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SBL e-journal

Isaac S. D. Sassoon





Shabbat HaYom, HaYom, HaYom: Stylistic Repetition or Polemical Assertion?



APA e-journal

Isaac S. D. Sassoon





Shabbat HaYom, HaYom, HaYom: Stylistic Repetition or Polemical Assertion?






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Shabbat HaYom, HaYom, HaYom: Stylistic Repetition or Polemical Assertion?


Shabbat HaYom, HaYom, HaYom: Stylistic Repetition or Polemical Assertion?

Poster with Shabbat times, Jerusalem. Djampa / Wikimedia

Introduction: Manna on Shabbat

In the wilderness, God feeds the Israelites with manna from heaven. They were supposed to take only enough for the day, and any leftovers would go bad overnight. However, on Friday, Moses told them to take a double portion: half for Friday, the other half for Shabbat.

כד וַיַּנִּ֤יחוּ אֹתוֹ֙ עַד הַבֹּ֔קֶר כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֣ה מֹשֶׁ֑ה וְלֹ֣א הִבְאִ֔ישׁ וְרִמָּ֖ה לֹא הָ֥יְתָה בּֽוֹ: כה וַיֹּ֤אמֶר מֹשֶׁה֙ אִכְלֻ֣הוּ הַיּ֔וֹם כִּֽי שַׁבָּ֥ת הַיּ֖וֹם לַי-הֹוָ֑ה הַיּ֕וֹם לֹ֥א תִמְצָאֻ֖הוּ בַּשָּׂדֶֽה:
So they put it [the extra portion of manna] aside till morning as Moses had commanded, and it did not stink nor did maggots appear in it.Then Moses said: “Eat it today for today is a shabbat to the LORD, today you will not find it in the field.” (Exod 16:24-25).

The Biblical Source for Three or Four Shabbat Meals

Bavli Shabbat (117b) cites the following tannaitic source:

כמה סעודות חייב אדם לאכול בשבת? שלש, רבי חידקא, אומר: ארבע.
How many meals must a person eat on Shabbat? Three meals. R. Hidqa said, “Four.”

The gemara then cites R. Yohanan’s interpretation of this debate; he avers that both derived their rulings midrashically from the three occurrences of ‘today’ in Exod 16:25.[1] R. Hidqa’s fourth meal transpired from the following ratiocination: When Moses addressed the people it was Saturday morning – hence three more meals must be enjoyed, in addition to the previous Friday evening meal. Three plus one makes four.

The Usefulness and Limitations of Midrash for Modern Scholars

Midrashic pearls are often produced by irritating anomalies in the biblical text. Rabbis were sensitive to seeming redundancies because, unless accounted for, they could threaten the midrash-halakhah edifice, particularly that of R. Akiva’s school, which claims that every word, jot and tittle of Torah possesses halakhic import.[2]  As long as seeming redundancies could be halakhically accounted for, all was safe.

If one wanted to be captious, one might object that a formula such as ‘Eat three meals on Shabbat’ would have delivered the requisite information even more economically. Midrash, however, only rarely pushes it that far.[3] In other words, midrash does its best with the text it finds, rather than imagining what might have been. Nevertheless, its acute sensitivity is very helpful to the critical scholar, who may explain the repetitions and variations that it uncovers to help better understand the composition of the biblical text, instead of, or in addition to, the halakhot that are derived from the text.

A Critical Approach to Repetition of Words

While indebted to the midrash for alerting us to the triad of ha-yoms, its three meal explanation does not quite do the trick – especially for those of a peshat oriented mindset. But is there an alternative explanation? It has long been recognized that the Priestly Torah (P) displays a distinctive style.[4] One of the hallmarks of that style is repetition of a word, root or phrase three (or occasionally more) times within a verse. Some are content to view the phenomenon as no more than euphonic embellishment. Others suspect there might be more to it.

The Biblical Day Begins at Daytime

Rashbam (d. ca 1160) argued that the daily refrain of the First Creation Story (Gen 1) “It was evening (literally “dusk”) and it was morning (literally “daybreak”) day X” can only mean that day was divided into two periods: the first ran from dawn to dusk, while the second ran from dusk to dawn. Thus, the day began with dawn.[5] I submit that Rashbam’s argument is not only persuasive, but that it finds support elsewhere in the Pentateuch, specifically in the cultic realm.

The Babylonian Talmud (Hullin 83a) acknowledges that in the cultic realm night follows day on scriptural authority. This is made clear by the Torah’s rule that sacrifices are offered during the day and may be eaten until the following morning, when they become left-over (נותר) and must be burned.[6] But there is nothing in the text to indicate that the ‘night follows day’ model is limited to the cult. It is at least as reasonable to assume that the reckoning of days reflected in the Creation story and in the sacrificial laws was normative in the world to which the main body of P belonged.[7]

Day Follows Night: Revising P

The Torah, however, developed over time; and two texts go out of their way to emphasize that the festival under discussion runs from sunset to sunset. Each one seems like a later addition, intent on pushing the idea that day follows night.


בָּרִאשֹׁ֡ן בְּאַרְבָּעָה֩ עָשָׂ֨ר י֤וֹם לַחֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ בָּעֶ֔רֶב תֹּאכְל֖וּ מַצֹּ֑ת עַ֠ד י֣וֹם הָאֶחָ֧ד וְעֶשְׂרִ֛ים לַחֹ֖דֶשׁ בָּעָֽרֶב:
In the first [month?] on the fourteenth day of the month in the evening you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month in the evening (Exod 12:18).

This commandment seems superfluous in its context, since the commandment to eat matsa for seven days is issued already at Exod 12:15. The only thing this verse adds that does not appear in v. 15 is that the day starts “in the evening.” In other words, the commandment is to begin eating matsa at dusk of the fourteenth of Nisan, and it must be eaten for seven days, through יום הָאֶחָד וְעֶשְׂרִים לַחֹדֶשׁ i.e. through dusk of the twenty-first of Nisan, seven days later.

‍Yom Kippur

שַׁבַּ֨ת שַׁבָּת֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם וְעִנִּיתֶ֖ם אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶ֑ם בְּתִשְׁעָ֤ה לַחֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ בָּעֶ֔רֶב מֵעֶ֣רֶב עַד עֶ֔רֶב תִּשְׁבְּת֖וּ שַׁבַּתְּכֶֽם:
“A Sabbath of Sabbaths [or of rest] shall it be for you and you shall afflict your souls on the ninth of the month in the evening from evening to evening you shall observe your sabbath” (Lev 23:32).

This verse seems to contradict the dating offered in verse 27, that Yom Kippur starts on the tenth. It also repeats the command for people to afflict their souls. Again, what this verse emphasizes is that day ten really begins at dusk of the ninth.

Postscripts that come after לדרתיכם חקת עולם

Another piece of evidence suggests that both of these verses are additions. The stipulations that a festival shall be kept as a “rule for all time” “throughout your generations” or “throughout your habitations” typically signal the end of a pericope (i.e. vv. 3, 14, 21). Both these verses follow precisely such formulae[12]. Thus each command follows a peroration – making them appear, in turn, like postscripts. These important postscripts change the timing of these holidays from ones that begin in the morning to ones that begin at night.

In aggregate, the data suggest that these two verses with their polemical tone were added by scribes who opposed the older ‘night follows day’ paradigm and were embarking on a program to replace it with ‘day follows night’ - which eventually triumphed, except in the ever-conservative Temple.

I contend that our shabbat hayom verse is reasserting from the older model, that night follows day. The threefold repetition was meant to emphasize just that; today is Shabbat, i.e. Shabbat began this morning, not last night. Thus, the triplicate erev represents the same polemical voice we hear in the three ha-yoms of Exod 16:25, but on opposite sides of a priestly tug-of-war.

P’s Repetitions – A Matter of Style or Polemic?

Should the above theory seem too fanciful, such skepticism is understandable. For if Exodus 16:25 (and Lev 16:32) are construed as polemic, the same ought to hold for the rest of the P verses that repeat words or phrases three times. To be sure, some examples of repetition in P are polemical, among them Exodus 12:2: “This month is for you the head of months it is the first for you of the months of the year”. This verse hardly disguises its intent to introduce a new calendar and push against an older alternative, one which probably began with Tishrei.[8] On the other hand, it is hard to detect remonstration or dissent in the following examples.

Exod 30:25

וְעָשִׂ֣יתָ אֹת֗וֹ שֶׁ֚מֶן מִשְׁחַת קֹ֔דֶשׁ רֹ֥קַח מִרְקַ֖חַת מַעֲשֵׂ֣ה רֹקֵ֑חַ שֶׁ֥מֶן מִשְׁחַת קֹ֖דֶשׁ יִהְיֶֽה:
‍You shall make it into a holy anointing oil perfume perfumed the art of the perfumer; holy anointing oil it shall be.

Lev 14:38

וְיָצָ֧א הַכֹּהֵ֛ן מִן הַבַּ֖יִת אֶל פֶּ֣תַח הַבָּ֑יִת וְהִסְגִּ֥יר אֶת הַבַּ֖יִת שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים:
‍The priest shall go out of the house to the entrance of the house and quarantine the house for seven days.

Lev 19:23

וְכִי תָבֹ֣אוּ אֶל הָאָ֗רֶץ וּנְטַעְתֶּם֙ כָּל עֵ֣ץ מַאֲכָ֔ל וַעֲרַלְתֶּ֥ם עָרְלָת֖וֹ אֶת פִּרְי֑וֹ שָׁלֹ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֗ים יִהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶ֛ם עֲרֵלִ֖ים לֹ֥א יֵאָכֵֽל:
‍ shall uncircumcise its uncircumcision even its fruit; three years it shall be unto you uncircumcised it shall not be eaten.

Num 14:27

עַד מָתַ֗י לָעֵדָ֤ה הָֽרָעָה֙ הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֛ר הֵ֥מָּה מַלִּינִ֖ים עָלָ֑י אֶת תְּלֻנּ֞וֹת בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֨ר הֵ֧מָּה מַלִּינִ֛ים עָלַ֖י שָׁמָֽעְתִּי:
‍Until when this wicked congregation who complain against me [with] the complaints of the children of Israel that they complain against me I have heard.

In short, while some examples exude a distinctly combative flavor, others evince no such overtones. And if all triplications must - for consistency’s sake - share a single purpose, then we should have to settle for emphasis as that purpose. Or, as a last resort, we must dismiss all repetitions as merely declamatory – a trivialization hard to swallow.

Moreover, the declamatory explanation would have to extend, less than convincingly, to that most famous of repetitions, namely, quintuplicate Num 8:19:

וָאֶתְּנָ֨ה אֶת הַלְוִיִּ֜ם נְתֻנִ֣ים׀ לְאַהֲרֹ֣ן וּלְבָנָ֗יו מִתּוֹךְ֘ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ לַעֲבֹ֞ד אֶת עֲבֹדַ֤ת בְּנֵֽי יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֔ד וּלְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְלֹ֨א יִהְיֶ֜ה בִּבְנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ נֶ֔גֶף בְּגֶ֥שֶׁת בְּנֵֽי יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶל הַקֹּֽדֶשׁ:
I give the Levites, given to Aaron and to his sons from the midst of the children of Israel to serve the service of the children of Israel in the Tent of Meeting and to atone for the children of Israel so that there be no plague on the children of Israel when the children of Israel approach the holy [place].

It would be difficult to believe that the five-fold repetition here is simply a matter of style and not part of the amply attested campaign to politely exclude plain ole Israelites from areas being monopolized by the Aaronite priesthood.


At the end of the day, it is certain that repetition of words, appearing to contribute nothing to the perspicuity of the information being conveyed, abound in P to a degree unattested anywhere else in the Bible. It is also a fact that Exod 16:23’s triad of todays detained the rabbis, and through them we are alerted to a literary devise worthy of more attention that it tends to receive. At our next se‘udah shelishith we might spare a thought for the rabbis who highlight an aspect of Torah so readily overlooked.


January 28, 2015


Last Updated

July 27, 2021


View Footnotes

Dr. Hacham Isaac S. D. Sassoon is a rabbi and educator and a founding member of the ITJ. He studied under his father, Rabbi Solomon Sassoon, Hacham Yosef Doury, Gateshead Yeshivah and received his semicha from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He holds a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Lisbon. He is the author of The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition (Cambridge University Press 2011), a commentary on chumash called Destination Torah (Ktav 2001), and most recently the co-editor with Rabbi Steven H. Golden of the Siddur 'Alats Libbi (Ktav 2020).