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The seventh day of the Jewish week - from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday - the Sabbath commemorates the seventh day of creation, on which God rested. It is a divinely appointed day of rest (Exod. 20:8), to be devoted to prayer and study, and its observance is a mark of Jewish faith.

Christians have generally considered the Sabbath to be fulfilled by Christ's Sabbath rest in the tomb and celebrate, instead, the Lord's Day (Sunday) as a weekly day of worship. It is the first day of the new week, symbolic of the unending Day of the Lord, the day of Christ's resurrection and of his expected return. Some Protestant groups have traditionally called Sunday the Sabbath and apply to it the Old Testament Sabbath regulations (Sabbatarianism). In many places these have been given the force of civil law (Blue Laws).

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L L Mitchell

T Gaster, Festivals of the Jewish Year (1953); H B Porter, Day of Light (1960); W Rordorf, Sunday (1968); Schauss, Hayyim, Jewish Festivals (1938).


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Sabbath (Heb. verb shabbath, meaning "to rest from labour") is the day of rest. It is first mentioned as having been instituted in Paradise, when man was in innocence (Gen. 2:2). "The sabbath was made for man," as a day of rest and refreshment for the body and of blessing to the soul. It is next referred to in connection with the gift of manna to the children of Israel in the wilderness (Ex. 16:23); and afterwards, when the law was given from Sinai (20:11), the people were solemnly charged to "remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy." Thus it is spoken of as an institution already existing. In the Mosaic law strict regulations were laid down regarding its observance (Ex. 35:2, 3; Lev. 23:3; 26:34).

These were peculiar to that dispensation. In the subsequent history of the Jews frequent references are made to the sanctity of the Sabbath (Isa. 56:2, 4, 6, 7; 58:13, 14; Jer. 17:20-22; Neh. 13:19). In later times they perverted the Sabbath by their traditions. Our Lord rescued it from their perversions, and recalled to them its true nature and intent (Matt. 12:10-13; Mark 2:27; Luke 13:10-17). The Sabbath, originally instituted for man at his creation, is of permanent and universal obligation. The physical necessities of man require a Sabbath of rest. He is so constituted that his bodily welfare needs at least one day in seven for rest from ordinary labour.

Experience also proves that the moral and spiritual necessities of men also demand a Sabbath of rest. "I am more and more sure by experience that the reason for the observance of the Sabbath lies deep in the everlasting necessities of human nature, and that as long as man is man the blessedness of keeping it, not as a day of rest only, but as a day of spiritual rest, will never be annulled. I certainly do feel by experience the eternal obligation, because of the eternal necessity, of the Sabbath. The soul withers without it. It thrives in proportion to its observance. The Sabbath was made for man. God made it for men in a certain spiritual state because they needed it. The need, therefore, is deeply hidden in human nature.

He who can dispense with it must be holy and spiritual indeed. And he who, still unholy and unspiritual, would yet dispense with it is a man that would fain be wiser than his Maker" (F. W. Robertson). The ancient Babylonian calendar, as seen from recently recovered inscriptions on the bricks among the ruins of the royal palace, was based on the division of time into weeks of seven days. The Sabbath is in these inscriptions designated Sabattu, and defined as "a day of rest for the heart" and "a day of completion of labour." The change of the day. Originally at creation the seventh day of the week was set apart and consecrated as the Sabbath. The first day of the week is now observed as the Sabbath.

Has God authorized this change? There is an obvious distinction between the Sabbath as an institution and the particular day set apart for its observance. The question, therefore, as to the change of the day in no way affects the perpetual obligation of the Sabbath as an institution. Change of the day or no change, the Sabbath remains as a sacred institution the same. It cannot be abrogated. If any change of the day has been made, it must have been by Christ or by his authority. Christ has a right to make such a change (Mark 2:23-28). As Creator, Christ was the original Lord of the Sabbath (John 1:3; Heb. 1:10). It was originally a memorial of creation. A work vastly greater than that of creation has now been accomplished by him, the work of redemption.

We would naturally expect just such a change as would make the Sabbath a memorial of that greater work. True, we can give no text authorizing the change in so many words. We have no express law declaring the change. But there are evidences of another kind. We know for a fact that the first day of the week has been observed from apostolic times, and the necessary conclusion is, that it was observed by the apostles and their immediate disciples. This, we may be sure, they never would have done without the permission or the authority of their Lord. After his resurrection, which took place on the first day of the week (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1), we never find Christ meeting with his disciples on the seventh day. But he specially honoured the first day by manifesting himself to them on four separate occasions (Matt. 28:9; Luke 24:34, 18-33; John 20:19-23).

Again, on the next first day of the week, Jesus appeared to his disciples (John 20:26). Some have calculated that Christ's ascension took place on the first day of the week. And there can be no doubt that the descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost was on that day (Acts 2:1). Thus Christ appears as instituting a new day to be observed by his people as the Sabbath, a day to be henceforth known amongst them as the "Lord's day." The observance of this "Lord's day" as the Sabbath was the general custom of the primitive churches, and must have had apostolic sanction (comp. Acts 20:3-7; 1 Cor. 16:1, 2) and authority, and so the sanction and authority of Jesus Christ. The words "at her sabbaths" (Lam. 1:7, A.V.) ought probably to be, as in the Revised Version, "at her desolations."

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)


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The Sabbath is the seventh day of the week in which God ceased from his work of creation and declared the day blessed and holy (Gen. 2:1-3). Through the episode of the manna (Exod. 16), the sacred nature of the day was stressed to the Israelites. It was to be "a sabbath of the Lord," a day set apart for God and for rest. The Decalogue forbids work on the sabbath, both for the Israelites and for their servants and guests (Exod. 20:8-11). Deut. 5:12-15 implies that there is a humanitarian motive in the sabbath concept. In God's sight, no man or animal should be required to work seven days a week and to be enslaved as the Israelites were in Egypt. The sabbath is therefore a direct indication of God's consecration of Israel, as well as of his creation.

Violating the sabbath was a serious offense, and the person who worked on the sabbath was to be "cut off from among his people" (Exod. 31:14). During their wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites brought to trial a man found gathering wood on the sabbath. He was stoned to death according to the commandment of the Lord for profaning the sabbath (Num. 15:32-36). A fire was not to be kindled on the sabbath (Exod. 35:3), and admonitions to reverence the day are linked to reverence toward parents (Lev. 19:3) and reverence toward the Lord's sanctuary (19:30; 26:2). The sabbath terminated a week of work and was to be a complete rest unto the Lord, a distinguishing mark of God's choosing the Jewish people.

The sabbath was a joyous holy day, a day of spiritual refreshment and reverent worship. It seems to have been a popular day, an opportunity for man to imitate his Creator, to devote himself to contemplation and to community worship. Those that delighted in the Lord in this fashion were promised that they would "ride on the heights of the earth" (Isa. 58:13-14). Even foreigners who kept from profaning the sabbath and held to God's covenant were promised blessing and deep joy (56:6-8). Jewish tradition held that Isaiah declared the eventual universalization of the sabbath among all nations (note 66:23). Prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel placed such stress on the importance of observing the sabbath that at times the fate of the Jewish people was directly linked in prophecy to attitudes toward the sabbath (note Jer. 17:19-27 and Ezek. 20:12ff.).

Josephus explains that during the first Christian century there were public discourses on the sabbath in the Jewish community. Jesus observed the sabbath, not only worshiping, but also teaching in the synagogue during that time of the week (Mark 6:2). The incidents regarding his disciples' plucking ears of grain or his healing on the sabbath were not a digression from the sabbath law, but were rather an indication that Jesus knew the content of the commandment very well. Not only his disciples, but also the apostle Paul and the early Jewish Christians observed the sabbath.

Jewish tradition has maintained the aspects of Torah observance, community worship, and joyful family participation to the present day. The mother prepares a special meal and kindles the sabbath candles remembering the holy day. As she wafts the aura of the candles toward her and recites the blessing over the candles, she symbolizes the putting of her daily cares from her and acknowledges the historic sacredness of the hour. Two loaves of bread are placed on the dinner table and covered with a cloth to symbolize the double portion of manna given during the wilderness wandering. Guests are often invited to share in this sabbath joy, and special prayers and hymns are recited, led by the father of the household. The family worships at weekly sabbath services at the synagogue. A farewell service is observed in a spirit of sadness that the blessed day has passed. Jewish tradition has proposed that if every Jew kept the sabbath for two consecutive sabbaths, the Messiah would return.

The Bible also made provision for a sabbath year. During the seventh year the land was to lie fallow so that the land might rest, the needy might feed on the aftergrowth, and the animals might eat the surplus. God promised an abundant harvest the sixth year to carry through the sabbatical period. In addition, debts were to be cancelled during that year (note Exod. 23:10-11; Lev. 25:1-7, 18-22; Deut. 15:1-11). At the close of seven sabbatical cycles a year of jubilee was instituted. Land that had been sold was to be returned to its former owner, and there were other sabbatical year provisions. These provisions underscored the fact that ultimately God owned the land.

D A Rausch
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

A. E. Millgram, Sabbath: The Day of Delight; G. F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era; A. J. Heschel, The Sabbath; S. Goldman, Guide to the Sabbath; D. A. Carson, From Sabbath to Lord's Day; R. T. Beckwith and W. Stott, The Christian Sunday; N. E. Andreasen, Rest and Redemption.


Catholic Information

(Hebrew shabbath, cessation, rest; Greek Sabbaton; Latin Sabbatum).

The seventh day of the week among the Hebrews, the day being counted from sunset to sunset, that is, from Friday evening to Saturday evening.

Prescriptions concerning the Sabbath

The Sabbath was a day of rest "sanctified to the Lord" (Exodus 16:23; 31:15; Deuteronomy 5:14). All work was forbidden, the prohibition including strangers as well as Israelites, beasts as well as men (Exodus 20:8-10; 31:13-17; Deuteronomy 5:12-14). The following particular actions are mentioned as forbidden: cooking (ex., xvi, 23); gathering manna (xvi, 26 sqq.); plowing and reaping (xxxiv, 21); lighting a fire (for cooking, xxxv, 3); gathering wood (num., xv, 32 sqq.); carrying burdens (jer., xvii, 21-22); pressing grapes, bringing in sheaves, and loading animals (Nehemiah 13:15); trading (Ibid., 15 sqq.). Travelling, at least with a religious object, was not forbidden, the prohibition of Ex., xvi, 29, referring only to leaving the camp to gather food; it is implied in the institution of holy assemblies (Leviticus 23:2-3, Heb. text), and was customary in the time of the kings (2 Kings 4:23). At a later period, however, all movement was restricted to a distance of 2000 cubits (between five and six furlongs), or a "sabbath day's journey" (Acts 1:12). Total abstention from work was prescribed only for the Sabbath and the Day of Atonement; on the other feast-days servile work alone was prohibited (Exodus 12:16; Leviticus 23:7 sqq.). Wilful violation of the Sabbath was punished with death (Exodus 31:14-15; Numbers 15:32-36). The prohibition of work made it necessary to prepare food, and whatever might be needed, the day before the Sabbath, hence known as the day of preparation, or Parasceve (paraskeue; Matthew 27:62; Mark 15:42; etc.). Besides abstention from work, special religious observances were prescribed. (a) The daily sacrifices were doubled, that is two lambs of a year old without blemish were offered up in the morning, and two in the evening, with twice the usual quantity of flour tempered with oil and of the wine of libation (num., xxvii, 3-10). (b) New loaves of proposition were placed before the Lord (Leviticus 24:5; 1 Chronicles 9:32). (c) A sacred assembly was to be held in the sanctuary for solemn worship (Leviticus 23:2-3, Heb. text; Ezekiel 46:3). We have no details as to what was done by those living at a distance from the sanctuary. Synagogal worship belongs to the post-Exilic period; still it is probably a development of an old custom. In earlier days the people were wont to go to hear the instructions of the Prophets (2 Kings 4:23), and it is not unlikely that meetings for edification and prayer were common from the oldest times.

Meaning of the Sabbath

The Sabbath was the consecration of one day of the weekly period to God as the Author of the universe and of time. The day thus being the Lord's, it required that man should abstain from working for his own ends and interests, since by working he would appropriate the day to himself, and that he should devote his activity to God by special acts of positive worship. After the Sinaitic covenant God stood to Israel in the relation of Lord of that covenant. The Sabbath thereby also became a sign, and its observance an acknowledgment of the pact: "See that thou keep my sabbath; because it is a sign between me and you in your generations; that you may know that I am the Lord, who sanctify you" (Exodus 31:13). But while the Sabbath was primarily a religious day, it had a social and philanthropic side. It was also intended as a day of rest and relaxation, particularly for the slaves (Deuteronomy 5:14). Because of the double character, religious and philanthropic, of the day, two different reasons are given for its observance. The first is taken from God's rest on the seventh day of creation: "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, . . .and rested on the seventh day: therefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it" (Exodus 20:11; 31:17). This does not mean that the Sabbath was instituted at the Creation, as some commentators have thought, but that the Israelites were to imitate God's example and rest on the day which He had sanctified by His rest. The Sabbath as the sign of the Sinaitic covenant recalled the deliverance from the bondage of Egypt. Hence, in the second place, the Israelites are bidden to remember that they were once slaves in Egypt, and should therefore in grateful remembrance of their deliverance rest themselves and allow their bond-servants to rest (Deuteronomy 5:14-15). As a reminder of God's benefits to Israel the Sabbath was to be a day of joy (Isaiah 57:13) and such it was in practice (cf. Hosea 2:11; Lamentations 2:6). No fasting was done on the Sabbath (Judith 8:6) on the contrary, the choicest meals were served to which friends were invited.

Origin of the Sabbath

The Sabbath is first met with in connection with the fall of the manna (Exodus 16:22 sqq.), but it there appears as an institution already known to the Israelites. The Sinaitic legislation therefore only gave the force of law to an existing custom. The origin of this custom is involved in obscurity. It was not borrowed from the Egyptians, as the week of seven days closing with a day of rest was unknown to them. In recent years a Babylonian origin has been advocated. A lexicographical tablet gives shabattu as the equivalent of um nuh libbi, "the day of the appeasement of the heart" (of the gods). Furthermore, a religious calendar of the intercalary month Elul and of the month Marchesvan mentions the 7th, 14th, 21st, 28th, and 19th days, the latter probably because it was the 49th (7x7) day from the beginning of the preceding month, as days on which the king, the magician, and the physician were to abstain from certain acts. The king, for instance, was not to eat food prepared with fire, put on bright garments, ride in a chariot, or exercise acts of authority. These days were then, days of propitiation, and therefore shabattu days. We have thus periods of seven days the last day of which is marked by abstention from certain actions, and called shabattu, in other words the equivalent of the Sabbath. A Babylonian origin is not in itself improbable, since Chaldea was the original home of the Hebrews, but there is no proof that such is actually the case. The reading shabattu is uncertain, shapattu being at lest equally probable. Besides, there is no evidence that these days were called shabattu; the signs so read are found affixed only to the 15th day of the month, where, however, sha patti, "division" of the month is the more probable reading. These days, moreover, differed entirely from the Sabbath. They were not days of general rest, business being transacted as on other days. The abstention from certain acts had for object to appease the anger of the gods; the days were, therefore, days of penance, not of joy like the Sabbath. Lastly, these days followed the phases of the moon, whereas the Sabbath was independent of them. Since the Sabbath always appear as a weekly feast without connexion with the moon, it cannot be derived, as is done by some writers, from the Babylonian feast of the full moon, or fifteenth day of the month, which, moreover, has only doubtful claim to the designation shabattu.

Observance of the Sabbath

Violations of the Sabbath seem to have been rather common before and during the exile (Jeremiah 17:19 sqq., Ezekiel 20:13, 16, 21, 24; 22:8; 22:38); hence the Prophets laid great stress on its proper observance (Amos 8:5; Isaiah 1:13; 57:13-14; Jeremiah loc. cit.; Ezekiel 20:12 sqq.). After the Restoration the day was openly profaned, and Nehemias found some difficulty in stopping the abuse (Nehemiah 13:15-22). Soon, however, a movement set in towrds a meticulous observance which went far beyond what the law contemplated. At the time of the Machabees the faithful Jews allowed themselves to be massacred rather than fight on the Sabbath (1 Maccabees 2:35-38); Mathathias and his followers realizing the folly of such a policy decided to defend themselves if attacked on the Sabbath, though they would not assume the offensive (1 Maccabees 2:40-41; 2 Maccabees 8:26). Under the influence of pharasaic rigorism a system of minute and burdensome regulations was elaborated, while the higher purpose of the Sabbath was lost sight of. The Mishna treatise Shabbath enumerates thirty-nine main heads of forbidden actions, each with subdivisions. Among the main heads are such trifling actions as weaving two threads, sewing two stitches, writing two letters, etc. To pluck two ears of wheat was considered as reaping, while to rub them was a species of threshing (cf. Matthew 12:1-2; Mark 2:23-24; Luke 6:1-2). To carry an object of the weight of a fig was carrying a burden; hence to carry a bed (John 5:10) was a gross breach of the Sabbath. It was unlawful to cure on the Sabbath, or to apply a remedy unless life was endangered (cf. Matthew 12:10 sqq.; Mark 3:2 sqq.; Luke 6:7 sqq.). This explains why the sick were brought to Christ after sundown (Mark, I, 32). It was even forbidden to use a medicament the preceding day if it produced its effect on the Sabbath. In the time of Christ it was allowed to lift an animal out of a pit (Matthew 12:11; Luke 14:5), but this was later modified so that it was not permitted to lay hold of it and lift it out, though it might be helped to come out of itself by means of mattresses and cushions. These examples, and they are not the worst, show the narrowness of the system. Some of the rules were, however, found too burdensome, and a treatise of the Mishna (Erubin) tempers their rigour by subtle devices.

The Sabbath in the New Testament

Christ, while observing the Sabbath, set himself in word and act against this absurd rigorism which made man a slave of the day. He reproved the scribes and Pharisees for putting an intolerable burden on men's shoulders (Matthew 23:4), and proclaimed the principle that "the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath" (Mark 2:27). He cured on the Sabbath, and defended His disciples for plucking ears of corn on that day. In His arguments with the Pharisees on this account He showed that the Sabbath is not broken in cases of necessity or by acts of charity (Matthew 12:3 sqq.; Mark 2:25 sqq.; Luke 6:3 sqq.; 14:5). St. Paul enumerates the Sabbath among the Jewish observances which are not obligatory on Christians (Colossians 2:16; Galatians 4:9-10; Romans 14:5). The gentile converts held their religious meetings on Sunday (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2) and with the disappearance of the Jewish Christian churches this day was exclusively observed as the Lord's Day. (See SUNDAY.)

Publication information Written by F. Bechtel. Transcribed by John Looby. Dedicated to Christopher James Looby The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIII. Published 1912. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


EDERSHEIM, "Life and Times of Jesus II" (New York, 1897), 52-62, 777 sqq.; SCHURER, "Hist. Of the Jewish People" (New York, 1891), see index; PINCHES, "Sapattu, the Babylonian Sabbaath" in "Proceed. Of Soc. Of Bibl. Archeol." (1904), 51-56; LAGRANGE, "Relig. Semit." (Paris, 1905), 291-5; DHORME in "Rev. bibl." (1908), 462-6; HERN, "Siebenzahl und Sabbath bei den Babyloniern un im A. T." (Leipzig, 1907); IDEM, Der Israelitische Sabbath" (Munster, 1909); KEIL, "Babel und Bibelfrage" (Trier, 1903), 38-44; LOTZ, "Quaestiones de histor. sabbati" (1883); LESETRE in VIGOUROUX, "Dict. de la bible", s.v. "Sabbat."

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