(Hebr. šabbāt). The last day of the week; the only day bearing a name, the others being merely numbered. It is considered the absolute day of rest without exceptions. Its observance is probably very old but is attested only since the eighth century BCE (Amos 8.5; Hos. 2.13; Isa. 1.13, 2 Kings 4.23). An earlier date is suggested by Israelite legal traditions (Exod. 23.12; 34.21); the references in the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20.8–11; Deut. 5.12–15) may not be older than Deuteronomy itself.
The etymology of šabbāt is uncertain. A relation to the verb šbt, to which it has naturally been connected (see Gen 2.2–3; Exod. 20.11), is questionable, since šbt is never attested in the intensive form or in connection with the practice of resting from work, while its meaning is “coming/bringing to an end.” A connection with the Akkadian šab/pattu, the day of the full moon, falling on the fifteenth of the lunar month, or with the seventh, fourteenth, twenty‐first, and twenty‐eighth days should probably be rejected, as they are unpropitious days, the opposite of what the Sabbath seems to be. Nevertheless, the former connection is so obvious etymologically that one should ask whether the abstention from work on such a day does not lead, eventually, to the Israelite concept of rest. Sometimes the Sabbath is connected with the feast of the new moon (Amos 8.5; Hos. 2.13; Isa. 1.13); what this means we do not know.
The origins of the Sabbath are also obscure. Biblical tradition (but in late texts) attributes it to Moses; this, however, cannot be verified and, since the practice presupposes a relatively advanced agricultural society, is improbable. In preexilic times its observance cannot have been very strict; 2 Kings 11.5–9 tells us, without any criticism, of the arrest and execution on the Sabbath of the Queen Mother Athaliah, who had been usurping the kingship, something inconceivable in later times.
By postexilic times keeping the Sabbath had become one of the distinctive practices of observant Jews. During this period detailed regulations developed so as to make its observance absolute, a tendency already evident in the explanations in the Ten Commandments. The Sabbath was also a socioeconomic institution and meant feeding humans and animals although they were not working, besides losing profit; thus attempts were made to circumvent the law, and these needed to be countered. In Maccabean times the problem of fighting on the Sabbath arose (1 Macc. 2.32–38; 2 Macc. 6.11), the faithful preferring to be killed rather than desecrate the Sabbath.
In the New Testament and in rabbinic Judaism we hear echoes of the debates that developed around the observance of Sabbath until finally a criterion was proposed: “Every case of danger of life allows for the suspension of the Sabbath” (Yoma 8.6). According to Rabbi Akiba, one should not desecrate the Sabbath for things that can be done the day before or the day after, but no desecration exists when such a possibility is not offered. Therefore a midwife can function and should be helped on the Sabbath. Rabbinic teaching differs from the New Testament in that healing in the New Testament is considered to fall under the principle of “danger of life,” a point that later rabbinic teaching did not accept. The rabbis concluded: “Sabbath has been given to you; you have not been given to the Sabbath” (Mekilta to Exod. 31.13; cf. Mark 2.27). Some sectarians thought otherwise; so at Qumran on the Sabbath one was not supposed to help an animal when it was giving birth or involved in an accident.
New Testament discussions about the Sabbath seem therefore to be inner‐Jewish discussions. By the end of the first century CE, the first day of the week was celebrated as the day of the Lord, to which Christian observance of the Sabbath was transferred (see Rev 1.10; also Acts 20.7; 1 Cor. 16.2). Some Christian groups, notably the Seventh‐day Adventists, following biblical legislation exactly, observe the seventh day of the week, the original (and continuing) Jewish Sabbath.
J. A. Soggin