7)

While there is no typical confusion of kaf and lamed, it must be remembered that there are innumerable instances of textual corruption that do not follow any clear rules. Scribes often tried to reconstruct unclear texts through educated reasoning. In our case, once the original dalet was read as a resh, it was reasonable to posit that the unclear word was ויברך.

2. Influence of earlier verses – Days 5 and 6 of the creation account refer to God blessing what he created. This could have subconsciously influenced a copyist seeing a term that looked like ויברך to copy this word instead of the original ויבדל.

A Late Revision of the Decalogue

As mentioned earlier, the Bible has one other example God blessing and sanctifying Shabbat, the text of the Decalogue in Exodus 20:11, which reads,

כִּי שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ אֶת הַיָּם וְאֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר בָּם וַיָּנַח בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי עַל כֵּן בֵּרַךְ יְהוָה אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת וַיְקַדְּשֵׁהוּ.
For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath dayand hallowed it.

This entire sentence does not appear in the version of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy, and is secondary. In Deuteronomy 5 we find a completely different reason for keeping the Sabbath (vv. 13-14):

…לְמַעַן יָנוּחַ עַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתְךָ כָּמוֹךָ. וְזָכַרְתָּ כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם…
…so that your male servant and female servant may rest like you, and you remember that you were a slave in Egypt…

Since both of these divergent explanations for Sabbath observance expand upon the same basic command to refrain from working on the Sabbath, found in almost the exact same formulation in both versions of the Decalogue, we must assume that an earlier form of the Decalogue recorded the command alone.

The supplementary explanation for Shabbat in Exodus 20:11, i.e., “for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth…,” is obviously based on the opening Priestly creation story and is thus familiar with it. In all likelihood, however, Exodus 20:11 was not written by the Priestly author of the Genesis creation account, but by a later Priestly scribe who incorporated the Decalogue into the Sinai account and who was merely familiar with it.[14] This author even adjusted the wording in his quotation of the Priestly creation account to reflect his understanding of it.

The Seas and all the Creatures

It is surely significant that the author of Exodus 20:11 adds the words: “the sea and all that is in them” (את הים ואת כל אשר בם) to the creation of heaven and earth mentioned in Genesis 2:1 as, “The heaven and earth and all their array were finished” (ויכלו השמים והארץ וכל צבאם). Why this addition? I would suggest that the phrase is added in light of Gen 1:10 which states,

וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לַיַּבָּשָׁה אֶרֶץ וּלְמִקְוֵה הַמַּיִם קָרָא יַמִּים…
God called the dry land “Eretz” and the gathering of waters he called “Seas”…

Thus, if the author wishes to be comprehensive, he cannot simply state that God made the heaven and eretz (=dry land) and all their array in six days. One must add reference to the waters and their creatures as well. The author of Gen 1-2, however, clearly felt no need for this clarification, and felt secure in the knowledge that that his readers would understand that “heaven and eretz” refer to all of creation since eretz also means “earth” (as in Gen 1:1).

Resting as opposed to Ceasing – Increased Anthropomorphism

The author of Exodus 20:11 states וינח ביום השביעי, “and He rested on the seventh day.” In contrast, Gen 2:2-3 states that God שבת מכל מלאכתו, “ceased all his work.” The difference is significant, for to cease from work is much less anthropomorphic than to rest, which implies weariness. A similar heightening of the anthropomorphic presentation of God as resting in found in Exodus 31:17, which states that on the seventh day God שבת וינפש, “ceased work and took a breath.” However we choose to explain these changes, it seems evident that they do not derive from the author of Gen 1-2, who would have made use of his own terms and concepts.

Thus, I believe, Exodus 20:11 refers back to Genesis 2:2-3, but was written after that text had been accidentally corrupted by an earlier scribe.

This means that the copyist mistake of ויברך in Gen 2:2 is very ancient. But ancient scribal errors influencing later biblical texts is not all that unusual. Yair Zakovitch has gathered a fair number of biblical allusions to earlier biblical texts that already suffered textual corruption.[15]

The Significance of the Original Text

The textual emendation suggested here may serve to remind us what the sanctity of the Shabbat, and of other religious institutions, truly implies. God separated this day from the others so that it would stand outside the realm of everyday life, dedicated to God and spiritual matters. On days of חול we strive to further our own blessing. On Shabbat we live in the realm of the holy. This is indeed reflected in the Shabbat Amida, which lacks the entire section of בקשות (requests) that is found in the daily Amida. Shabbat, as Abraham Joshua Heschel said, is an island in time.[16] We should not turn it into a vehicle for mundane personal blessing.


October 27, 2016


Last Updated

May 16, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).