Women’s Connection to Shabbat
Woman’s Place in the Shabbat Law
The projected audience of the Decalogue consists of men. As noted by Athalya Brenner-Idan in her “The Decalogue: Are Female Readers Included?” (TheTorah 2016), the pronouns are all masculine, and when women are mentioned, it is in relation to the male audience “honor your mother,” “do not covet your fellow’s wife,” etc. This is true of the Shabbat law as well, which appears in both versions of the Decalogue.
In Exodus, rest on the seventh day is required because God rested on the seventh day, after creating the world, and in Deuteronomy, observing this law is meant to recall that the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt and thus they know what it was like to have no respite, so now they must grant rest to their households. In both, women are referred to as members of the household:
שמות כ:י ...לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה כָל מְלָאכָה אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ עַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתְךָ וּבְהֶמְתֶּךָ וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ.
Exod 20:10 you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.
Deuteronomy’s version has this same clause—though it adds a specific mention of oxen and donkeys—and then continues with a clause explaining the purpose of the law:
דברים ה:יד ...לְמַעַן יָנוּחַ עַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתְךָ כָּמוֹךָ.
Deut 5:14 …so that your male and female slave may rest as you do.
The one person missing from these descriptions is the wife, who are likely subsumed under the identity of “you.”
The Decalogue’s androcentrism leaves us with a hole in women’s association with Shabbat, but we can somewhat fill this gap by looking at the place of women in other biblical accounts related to Shabbat to create new associations. Three narratives in the former prophets feature women and the Shabbat, a relationship that is neither obvious nor conventional.
Rahab and the Walls of Jericho (Joshua 2 & 6)
The conquest of Canaan, as recounted in the book of Joshua, begins with Jericho. Before the Israelites mount their attack, Joshua sends two spies into the city, and they find themselves in the house of Rahab, a local prostitute. Soon thereafter, the king’s men come looking for the spies that they know have entered the city. Rahab does not turn them in to the king’s men, but covers for them, sending the king’s men on a wild goose chase.
In return for saving them, Rahab asks her family to be spared when the Israelites conquer the city (Josh 2:12), and explains:
יהושע ב:ט...יָדַעְתִּי כִּי נָתַן יְ־הוָה לָכֶם אֶת הָאָרֶץ... ב:י כִּי שָׁמַעְנוּ אֵת אֲשֶׁר הוֹבִישׁ יְ־הוָה אֶת מֵי יַם סוּף מִפְּנֵיכֶם בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם... ב:יא וַנִּשְׁמַע וַיִּמַּס לְבָבֵנוּ וְלֹא קָמָה עוֹד רוּחַ בְּאִישׁ מִפְּנֵיכֶם כִּי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם הוּא אֱלֹהִים בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל וְעַל הָאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת.
Josh 2:9 …I know that YHWH has given the country to you… 2:10 For we have heard how YHWH dried up the waters of the Sea of Reeds for you when you left Egypt… 2:11 When we heard about it, we lost heart, and no man had any more spirit left because of you; for YHWH your God is the only God in heaven above and on earth below.
Rahab believes in the might of YHWH, whom she describes as the sole true divinity in the world. As commentators have noted, her words echo that of the Song of Moses and Miriam.
A few chapters later, the Israelites are outside the gates of Jericho and ready to attack. The conquest of Jericho, however, is not meant to demonstrate Israel’s military strength but YHWH’s awesome power. YHWH therefore commands the Israelites to perform an elaborate summoning ritual, in which seven priests with seven horns circle the city of Jericho once a day for six days, and then seven times on the seventh day:
יהושע ו:ג וְסַבֹּתֶם אֶת הָעִיר כֹּל אַנְשֵׁי הַמִּלְחָמָה הַקֵּיף אֶת הָעִיר פַּעַם אֶחָת כֹּה תַעֲשֶׂה שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים. ו:ד וְשִׁבְעָה כֹהֲנִים יִשְׂאוּ שִׁבְעָה שׁוֹפְרוֹת הַיּוֹבְלִים לִפְנֵי הָאָרוֹן וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי תָּסֹבּוּ אֶת הָעִיר שֶׁבַע פְּעָמִים וְהַכֹּהֲנִים יִתְקְעוּ בַּשּׁוֹפָרוֹת.
Josh 6:3 Let all your troops march around the city and complete one circuit of the city. Do this for six days. 6:4 Seven priests shall carry seven ram’s horns preceding the Ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the horns.
The ritual highlights the proverbial prominence of the figure seven, and the phrasing כֹּה תַעֲשֶׂה שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים... וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי “for six days shall you… but on the seventh day…” more specifically calls to mind the phrasing of the Shabbat law:
שמות כ:ט שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל מְלַאכְתֶּךָ. כ:י וְיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבָּת לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ...
Exod 20:9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 20:10 but the seventh day is a sabbath of YHWH your God…
The climax of the ritual is when a long horn blast is blown, the people shout in response, and the great walls of Jericho come crashing down:
יהושע ו:טו וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וַיַּשְׁכִּמוּ כַּעֲלוֹת הַשַּׁחַר וַיָּסֹבּוּ אֶת הָעִיר כַּמִּשְׁפָּט הַזֶּה שֶׁבַע פְּעָמִים רַק בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא סָבְבוּ אֶת הָעִיר שֶׁבַע פְּעָמִים. ו:טז וַיְהִי בַּפַּעַם הַשְּׁבִיעִית תָּקְעוּ הַכֹּהֲנִים בַּשּׁוֹפָרוֹת... ו:כ ...וַיְהִי כִשְׁמֹעַ הָעָם אֶת קוֹל הַשּׁוֹפָר וַיָּרִיעוּ הָעָם תְּרוּעָה גְדוֹלָה וַתִּפֹּל הַחוֹמָה תַּחְתֶּיהָ וַיַּעַל הָעָם הָעִירָה אִישׁ נֶגְדּוֹ וַיִּלְכְּדוּ אֶת הָעִיר.
Josh 6:15 On the seventh day, they rose at daybreak and marched around the city, in the same manner, seven times; that was the only day that they marched around the city seven times. 6:16 On the seventh round, the priests blew the horns… 6:20 …When the people heard the sound of the horns, the people raised a mighty shout and the wall collapsed. The people rushed into the city, every man straight in front of him, and they captured the city.
YHWH’s power to destroy Jericho is the inverse of YHWH’s power to create, which is the theme of Shabbat according to the version of the Decalogue in Exodus. The connection between this story and Shabbat is drawn explicitly in the Tannaitic work Seder Olam:
ויהי ביום השביעי וישכימו—ר' יוסי אומר: יום שבת היה.
“On the seventh day, they rose at daybreak”—Rabbi Yossi says: “It was Shabbat.”
This idea is adopted in the late first millennium midrash, Numbers Rabbah (33:6), which points to the six days/seventh day language in the text and states:
ללמדך שבשבת נכבשת חומת העיר.
This teaches you that the city walls were conquered on Shabbat.
On that fateful seventh day, immediately preceding Joshua’s instruction to the people, he reminds them of their promise to Rahab.
יהושע ו:יז... רַק רָחָב הַזּוֹנָה תִּחְיֶה הִיא וְכָל אֲשֶׁר אִתָּהּ בַּבַּיִת כִּי הֶחְבְּאַתָה אֶת הַמַּלְאָכִים אֲשֶׁר שָׁלָחְנוּ.
Josh 6:17 … only Rahab the harlot is to be spared, and all who are with her in the house, because she hid the messengers we sent.
Turning of the spotlight onto Rahab on the fateful seventh day highlights how, as the only Canaanite to recognize YHWH’s power and to adopt the Israelite God as her own, she has done the equivalent of keeping the Israelite Shabbat.
The Great Woman of Shunem and the Prophet Elisha (2 Kings 4)
The book of Kings describes the אִשָּׁה גְדוֹלָה “important woman” of Shunem, who supported the prophet Elisha (2 Kgs 4:8–37); she too is connected to Shabbat. The story begins with her offering Elisha meals, but she soon convinces her husband that they should build a room on the roof, where Elisha can stay whenever he visits. The woman’s kindness prompts Elisha to send his servant Gehazi, to tell her that Elisha wishes to grant her a boon, though she responds that she has no need for one:
מלכים ב ד:יג וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אֱמָר נָא אֵלֶיהָ הִנֵּה חָרַדְתְּ אֵלֵינוּ אֶת כָּל הַחֲרָדָה הַזֹּאת מֶה לַעֲשׂוֹת לָךְ הֲיֵשׁ לְדַבֶּר לָךְ אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ אוֹ אֶל שַׂר הַצָּבָא וַתֹּאמֶר בְּתוֹךְ עַמִּי אָנֹכִי יֹשָׁבֶת.
2 Kgs 4:13 Say to her, “You have gone to all this trouble for us. What can we do for you? Can we speak in your behalf to the king or to the army commander?'" She replied, "I live among my own people.”
Elisha then asks Gehazi what he thinks they can do for her, and he notes that her husband is getting on in years and the couple has no children. Elisha thus promises her a son in the upcoming year, and the promised miracle takes place.
A few years later, when out in the field with his father, the son screams about a pain in his head, and dies soon thereafter, after he is brought to his mother. The woman places her son’s body on the prophet’s bed, closes the door to the room and heads out of the house, intent on finding Elisha:
מלכים ב ד:כב וַתִּקְרָא אֶל אִישָׁהּ וַתֹּאמֶר שִׁלְחָה נָא לִי אֶחָד מִן הַנְּעָרִים וְאַחַת הָאֲתֹנוֹת וְאָרוּצָה עַד אִישׁ הָאֱלֹהִים וְאָשׁוּבָה. ד:כג וַיֹּאמֶר מַדּוּעַ (אתי הלכתי) [אַתְּ הֹלֶכֶת] אֵלָיו הַיּוֹם לֹא חֹדֶשׁ וְלֹא שַׁבָּת וַתֹּאמֶר שָׁלוֹם.
2 Kgs 4:22 Then she called to her husband: “Please, send me one of the servants and one of the jennies, so I can hurry to the man of God and back.” 4:23 But he said, “Why are you going to him today? It is neither Chodesh (new moon) nor Shabbat.” She answered, “Shalom.”
The story concludes with her finding Elisha, after which the prophet brings her son back to life. For our purposes, the dialogue between the woman and her husband is key. First, she does not tell her husband about the boy’s death or why she wants to see the prophet. This highlights the woman’s independence—it was her idea to build Elisha an apartment in the first place—her relationship is directly with the prophet without her husband as an intermediary.
We never hear that her husband speaks to the prophet or that he was all that interested in having Elisha around on Chodesh [new moon] or Shabbat for religious guidance or inspiration, but his wife apparently does. This is why the husband is not surprised that his wife wants to speak with the prophet, only that it’s not on Chodesh or Shabbat.
She answers him dishonestly, with the single word: shalom, a term that covers a vast territory, from “peace” to “God bless you” and “all is well,” none reflecting her state of mind. The bereft mother’s “shalom,” as readers know, is contraventional, because there is no peace at all in her home.
The story ends with another connection to Shabbat, namely the number seven. When Elisha arrives at the woman’s home, he enters his room, closes the door, and prays to God. Then he climbs on top of the lad, covers the boy’s body with his, and gives him warmth and breath:
מלכים ב ד:לה וַיָּשָׁב וַיֵּלֶךְ בַּבַּיִת אַחַת הֵנָּה וְאַחַת הֵנָּה וַיַּעַל וַיִּגְהַר עָלָיו וַיְזוֹרֵר הַנַּעַר עַד שֶׁבַע פְּעָמִים וַיִּפְקַח הַנַּעַר אֶת עֵינָיו.
2 Kgs 4:35 He stepped down, walked once up and down the room, then mounted and bent over him. Thereupon, the boy sneezed seven times, and the boy opened his eyes.
As noted previously, seven represents God’s creative powers which, in this case, were granted to Elisha to return the son to his mother. The triumph of life over death had been achieved not on Shabbat but through the power of seven. For this woman, who is noted to be one who keeps the Shabbat, shalom is restored.
Why Kill a Queen on Shabbat? (2 Kgs 11)
Another Shabbat-related story features a female antagonist. After Ahaziah, king of Judah, is assassinated in Jehu’s coup (2 Kgs 9:27–28), his mother Athaliah kills all competitors and takes the throne herself:
מלכים ב יא:א וַעֲתַלְיָה אֵם אֲחַזְיָהוּ (וראתה) [רָאֲתָה] כִּי מֵת בְּנָהּ וַתָּקָם וַתְּאַבֵּד אֵת כָּל זֶרַע הַמַּמְלָכָה.
2 Kgs 11:1 When Athaliah, the mother of Ahaziah, learned that her son was dead, she promptly killed off all who were of royal stock.
Athaliah, the daughter of the recently deposed northern dynasty of Omri, wishes to depose the Davidic southern dynasty. However, she has missed a scion of the house—her grandson—who is saved by his aunt, apparently Athaliah’s own daughter, who hides him with the collusion of the priesthood:
מלכים ב יא:ב וַתִּקַּח יְהוֹשֶׁבַע בַּת הַמֶּלֶךְ יוֹרָם אֲחוֹת אֲחַזְיָהוּ אֶת יוֹאָשׁ בֶּן אֲחַזְיָה וַתִּגְנֹב אֹתוֹ מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ (הממותתים) [הַמּוּמָתִים] אֹתוֹ וְאֶת מֵינִקְתּוֹ בַּחֲדַר הַמִּטּוֹת וַיַּסְתִּרוּ אֹתוֹ מִפְּנֵי עֲתַלְיָהוּ וְלֹא הוּמָת. יא:ג וַיְהִי אִתָּהּ בֵּית יְ־הוָה מִתְחַבֵּא שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים וַעֲתַלְיָה מֹלֶכֶת עַל הָאָרֶץ.
2 Kgs 11:2 But Jehosheba, daughter of King Joram and sister of Ahaziah, secretly took Ahaziah's son Joash away from among the princes who were being slain, and put him and his nurse in a bedroom. And they kept him hidden from Athaliah so that he was not put to death. 11:3 He stayed with her for six years, hidden in the House of YHWH, while Athaliah reigned over the land.
Athaliah rules for six years, but matters come to a head in the seventh year, when the high priest leads a coup:
מלכים ב יא:ד וּבַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִית שָׁלַח יְהוֹיָדָע וַיִּקַּח אֶת שָׂרֵי (המאיות) [הַמֵּאוֹת] לַכָּרִי וְלָרָצִים וַיָּבֵא אֹתָם אֵלָיו בֵּית יְ־הוָה וַיִּכְרֹת לָהֶם בְּרִית וַיַּשְׁבַּע אֹתָם בְּבֵית יְ־הוָה וַיַּרְא אֹתָם אֶת בֶּן הַמֶּלֶךְ.
2 Kgs 11:4 In the seventh year, Jehoiada sent for the chiefs of the hundreds of the Carites and of the guards, and had them come to him in the House of YHWH. He made a pact with them, exacting an oath from them in the House of YHWH, and he showed them the king’s son.
The priest, Jehoiada, makes incidental mention of Shabbat in his outlining of the coup, when he divides up the guards who are on duty that Shabbat into three groups:
מלכים ב יא:ה וַיְצַוֵּם לֵאמֹר זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשׂוּן הַשְּׁלִשִׁית מִכֶּם בָּאֵי הַשַּׁבָּת וְשֹׁמְרֵי מִשְׁמֶרֶת בֵּית הַמֶּלֶךְ. יא:ו וְהַשְּׁלִשִׁית בְּשַׁעַר סוּר וְהַשְּׁלִשִׁית בַּשַּׁעַר אַחַר הָרָצִים וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת מִשְׁמֶרֶת הַבַּיִת מַסָּח.
2 Kgs 11:5 He instructed them: “This is what you must do: One-third of those who are on duty for the Shabbat shall maintain guard over the royal palace; 11:6 another third shall be stationed at the Sur Gate; and the other third shall be at the gate behind the guards; you shall keep guard over the House on every side.
Jehoiada then assigns duties to the guards who would otherwise not be on duty that Shabbat:
מלכים ב יא:ז וּשְׁתֵּי הַיָּדוֹת בָּכֶם כֹּל יֹצְאֵי הַשַּׁבָּת וְשָׁמְרוּ אֶת מִשְׁמֶרֶת בֵּית יְ־הוָה אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ. יא:ח וְהִקַּפְתֶּם עַל הַמֶּלֶךְ סָבִיב אִישׁ וְכֵלָיו בְּיָדוֹ וְהַבָּא אֶל הַשְּׂדֵרוֹת יוּמָת וִהְיוּ אֶת הַמֶּלֶךְ בְּצֵאתוֹ וּבְבֹאוֹ.
2 Kgs 11:7 The two divisions of yours who are off duty this Shabbat shall keep guard over the House of YHWH for the protection of the king. 11:8 You shall surround the king on every side, every man with his weapons at the ready; and whoever breaks through the ranks shall be killed. Stay close to the king in his comings and goings.”
The chiefs listening to Jehoiada agree to the coup and gather their men:
מלכים ב יא:ט וַיַּעֲשׂוּ שָׂרֵי המאיות [הַמֵּאוֹת] כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוֹיָדָע הַכֹּהֵן וַיִּקְחוּ אִישׁ אֶת אֲנָשָׁיו בָּאֵי הַשַּׁבָּת עִם יֹצְאֵי הַשַּׁבָּת וַיָּבֹאוּ אֶל יְהוֹיָדָע הַכֹּהֵן.
2 Kgs 11:9 The chiefs of hundreds did just as Jehoiada ordered: Each took his men—those who were on duty that Shabbat and those who were off duty that Shabbat—and they presented themselves to Jehoiada the priest.
At this point, Jehoash, the boy prince, is taken outside and anointed as king.
מלכים ב יא:יג וַתִּשְׁמַע עֲתַלְיָה אֶת קוֹל הָרָצִין הָעָם וַתָּבֹא אֶל הָעָם בֵּית יְ־הוָה. יא:יד וַתֵּרֶא וְהִנֵּה הַמֶּלֶךְ עֹמֵד עַל הָעַמּוּד כַּמִּשְׁפָּט וְהַשָּׂרִים וְהַחֲצֹצְרוֹת אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ וְכָל עַם הָאָרֶץ שָׂמֵחַ וְתֹקֵעַ בַּחֲצֹצְרוֹת וַתִּקְרַע עֲתַלְיָה אֶת בְּגָדֶיהָ וַתִּקְרָא קֶשֶׁר קָשֶׁר.
2 Kgs 11:13 When Athaliah heard the shouting of the guards and the people, she came out to the people in the House of YHWH. 11:14 She looked about and saw the king standing by the pillar, as was the custom, the chiefs with their trumpets beside the king, and all the people of the land rejoicing and blowing trumpets. Athaliah rent her garments and cried out, "Treason, treason!"
Athaliah knows it is too late at this point, and the high priest has her brought outside the Temple—to avoid shedding blood in the Temple itself—where she is immediately executed.
Shabbat is mentioned multiple times in the story, since the active members of the coup are characterized as those who are on duty on that Shabbat and those who are off duty on the Shabbat. Moreover, the coup’s taking place in the seventh year also evokes the power of seven.
This story is similar to the Jericho story, where the power of seven is destructive. In this case, the destruction of the wicked queen Athaliah makes it possible for the reinstatement of the Davidic king, and purging of idolatrous Baʿal imagery from the city (2 Kgs 11:17–20), ostensibly placed there by the foreign queen.
While the story ends with male power—the boy is made king, the high priest anoints him, and the priestly guards dispatch the queen—it begins with a clash between two women. Both women have Yahwistic names, Jehosheba means “Oath of YHWH” and Athaliah means “Exalted is YHWH.”
The woman who saves the boy acts in a way reminiscent of Moses’ mother and sister. The culprit, though a scion of a foreign, Phoenician dynasty, is the boy’s own grandmother, and the savior is likely her daughter. This too is reminiscent of the exodus story, since it is Pharaoh’s daughter who adopts Moses.
Like the great women of the exodus story, it Jehosheba’s brave but secret act, mentioned only briefly in one verse, and taken in great risk to herself, that makes all this possible. Without her willingness to risk all to save Jehoash, the text tells us, the Davidic dynasty would have ended there and then.
Reading Shabbat in the Stories of Three Women
The Shabbat Commandment is central to Jewish identity, and yet women play only a secondary role, if that, in its iteration in the Decalogue. Yet several of the Bible’s stories, which engage crafty and decidedly exceptional women, can be read with their relevance to Shabbat in mind, since in each narrative the number "seven" and the Shabbat play a crucial role.
Although accomplished through priestly rituals based on the symbolism of seven and likely on the Shabbat itself, the conquest of Jericho, the first Canaanite stronghold taken by the Israelites, was facilitated by Rahab the prostitute, a local woman who believes Israelite God YHWH to be the true power “in heaven above and on earth below.”
The rich woman in Shunem, who allocates a section of her home for the prophet Elisha, spends her time with him on Shabbat and Chodesh. The reward for her devotion is first the birth of a son, and second, the return of that son to life when he dies as a lad. This story is the inverse of the Decalogue, since the household is clearly hers, and we hear only about her Shabbat experience, not his.
The last story involving women and the Shabbat is that of Athaliah, the only female monarch to rule without a consort, whose execution takes place during the seventh year, apparently on the Shabbat. Her coup is thwarted by Jehosheba, possibly her daughter, whose decision to save the (male) scion of the Davidic family risked her own life, as Moses’ mother does in the exodus story.
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Prof. Hagith Sivan is Professor Emerita of History in the University of Kansas’ Center for Global and International Studies. She holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University, and among her many books are, Jewish Childhood in the Roman World (2018), Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress (2011), Between Woman, Man and God: A New Interpretation of the Ten Commandments (2004), and Dinah‘s Daughters: Gender and Judaism from the Hebrew Bible To Late Antiquity (Philadephia 2002).
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