The Origins of Shabbat
Shabbat of the Full Moon
The Monthly Shabbat and the Seventh Day of Rest
The seven-day weekly cycle has no inherent connection to nature. Yet it became central to Judaism, and through Judaism it now structures time and labor cycles across the globe. When the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, he adopted the seven-day week in accordance with the rotation of Shabbat (Sabbath) long established by Jews. As Christianity spread, so did the Jewish week. Although Revolutionary France, the Soviet Union, and others have occasionally tried to abolish it, the seven-day week has stood the test of time.
But what do we know about the origins of this seven-day cycle? When and how did communities in ancient Israel and Judah come to embrace the practice of ceasing from their labors on Shabbat? And why did the biblical authors make this day a central feature of Israel’s national identity? In exploring this issue, it is crucial to examine the relevant texts separately, rather than assuming that all relate to the same institution and practices.
New Moon and Then Shabbat
A number of early biblical texts, both from the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, refer to Shabbat in tandem with the celebration of the New Moon (chodesh). Thus in one of the Elisha legends from the book of Kings, a woman orders her husband to provide her with a servant and donkey so that she could travel to “the man of God” at Mount Carmel. The husband voices a concern: “Why would you go to him today? It is neither New Moon or Shabbat.” Despite her husband’s protestations, the woman answers with “shalom,” saddles the donkey, and heads out with a servant. Notice here how the husband, in his response, places Shabbat after New Moon and identifies both of these occasions as times when one would customarily visit a seer or prophet.
A number of other older biblical texts follow this one in pairing New Moon and Shabbat, and placing Shabbat after New Moon.
“I will put an end to (ve-hishbati) to all her mirth, her festival, her New Moon, her Shabbat, and all her festal assemblies” (Hosea 2:13).
“Bring your worthless offerings no longer,
Incense is an abomination to me.
New Moon and Shabbat,
the calling of assemblies–
I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.
I hate your New Moon and your festal assemblies,
They have become a burden to me….” (Isaiah 1:14-15).
Hear this, you who trample the needy,
to do away with the humble of the land,
saying, “When will the New Moon be over,
So that we may sell grain,
And Shabbat, that we may open the wheat market,
To make the bushel smaller and the shekel bigger,
And to cheat with dishonest scales,
So as to buy the helpless for money
And the needy for a pair of sandals” (Amos 8:4-6).
Shabbat of Full Moon
If in all these cases, Shabbat refers to the seventh day of the week, the order of Shabbat after New Moon would be odd. Biblical authors usually begin with what occurs more frequently. Such is precisely what we find in late post-exilic texts, for example Nehemiah 10:34: “… for the Shabbats, and for the New Moons, and for the Appointed Festivals.” In these late texts, Shabbat refers to the seventh day of the week, so it comes before New Moon, which occurs every month, and is followed by the Appointed Festivals that are celebrated once a year. In the earlier texts, however, Shabbat appears to refer not to a day of the week but rather to a lunar phase. Just as chodesh refers to the new moon (compare chadash for “new”), the wordshabbat, which follows chodesh in these texts, would seem to designate what we call “full moon.”
What this means is that for much of Israel’s history before the exile (before 586 BCE), Shabbat would have been celebrated just once a month, about fifteen days after the new-moon observance. During these two lunar phases, communities paused from their quotidian labors in order to engage in cultic activities. Offerings and sacrifices were offered to the deity, followed by sumptuous feasts.
These were also auspicious times to consult oracles, which explains why, in the text from Kings examined above, the husband wonders why his wife would make the trek to a prophet when it was not yet New Moon or Shabbat. Similarly, many other older texts refer to cultic activities (offerings being made and regular business ceasing) on this full-moon Shabbat.
The Full Moon
Full Moon is an important time in many cultures. Thirteen major Hindu festivals began at this propitious time each month of the year. Throughout the ancient Near East, the fifteenth of month was a time for ritual celebrations. A number of Jewish festivals (Sukkot, Pesach, Purim, Tu BiShvat, Tu B’Av) begin fifteen days after New Moon. The choice to begin these festivals on this date must have had something to do with the full moon.
So if originally Shabbat was celebrated once a month, on Full Moon, how did it come to designate the culmination of a seven-day week?
The Number Seven
The number seven has symbolic meanings in a wide array of ancient texts that existed long before the first biblical writings. Thus, when the Southern Mesopotamian ruler Gudea builds a temple, he dedicates it for seven days. (The account may provide the rationale for an annual festival.) In the flood account from the Ninevite version of the Gilgamesh Epic, the number seven plays a special role. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh mourns for six days and seven nights. Similarly, when the royal mother of Neo-Babylonian ruler Nabonidus dies, she is mourned for seven days and nights, parallel to seven-day periods of mourning known after the death of King Shulgi of Ur and after the Guteans invade Nippur.
In epic literature from the Syrian kingdom of Ugarit, many rituals last seven days—not only mourning but also feasting. In southern Anatolian and northern Mesopotamian places (such as Emar and Mari), as well as throughout southern Mesopotamia, a number of feasts, rituals, and other symbolic events are conducted for seven days. Thus, the hero Kirta, from the Ugaritic legend, undertakes a voyage as part of a military campaign that lasts seven days. In Egypt too, the number seven assumed symbolic significance, likely due to foreign influence; it was often linked to creation and regeneration. Even in Homeric literature, which partakes in some aspects of broader Mediterranean culture, feasts are often celebrated for seven days.
Seven in the Bible
In the Bible, we can identify a broad array of activities that continue for seven days, months, or years. Many of them are ceremonial or commemorative in nature, just as we witnessed in the non-biblical evidence. They include mourning (“shiva”), feasts, weddings, temple dedications, and voyages.
On the basis of this comparative evidence, we can be certain that the societies of Israel and Judah would have attached special meaning to the number seven from an early point in their histories. The question is: How did this symbolic number come to be identified with Shabbat, and when did a seven-day week become one of most basic ways of ordering time?
The Oldest Requirements for Seventh-Day Rest
Even though many activities lasted seven days in neighboring cultures, we do not find a regular weekly cycle during which one refrained from labor on the seventh day or regarded this day as sacred in some way. The closest we get to this notion is the Egyptian week. It lasted, however, ten days, not seven.
Two biblical regulations in Exodus demand a pause after six days of labor, yet they originally had nothing to do with Shabbat. The first is found in a passage that most scholars assign to an older portion of the book, the so-called Covenant Code or Collection:
Six days you shall labor (תַּעֲשֶׂה מַעֲשֶׂיךָ), but on the seventh day you shall cease (תִּשְׁבֹּת), so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and the son of your maidservant and the resident alien may be refreshed. (Exod 23:12)
Six days you shall work (תַּעֲבֹד), but on the seventh day you shall cease (תִּשְׁבֹּת); even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall rest. (Exod 34:21)
The passage in 23:12 concerns farming activities, and it assumes that the addressees will have work-animals, home-born servants, and non-native residents to perform the most arduous fieldwork. The landowners are required to grant a pause every seven days so that their animals will have some “relief” and their laborers will be “refreshed”—something that would ultimately be in their own interest as well. This guideline is preceded directly by another statute related to shemitta or release of the land:
Six years you shall sow your land and gather its yield, but the seventh year you let it rest and lie still so that the poor of your people may eat; what they leave, the beasts of the field shall eat. You are to do the same with your vineyard and olive grove. (Exod 23:10-11)
The two laws share a similar ethical concern for both the disadvantaged and animals. They are also structured analogously: six days/years + seventh day/year.
The second statute cited above (34:21) appears to presuppose the first one (23:12); if so, it would have been composed at a later time. It expands the purview of the older law by using a more general verb for work (ta’avod) and demanding that day of rest be granted even during critical periods when the fields had to be plowed or the crops harvested. This observation has direct implications for the history of Torah law.
These two laws in Exodus 23 and 34 significantly do not call the seventh day “Shabbat,” which would make sense if Shabbat originally designated a lunar phase and had nothing to do with a weekly cycle.(The verb tishbot is unrelated to the noun Shabbat; see part two of this article.)
Another observation is equally important: These laws do not require communities to cease from particular activities on the same seventh day—in other words, they need not agree on a common fixed point in time from which all members of society collectively count the same seven days. What is required is that the Israelite landowner ceases from his labors every seventh day (whenever he chooses to begin the cycle) so that the animals and the humans in his employ have a regular respite from their travails. Given the explicit motivation for this law, there is no reason that all members of society should cease from their various activities on the same day.
Summary: Two Separate Institutions
The texts explored above suggest that the populations of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah commemorated a Chodesh-Shabbat monthly cycle that revolved around the antipodes of New Moon and Full Moon. An unrelated legal statute required landowners to grant their workers and animals a rest every seven days. The former institution was communal and cultic, with the population celebrating collectively the same days. The latter was personal and ethical, and would be initiated by each landowner independently. This mandated day of rest was not yet called Shabbat. At this early stage in the development of the calendar, a standard seven-day week did not exist and Shabbat referred to the celebration of Full Moon.
How did these originally separate institutions merge into one, with Shabbat shifting from Full Moon to weekly celebration? That is the question we will address in part two of this article.
For the Spanish version, see Sabbat en Plenilunio
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March 11, 2015
November 30, 2020
Dr. Jacob L. Wright is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and the Director of Graduate Studies in Emory’s Tam Institute of Jewish Studies. His doctorate is from Georg-August-Universität, Göttingen. He is the author of Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah Memoir and its Earliest Readers (which won a Templeton prize) and David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory.
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