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Yoel S.





The Humanitarian and the Cosmological Shabbat



APA e-journal

Yoel S.





The Humanitarian and the Cosmological Shabbat






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The Humanitarian and the Cosmological Shabbat

Charting the historical development of Shabbat, and appreciating the biblical reasons for its observance.


The Humanitarian and the Cosmological Shabbat

If there is one commandment that is unique to the Jewish people, it’s the Shabbat. The Shabbat has become the eternal legacy of the Jews across all boards, inseparable from the people themselves. Every child knows why we keep the Shabbat; it is elaborated upon in two of the most prominent places of the Torah. First, right at the beginning of the Torah we learn that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. It became a blessed and sacred day, and we are commanded to rest on the Shabbat as well. This same explanation is mentioned once again in the Ten Commandments. Note, this was the only commandment that God deemed important enough to explain its rationale while speaking to the nation of Israel from a fiery cloud on Mount Sinai. No wonder Jews have stuck to the Shabbat!

Attractive as this explanation may once have been, it is difficult for a modern person—even a religious Jew—to accept such an explanation at face value. The problem is not so much with the resting, but with the Torah’s description of the six days of creation. One of the underpinnings of scientific thought is that the universe, including our planet and all its creatures, evolved by natural processes that took billions of years. This is hardly similar to the description of creation in the Torah. Thus, even if the more radical findings of biblical criticism were to be ignored, the basic problem of how to deal with the Torah’s explanation of Shabbat remains a challenge.  

In this devar Torah I would like to propose, that the tools of biblical criticism may come to the rescue and salvage the validity of the Shabbat. To do so, we will look at the relevant verses through the prism of the documentary hypothesis and see how each biblical writer relates the commandment of the Shabbat from his own unique perspective.

The Humanitarian Shabbat

The Torah mentions Shabbat many times, but interestingly enough,  the two texts that mention the rationale for the Shabbat as a commemoration of God’s rest on the seventh day are found in later sections of the Pentateuch. The first creation story (Gen. 1:1-2:4a) is part of what the scholars have termed the Priestly (P) source. The Decalogue that now appears as part of the revelation at Sinai account in Parshas Yisro was added by the redactor into the Pentateuch.  

P’s revelation (Exod. 19:1, 24:15b-18a, 25ff) quickly jumps into the description of the building of the Tabernacle. This account makes mention of the Shabbat twice (31:12-17, 35:1-3). Each time the description contains very severe rhetoric regarding the importance of the day and the serious consequences an Israelite would face for violating its sanctity.

12 And the Lord said to Moses: 13 Speak to the Israelite people and say: Nevertheless, you must keep My Shabbats, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I the Lord have consecrated you. 14 You shall keep the Shabbat, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. 15 Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a Shabbat of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does work on the Shabbat day shall be put to death. 16 The Israelite people shall keep the Shabbat, observing the Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: 17 it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed (Exod. 31).[1]
1 Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do: 2 On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Shabbat of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.3 You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Shabbat day (Exod. 35).[2]

Other than the centrality of the Shabbat and the significance of it as a symbolic bond between God and Israel, note particularly the explanation given for this rule in 31:17: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed.“ This explanation appears only in P and in the post-P Decalogue.   

J and E, the two other sources that make up the Exodus account, have more detailed descriptions of what occurs on Mount Sinai, but less about Shabbat. E has a set of laws—in our Torah they follow the Decalogue—and form the larger part of Parshas Mishpatim (Exod. 21-23:19). The scholars call this ‘the book of the covenant’ (sefer habris).[3] In the Book of the Covenant we read the following regarding the Shabbat:

Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed (Exod. 23:12).”[4]

Paying close attention to the text, we see that the sole purpose of the Shabbat was to grant our cattle and slaves their earned rest after a week of hard labor. Nothing about six days of creation is mentioned. Since E is generally assumed to be older than P, it seems reasonable to conjecture that the conception of the Shabbat as a day of rest, focusing on animals, slaves and other workers, predates the idea of a Shabbat commemorating God’s rest after creation.

Shabbat and the Exodus

Moving on to Deuteronomy (D), in the middle of Moshe’s retrospect of the forty years in the desert, he recounts the amazing experience at Horeb (=Sinai). This recounting of the revelation includes a version of the Ten Commandments. For the most part, this version (D) of the Decalogue is similar to the version in P, albeit with some slight differences. The most extreme difference between the two versions of the Decalogue is in regards to the Shabbat commandment. Here D offers a very different explanation for the observance of the Shabbat:

13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is the Shabbat of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest like you. 15 And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Shabbat day.[5]

In this text, the Shabbat is somehow associated with the grandiose moment of the exodus from Egypt, as the Deuteronomistic historian is fond of doing. But its actual connection to the Shabbat is not as clear as the connection to creation found in Exodus, and requires interpretation.

Rashi explains that since God is our liberator and redeemer, God possesses the power to command us how to behave and therefore are obliged to observe Shabbat.[6]  (Although this seems to be a reason for the observance of all mitzvoth, Rashi does not explain why the Torah chose Shabbat to emphasize this point).  Ramban explains that the miracles God performed during the exodus serve as a reminder that God is the creator of the universe, and so does the Shabbat.[7] That’s quite an ingenious interpretation, one that tries to force the Deuteronomistic source into a “Priestly” way of thinking.

Maimonides takes a more rationalist approach to the matter, explaining that God wanted to give Israel a reminder that they were once slaves in Egypt and are now liberated.[8] That’s why God dedicated the Shabbat as a day of rest; it’s a reminder that we are free people, who are able to choose when to work and when to rest. Many modern scholars have also adopted this approach.

Only Ibn Ezra, ever so shrewd, keenly observes that the slavery in Egypt has a direct association with the specific commandment about the rest of the slaves that precedes it.[9]God commands Israel to let their slaves rest on the Shabbat because they know how it feels to be a slave without being given a moment of rest. This idea is no novelty in the Torah, which abounds with humanitarian exhortations in regards to the proper treatment of slaves and gerim[10]. These exhortations draw upon the vivid imagery of Israel’s own former slavery to impose its commandments.

Shabbat in the Prophets

Turning to the prophets, we merit a more intimate glimpse on the conceptualization of the Shabbat. The prophet Amos (8:5) mercilessly attacks the corrupt, wealthy people from the north as follows:

You say, “When will the new moon festival be over, so we can sell grain? When will the Shabbat end, so we can open up the grain bins? We’re eager to sell less for a higher price, and to cheat the buyer with rigged scales!”[11]

The charlatans not only swindle the poor, they constantly think about how to materialize their wicked plans. And when do they think about it? On the Shabbat, no less. The day that was designated to help the poor and unfortunate was being utilized for grand plans on how to swindle them. How wicked!

In chapter 58 of the Book of Isaiah, the prophet eloquently urges the people to observe the Shabbat.[12] This passage was chosen for recitation over Kiddush on Shabbat morning (Isaiah 58:13):

If you keep your feet from breaking the Shabbat and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Shabbat a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord.[13]

In the preceding passages Isaiah reprimands the Jews who think they can bribe God by fasting and offering sacrifices. Not so, says the iconoclast Isaiah. The proper way to worship God is by breaking the evil inclination in your heart, not your physical body:

If you offer yourself to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted one, then your light will shine in the darkness, and your night will be like noonday (Isa. 58:10).[14]

Having made this point, Isaiah goes on to deliver his oracle on the Shabbat. It seems reasonable to suggest that Isaiah placed his poignant prophesy on the Shabbat precisely in this context because it belongs here. Since the function of the Shabbat is to help the needy and give them rest, it is, therefore, a proper form of worship in the prophet’s eyes.

In this passage, however, we see a new meaning associated with the Shabbat. Its purpose is no longer exclusively humanitarian. In Isaiah, the Shabbat has become a vehicle to connect to God. By personally refraining from work on the holy Shabbat, we gain special entry into the court of God and can rejoice in God’s presence.

The Cosmological Shabbat

Around the time of the Babylonian exile, we see an increasing emphasis put on the Shabbat and on its proper observance, especially in the priestly circles. When Ezekiel (20:13) reprimands the Judahites, alluding to their sins in the desert, he mentions only that they desecrated the Shabbat.[15] Jeremiah (17:21) urges the Judahites not to bring objects for trading in the city. Later, Nehemiah followed his example by ordering the gates of the city kept closed during the Shabbat, to ensure that nobody conducts business.

For the Priestly writer it was not enough to present the Shabbat as yet another commandment, he wanted it to be associated directly with God. P’s novel rationale for the Shabbat, that it commemorates God’s rest after creation, brilliantly embeds the Shabbat in the fabric of the universe itself. By making the Shabbat an inextricable part of Jewish cosmogony, it was secured a prominent place in Jewish thought. That is, until modern science came around and wreaked havoc with the ancient Israelite cosmogony.As we saw above, in the work of the Priestly writer, the Shabbat is one of the pillars of the religion. Whether this emphasis on Shabbat was the brainchild of the Priestly writer or whether the writer inherited this attitude towards the Shabbat from his (priestly) community is unknown, although I suspect the latter. The priests had a special interest in the Shabbat because they were particularly active in the temple during the Shabbat and the holidays. The Shabbat is mentioned in the priestly documents[16] more than in all other documents combined. It even receives mention when it seems out of place.

The Cosmological Shabbat in its Ancient Near Eastern Context

The priestly rationale for the Shabbat may be of a more mythical nature than the idyllic humanitarian explanation, but it is no less revolutionary. This point can be demonstrated more clearly, when viewing the concept against the backdrop of its Ancient Near Eastern context.

The ancient Babylonians also had a similar system of resting every seventh day from the new moon onward. It is worth contrasting its views on the day of rest with the Jewish Shabbat. Quoting Nachum Sarna,

In the Mesopotamian lunar calendar the 7th, 14th, 21st and 28th day of certain months… were all regarded as unlucky days… these days were thought of as being controlled by evil spirits and special fasts were prescribed. One ritual text forbids the king from eating cooked flesh, changing his cloths, offering sacrifices, riding in a chariot, and rendering legal decisions on these days. A seer may not give an oracle, nor may a physician attend to the sick. curses uttered against enemies are ineffective. From all this one may learn that each seventh day of the lunar month possessed a special, if baneful character. [17]

In short, these days were generally considered unsuitable for any desirable action—rest days, but for a very different reason.[18]

The Priestly writer sees the Shabbat very differently. In fact, P already began its creation story with a departure from contemporary mythology. There are no bloody wars between the gods like in the fantastic creation epics from the ancient near east, such as the Babylonian Enuma Elish or the Atrahasis epic (Mesopotamian creation stories written in Akkadian cuneiform). Rather it is one God with endless power, wisdom and goodness who creates the universe.

After each created item God confirms that “it is good.” When God finished God’s creation, God sits back in satisfaction, deeply pleased with the work, and rests. This rest is not akin to human rest, which is to recover strength and regain power, because the biblical God is all powerful. Rather, the day of rest was marked for utter contentment and relaxation to celebrate the magnificent artistry and wisdom that is intrinsic in the newly created universe. “And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.”

What Is the Shabbat?

This is a question posed by the late rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.[19] He responds:

The Shabbat is a reminder of every man’s royalty; an abolition of the distinction of master and slave, rich and poor, success and failure. To celebrate the Shabbat is to experience one’s ultimate independence of civilization and society, of achievement and anxiety. The Shabbat is the embodiment of the belief that all men are equal and that equality of men means the nobility of men.

The above analysis of the historical Shabbat complements Heschel’s impassioned explication. It was in regards to the Shabbat that our people realized that slaves have rights and that even animals deserve compassion. The biblical authors comprehended that all humans have a spark of the divine. This revolutionary insight led them to the realization that the entire universe is charged with a single divine power, which is ultimately good and noble, and by which it was created. It is the humanitarian Shabbat that eventually led to the cosmological Shabbat. And it is the cosmological Shabbat that inspired the Levites, centuries later, to sing in the Shabbat hymn at the temple:[20]

“It is good to praise the Lord
    and make music to your name, O Most High
For you make me glad by your deeds, Lord;
    I sing for joy at what your hands have done.
How great are your works, Lord,
    how profound your thoughts!”


We have come a long way since biblical times. Humanity has made immense progress in the understanding of morality and humanism. After many grueling processes, we have become cognizant of the fact that to recognize the nobility of humanity we have to abolish slavery altogether, a step beyond just giving the slaves a weekly rest. We have also discarded the ancient creation story of genesis, making the cosmological Shabbat irrelevant.

And yet, the inner meaning that lies at the heart of the Shabbat is still as relevant today as ever. We may not free our slaves on the Shabbat, but we have to free ourselves from slavery, albeit a slavery of a different kind. We, the comfortable and modern people of the 21st century, are enslaved to various things during the week such as our money, our jobs, our extraneous commitments, and so forth. All of them are good in principle, but ruinous when they become the central focus of our lives. On the Shabbat we are relatively freed from all those obligations, there are no bills to pay, no money to earn, no emails and messages to view and respond to. On the Shabbat we have abundant time for things that are most important in our lives – especially our spiritual and intellectual growth, and our families.

The Jewish Shabbat is more than just a day of rest. It is a day dedicated to invoke the image of God inside of us and let our spiritual slavery come to a temporal end. On the Shabbat we are commanded to sanctify the day by finding inner peace and satisfaction from our spiritual development as God did in the creation story. Knowing that all of this came about because our ancestors had sympathy with their fellow humans makes me immensely proud to be a part of the Jewish people.


January 14, 2014


Last Updated

August 28, 2021


View Footnotes

Yoel is a Satmar Hasid who has studied in yeshiva and kollel for many years and has taken an interest in academic Bible studies. See his TABS Essay, My Name is Yoel: I am a Satmar Hasid and a Bible Critic.