The institution of the Sabbath as a day of abstention from creative work and of joyous celebration is based on the biblical account of creation. After six days of creation, God rested from his work and blessed the Sabbath day (Gn. 2.1–3). The Bible often mentions that the Sabbath is a special sign between God and Israel to be observed forever (Ex. 31.17). Several biblical references mention the types of labor prohibited on the Sabbath, such as chopping wood, gathering manna, starting a fire, plowing a field, and reaping (Ex. 16.29–30, 34.21, 35.3; Nm. 15.32–36). Servants, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and all work animals were to share in the Sabbath rest (Ex. 20.10, 23.12; Dt. 5.14). The prophets, especially Jeremiah, admonished the people for lax observance of the Sabbath (Jer. 17.19–27). In the Temple, the Sabbath rituals included additional sacrifices and the placing of fresh showbread (Lv. 24.8; Nm. 29.9–10). The challenges to Sabbath observance in the Persian period are highlighted by Nehemiah 9.6–37, 10.31–34, 13.15–22, and some of the Aramaic texts from Elephantine refer to the Sabbath and assume its observance.

Sabbath in the Apocrypha.

A small amount of information about the observance of the Sabbath in the Second Temple period can be gleaned from the Apocrypha. Judith 8.6 indicates that fasting on the Sabbath was not allowed, although some Greco-Roman sources mistakenly thought that the Sabbath was a fast day. The Books of Maccabees testify that originally even defensive war was regarded as forbidden on the Sabbath (1 Mc. 2.32–38; 2 Mc. 6.11; see also Jub. 50.12) until it was decided by the Maccabees to permit it (1 Mc. 2.41). The Second Book of the Maccabees also emphasizes the sanctity of the Sabbath and its observance (2 Mc. 8.25–29; 2 Mc. 15.1–6). Ritual purity was apparently required for the Sabbath (2 Mc. 12.38). Some additional material on Sabbath observance in this period is available in Philo (Marcus, pp. 81–83) and Josephus. All this material indicates that the Sabbath was taken very seriously in Second Temple times and that while all groups saw the prohibitions of labor as central to their observance, there was considerable disagreement on the exact nature of the forbidden labors.

Sectarian Sabbath Legislation.

Due to the cryptic and generalized nature of the biblical description of the observance of the Sabbath, later interpreters were inspired to elaborate on the laws pertaining to this day, especially regarding the specific types of labor forbidden. Laws of the Dead Sea sect were derived from their own sectarian-inspired biblical exegesis as opposed to the Pharisaic “traditions of the fathers” or oral law, which the rabbis claimed as the basis of their halakhah. Therefore, while often based on the same biblical texts that the rabbis used, sectarian law often resulted in different rulings. The Damascus Document (CD iii.12–16) states that God fulfilled his eternal covenant with Israel by revealing to those who had held fast to the commandments the secrets (nistarot) in which all Israel had erred. Included in these secrets are “his holy Sabbaths.” It should be noted at the outset that the Essenes, identified by most scholars with the Qumran sect, are said by Josephus to have been extremely strict in their Sabbath observance (The Jewish War 2.147).

The Damascus Document includes a number of previously existing legal treatises known as serakhim. Among these was the sectarian Sabbath code (CD x.14–xi.18, with parallels in 4Q266, 267, 270, and 271), which was redacted into the legal section of this text. The sectarian code had much in common with rabbinic legal rulings, but often it tended to be stricter. Both prohibited talking about business, walking in fields to discuss what might be done after the Sabbath, allowing non-Jews to do work prohibited to Jews on behalf of Jews, and preparing on the Sabbath for the following weekdays. Both systems required that Sabbath observance begin somewhat earlier than sunset on Friday afternoon, and it is possible that the Qumran sect was stricter than the later rabbis. Walking beyond the Sabbath limit was prohibited, based on Exodus 16.29. The limit was fixed by the rabbis as 2,000 cubits while the sectarians limited it to 1,000 allowing one to walk 2,000 cubits beyond the settled area only if pasturing an animal. The sect did not allow the breaking of an airtight seal on a jar, or any preparation of food, even the peeling of vegetables that were to be eaten raw on the same day, but the rabbis only prohibited actual cooking.

If an animal fell into a pit on the Sabbath, both the sectarians and the rabbis agreed that the animal could not be rescued until after the Sabbath. Later Talmudic sages allowed the feeding of the animal to keep it alive and the throwing in of pillows into the pit to allow the animal to climb out by itself. Jesus is pictured in Matthew 12.11 and Luke 14.5 as saying that the animal may be lifted out of the pit.

If a human fell into a pit or reservoir, both the sectarians and the Pharisees agreed that he may be rescued, but the Damascus Document (CD xi.16–17) prohibits the use of a ladder, rope, or other instrument that would constitute a violation of the Sabbath. This interpretation is confirmed by Serekh Damascus (4Q265 6.6–8).

The Damascus Document also prohibits the wearing of perfume bottles around the neck, spending the Sabbath among gentiles, carrying children, lending anything to a neighbor, disputing about money, eating or drinking outside the camp, drawing water, drawing water into a vessel while on a journey, wearing dirty garments on the Sabbath, entering a partnership, pasturing animals more than 2,000 cubits distant from the city, handling rocks or earth, encouraging Jewish servants to perform even permitted work on the Sabbath, helping animals in labor, violating the Sabbath for the sake of wealth or profit, offering sacrifices except for the burnt offering of the Sabbath, and carrying infants or any object from the private into the public domain, and vice versa.

It is debatable whether the sect may have had legal fictions, such as the construction of an ῾eruv, the rabbinic enclosure surrounding a public domain to permit carrying within it. However, there is no evidence of the use of any such device in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

While the Sabbath law of the Dead Sea sect reveals a picture of the prohibitions practiced on that day, the positive aspects of its celebration are not outlined. The Damascus Document (CD xii.3–6) specifies punishment for a person who violates the Sabbath as being deprived of his position in the congregation for seven years. However, Jubilees demands the death penalty for this offense (Jub. 2.17–32; 50.6–13).

Fragmentary Sabbath codes that are partially parallel to those of the Damascus Document are preserved in Serekh Damascus (4Q265) fragments 6 and 7.1–5 and in Halakhah (4Q251) fragments 1 and 2.3–7). Had these codes been preserved in their entirety, we would no doubt have a fuller picture of Sabbath law in the Qumran community and of the literary history of the Sabbath laws as they were redacted in the various documents. For example, a fragmentary passage in the Damascus Document (4Q267 5.iii.2–5) refers to public reading of the Torah. Halakhah (4Q251 1 and 5) refers to reading a book on the Sabbath. This may indicate that the Torah was read on the Sabbath. The Temple Scrolla (11QTa xiii.17–xiv.02) mentions the Sabbath offering, which is to be given in addition to the daily sacrifice. While texts from the Bar Kokhba caves testify to the observance of the Sabbath, they provide no specific information on Sabbath laws or modes of celebration.

Concept of the Sabbath in Jubilees.

Jubilees (chap. 2) portrays a sense of how a group closely related but not identical to the Qumran sect viewed the Sabbath and its place in the religious system of Judaism. The Sabbath is first established with the angels and subsequently with Israel, of God's covenant with his chosen people, to be celebrated with festive eating and drinking. According to Jubilees, there were twenty-two generations from Adam through Jacob, and twenty-two kinds of work performed by God until the Sabbath day. Therefore, only with Jacob—that is, the people of Israel–could the Sabbath now be observed. The text emphasizes that this special privilege was extended to Israel alone. On the other hand, whoever profanes the Sabbath is liable to the death penalty. Observance of the Sabbath brings blessedness and holiness like that of the angels.

Sabbath Law in Jubilees.

Closely related to the legal system of the Dead Sea sect was that of the circles that produced Jubilees, copies of which were part of the Qumran library. In general terms, the Sabbath law of Jubilees was even stricter than that of the Qumran sectarian documents. Jubilees permits the bringing of the daily sacrifices in the Temple as well as the ῾olah (“burnt offering”) for the Sabbath, but the Damascus Document apparently requires that all sacrifices be suspended except for the ῾olah of the Sabbath (CD xi.17–18). In the sectarian case, the issue was entirely theoretical since the sect had removed itself from the Temple and its cult, believing the Temple to be impure and run contrary to sectarian principles.

Jubilees mandated the death penalty for nonobservance of the Sabbath (2.17–32; 50.6–13). The prohibition on cohabitation (50.8) reveals a somewhat ascetic approach to marriage, which was not accepted by the Mishnah. Other prohibitions include setting out on a journey to buy or sell; drawing water; carrying something out of the house or tent or between houses; preparing food to eat or drink rather than preparing it the day before; tilling the soil; lighting a fire; riding an animal; traveling by ship; striking a beast; slaughtering an animal or bird; catching an animal, bird, or fish; making war; and fasting.


The Dead Sea Scrolls feature special hymns, the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, which, it seems, were to be recited on the Sabbath. Physical evidence of the manuscripts reveals that only thirteen, or about one-quarter of the possible Sabbaths, are assigned distinct compositions. It is possible that the thirteen songs were repeated quarterly or that the cycle extended only through the first quarter of the year (Newsom, 1985, p. 5). The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice is preserved in nine manuscripts at Qumran and one at Masada.

This text, also called the Angelic Liturgy (4QSerekh Shirot ῾Olat ha-Shabbat), is a series of poems exhorting the angels to praise God. Each hymn opens with a formula and then continues with the angelic praise of God in the heavenly Temple. Based on the visions of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, the compositions describe angelic priests and princes, the heavenly Temple, and the chariot-throne of God, thus closely paralleling the Merkavah texts of later Heikhalot literature. The visions of the heavenly Temple reflect the earthly one, and the service below is patterned on the ideal service performed in the Temple above.

The Sabbath was considered a particularly propitious time for reciting the praise of God because humans rest in imitation of God's cessation of creation (Gn. 2.1–3; Ex. 20.8–11). The hymns would have been recited at the time of the Sabbath offering (῾olah) and were intended to allow the worshiper to envision himself as being present in the heavenly sanctuary among the angels. These compositions have affinities to the rabbinic Qedushah recited on the Sabbath, which is also a description of the praise of God conducted by the angels and mimicked on earth.

New Testament.

Both the Gospel of Luke (4.16) and the Gospel of Mark state that Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. The early Christians also observed the Sabbath (cf. Mt. 24.20). Yet in the Gospel narratives, Jesus is portrayed as rejecting specific aspects of Pharisaic-rabbinic law.

In the description of miracles, such as the healing of Peter's mother-in-law (Mk. 1.29–31) or the casting out of demons, Jesus overrides the Pharisaic-rabbinic law against healing on the Sabbath unless it be a life-threatening illness. Jesus taught that not only rescuing a person in danger was permitted on the Sabbath, but also simply feeding the hungry justified its violation (Mt. 12.1–8; cf. Mk. 2.23–28). The law of the Qumran sectarians, in these matters, was known to have been even stricter than that of the Pharisees, so that Jesus occupied the most lenient position, with the Pharisees in the middle and the Qumran sectarians and other such groups being the most extreme.

Matthew 12.11 and Luke 14.5 state that early Christian tradition considered it acceptable to draw animals directly out of a pit on the Sabbath. Again, this is the most lenient position, with the Pharisaic-rabbinic tradition permitting helping the animal to leave the pit indirectly and the sectarians forbidding all help for the endangered animal.

Rabbinic Judaism.

In the tannaitic sources the main issue discussed regarding Sabbath law is the conditions under which one who accidentally violated the Sabbath must bring a sacrifice of expiation. According to the Mishnah (tractate Shabbat), the labors that were prohibited on the Sabbath day are for the most part those which were performed in the building of the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary used by the Israelites during their period of wandering in the desert. These creative labors include construction, sewing, weaving, tanning leather, painting or dyeing, reaping, threshing, grinding grain, and kneading dough. Despite the fact that these prohibitions are derived in a very different manner from the biblical exegesis of the Dead Sea texts, the list of prohibitions that emerges from these sources is remarkably similar to that of the Damascus Document, although the latter is in some cases stricter and follows the biblical sources more closely in formulation.

Rabbinic sources also mention the positive and joyous aspects of Sabbath observance. A festive meal, special prayers, the reading of the Torah, and the pursuit of spiritual goals all add to the rejoicing on the Sabbath that the rabbis intended to emphasize even while observing its restrictions. Such concepts are absent from our Qumran texts although, judging from the biblical background and the discussion in Jubilees, they must have been part of the thinking of the Qumran sectarians as well.


  • Baumgarten, Joseph M. “The Counting of the Sabbath in Ancient Sources.” Vetus Testamentum 16 (1966), 277–286.
  • Ginzberg, Louis. An Unknown Jewish Sect. New York, 1976. See pages 61–71 and 107–115.
  • Marcus, Ralph. Law in the Apocrypha. Columbia University Oriental Studies, 26. New York, 1966. See pages 75–83.
  • Newsom, Carol. Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice: A Critical Edition. Harvard Semitic Studies, 27. Atlanta, 1985. See pages 5–21.
  • Schiffman, Lawrence H. The Halakhah at Qumran. Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity, 16. Leiden, 1975. See pages 77–133.

Lawrence H. Schiffman