Rest: The history of Shabbat

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

In the biblical traditions of the people Israel, there seem to be two strands of thought regarding shabbat—rest from work—in the sense not only of the seventh, day, but also of social repose and renewal in the seventh month and the seventh year. One of these strands sees shabbat as a reflection and expression of cosmic rhythms of time embedded in creation. The other sees shabbat as an affirmation of human freedom, justice, and equality. The biblical tradition regards these strands not as contradictory but as intertwined; indeed, the second is probably a midrash on the first, which arose in a period of Israelite history when social conflict between the rich and poor was intense and the desire to see shabbat as an affirmation of social justice was strong.

The first strand, that of cosmos and creation, dominates the books of Genesis and Exodus. Perhaps its focus on birth, creation, and nourishing emerges from the birth experience of the Jewish people. The second is more characteristic of the books of., Deuteronomy and the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Second Isaiah, which are probably connected with a period of internal social conflict; and the two are most effectively intertwined and come closest to fusion in Leviticus 25, which is possibly from the same period of social upheaval.

The cosmic strand begins with the biblical scory of the creation. God ceases, pauses, or rests (shavat) on the seventh day from the work of creating, blesses the seventh day, and calls it holy (Gen. 2:1-4). This "calling" speaks to the depths of reality, but not yet to human ears. Even the explicit tales of contacts and covenants between God and the world—through Adam and Eve, Noah, the generation of Babel, Abraham and Sarah—do not describe any explicit communication of the holiness of shabbat. Not until the generation of the Exodus do human beings learn that shabbat is necessary. Perhaps this silence should be heard as evidence that early biblical Israel had no knowledge of observance of shabbat as a day of rest or of any focus on it among the surrounding peoples, or for that matter in its own earliest history.

The first communication of shabbat to human beings is placed by the Torah in the midst of one of the tales of the rebellious generation in the wilderness (Ex. 16). God sent manna to feed the Israelites. On the sixth day, twice as much manna as usual appeared, and unlike the manna that the Israelites had earlier tried to hoard overnight, this twofold portion did not rot on the seventh day. Even so, some Israelites went out on the seventh day to look for more manna—but none had fallen. Not until then did Moses explain these unusual happenings as the consequence of God's giving the people a shabbat. "Let no one leave his place on the seventh day," says Moses; so the people learned to "rest," or "pause," or "remain inactive" (Ex. 16:29-30). The shabbat portrayed here follows directly from God's creation of reality—from, one might say, the nourishing breast of reality, which feeds and pauses, gives and withholds. Only afterward is this reality put in explicit words of command.

It is only after the direct experience of the shabbat reality that the people learn of shabbat as a central and crucial element in their lives, as one of the ten formal proclamations that come from God at Sinai. Of the ten commandments, the shabbat is the longest and most detailed. "Remember" the day of shabbat, says the version preserved in Exodus 20. It proclaims six days of work and prescribes rest on the seventh day for adults, children, slaves, cattle, and strangers "within your gates"—all this because God had rested after working to create the world.

Thus Exodus sees the seventh-day shabbat as a cosmic event, .placed by God within the rhythms of the universe, allowed to emerge from within those rhythms themselves in order to impinge upon the human consciousness, and then to be carried our as a symbol and an enactment of that cosmic and creative rhythm.

The cosmic strand of shabbat connects it closely with the sanctuary that represents a microcosm, a miniature version of the universe in which God dwells. When Moses ascends Mount Sinai he hears from God a detailed description of how to build a portable shrine, a mishkan (bearer of the Presence) that the people are to carry through the wilderness. This description is completed with a repetition of the command to keep shabbat on pain of death (Ex. 31:12-17). For shabbat is to be for the Israelites a symbol of their covenant with God—the God who made heaven and earth in six days, and then on the seventh day "shavat va-yinafash," "paused and caught a breath," or "rested to become spiritually refreshed." The text itself seems to be strongly suggesting that just as God made shabbat after constructing the world—and perhaps could complete and fully hallow the building only by an act of "not building"—so the people Israel, constructing the micro-world of the mishkan, must hallow the process of building by pausing for shabbat.

In transmitting to the people the command to build the mishkan, Moses begins with an admonition to observe the shabbat and adds a specific prohibition respecting work: "You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the day of shabbat" (Ex. 35:2-3). This prohibition becomes the basis for a description in Numbers 15:32-36 of how the shabbat is enforced. During the wilderness trek, the passage reports, the Israelites discovered someone gathering firewood on shabbat. He was brought for judgment before Moses, Aaron, and the community as a whole. God ordered Moses to put him to death by stoning; and it was done. (Note that this punishment for gathering firewood required an expansion of the command not to kindle a fire.)

Although the cosmic vision of shabbat dominates the Book of Exodus, there is also a hint there of shabbat as an act of social justice, liberation, and equality. For Exodus 23:12 commands rest from work on every seventh day "so that your ox and your ass may rest and that your bondman and the stranger may catch their breath." This command is closely connected with the command to make every seventh year a year of shemittah, when the land shall be free of cultivation and the poor shall have free access to its freely growing produce (Ex. 23:10). And perhaps a penumbral power of shabbat appears in the requirement that those who have had to sell themselves into indentured servitude must be freed in the seventh year of their service (Ex. 21:2).

The cosmic connection between shabbat and the sanctuary is repeated in Leviticus 19:30 and 26:2: "You shall keep my sabbaths [shabbatot] and venerate my sanctuary: I [am] YHWH your God." It is also Leviticus that connects the concept of shabbat with the longer rhythms of natural time. It is here that the seventh month and the seventh year, as well as the seventh day, are made shabbat. The first, tenth, fifteenth, and twenty-second days of the seventh month (corresponding to the festivals we now know as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Azeret) are each to be observed as shabbaton, and of these Yom Kippur is described even more intensely as "shabbat shabbaton" (Lev. 23:23, 32, 39).

As for the seventh year, Leviticus 25 caps this expanding spiral of rhythmic time by providing that in every seventh year the land itself shall observe a shabbat. It shall have a shemittah (rest, release, or liberation) so as to be free of cultivation or organized harvesting. And in the fiftieth or jubilee year, after a shabbat of sabbatical years, or in other words after seven sabbatical years, the land is to rest yet again and each piece of it is to be returned to its original owner. For "the land is Mine," says God (Lev. 25:23).

These Levitical provisions reinforce the sense that shabbat is embedded by the creator in the cosmic rhythms of time and must be honored by the people in order to recognize and keep the covenant with the creator. For just as the earth in its daily rotation around the sun marks shabbat at the seventh turning, so the moon marks shabbat in its seventh renewing, and the earth again in its seventh annual revolution around the sun.

Two provisions of Leviticus 25 weave into this cosmic rhythm of shabbat the liberating and justice-making aspect of shabbat. One of these is the provision for restoration of equality in landholding, to be accomplished every fifty years by restoring to those who have become poor their family's equal share in the land—and conversely, by withdrawing from those who have become wealthy the surplus land that was not originally in their family's possession. The other is the provision for the freeing of all slaves in the Jubilee year. ~

The liberating aspect of shabbat becomes its central element in the Deuteronomic version of the Sinaitic decalogue, which grounds shabbat not in the creation but in the liberation from slavery in Egypt and gives as its rationale the release of slaves as well as masters from their work (Deut. 5:12-15). Perhaps it is no accident that the Deuteronomic version begins not with a command to "remember" shabbat but with the more activist and prophetic injunction to "observe" it. Deuteronomy also strengthens this political-historical aspect of shabbat by providing that in the seventh year, the year of freeing the land from cultivation, all debts shall be annulled (Deut. 15:1). Thus those whom improvidence, bad luck. laziness, or generosity has reduced to borrowing from their neighbors are restored to their equal station. And Deuteronomy strengthens the provision for the seventh-year release of individual servants by providing that their liberation shall include severance pay in the form of grain, oil, and animals of the flock (Deut. 15:13-14).

In the crisis that befalls the people of Israel beginning just before the destruction of the First Temple and extending through the Babylonian Exile and the Return, this sense of shabbat as redemptive social force is powerfully expressed by Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Second Isaiah, and Nehemiah.

Jeremiah calls for merchants to pause from their carrying of commercial burdens through the gates of Jerusalem —and promises that if they do, the Davidic kings will be carried freely, in triumph, through those same gates (Jer. 17:21—25): if the people can free themselves from the burden of the burden carriers, they will be freed from the burden of the fear of foreign domination. As a consequence of their creating shabbat on the seventh day, a greater shabbat will be created for them.

Conversely, Jeremiah invokes the jubilee tradition of the dror, or liberation, of all slaves—and calls for it to be done. When the masters first agree and then revoke their dror, Jeremiah proclaims a dror to war and famine (Jer. 34:13-22). As II Chronicles 36:21 reports, Jeremiah's prophecy was fulfilled: for the times the people did not let the land keep shabbat, "the land paid back its shabbat; as long as it lay desolate it kept shabbat, till seventy years were completed."

Ezekiel connects desecration of shabbat with child sacrifice, bribery that resulted in the death of the innocent, the taking of interest, the oppression of the poor (Ezek. 20:12-24; 22; 23; 28)—or possibly sees each of these betrayals as an aspect of the desecration of shabbat. In either case, these betrayals, and especially the betrayal of shabbat, brought on the Exile. And for Ezekiel, a most powerful image of redemption is that a renewed priesthood will hallow shabbat in a new way by bringing for it a new sacrifice that vividly symbolizes the rhythm of workdays and rest: six lambs and a ram.

For Second Isaiah, making shabbat a delight is intimately intertwined with feeding the poor and freeing the prisoner (Isa. 58). How is shabbat ro be made delightful? By halting the pursuit of normal business so as to honor precisely the God who loves the poor. This passage, later assigned by the rabbis to be read on Yom Kippur—itself the shabbat shabbaton—may originally have been spoken by Second Isaiah on a Yom Kippur ("What is the fast I demand from you?" (Isa. 58:5). Since each jubilee was rto begin on Yom Kippur, it may even have been a call to make this shabbat shabbdton into a still greater and more delightful shabbat by enacting the jubilee. Indeed, elsewhere Isaiah specifically calls for "the year of the Lord's favor" (Isa. 61:2)—a year when the oppressed shall hear good tidings and the captives shall be freed, probably a jubilee.

Nehemiah recites as a moment of spiritual triumph and devotion his decision to stop the rich and powerful merchants of Jerusalem from bringing grain, wine, grapes, figs, and fish into the city to sell on the day of shabbat (Neh. 13:15-22). He warns them that precisely such a commercial desecration has been the cause of the Exile.

Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and the prophets felt no contradiction between this theme of liberation and justice and the theme of cosmos and creation. Cosmic creation and social re-creation were seen as analogous, even in a sense isomorphic. Rest, or shabbat, was seen as the action (or inaction) that expressed both. And shabbat was closely related to the concepts of shemittah and dror, release and liberation.

What are we moderns to make of so tight a connection between the cosmic-natural and the historical-political, two areas of life we usually hold separate? What moderns call social justice is, in this biblical outlook, treated as one form of rest—as social repose or social renewal. Institutional structures of domination and control are themselves seen as a kind of work, not only because of the economic work they do, but also because of the "work" they are—simply by existing, simply by dominating and controlling. The structures themselves, not only the economic work they do, must be periodically dissolved for Shabbat. The social-political and the cosmic fuse.

To rest means to return to a state of nature, which is seen as loving, not "red in tooth and claw." For nature is where the earth grows peacefully as it wishes, without economic coercion, and the human community grows peacefully in natural clans and families, without institutional coercion. In this state of repose, the land and the community are directly in touch with each other: the land freely feeds the people without intervention by owners, masters, employers, or creditors, and the people freely "feed" the land without sowers, dressers, cultivators, or harvesters.

This is shabbat. It re-creates the shabbat of the beginning, the shabbat that seals the creation, because at that shabbat all was free, loving, and in the state of plenitude, sharing, and repose. For human beings and the earth to act in this way is most fully to honor and imitate the creator. And indeed for the creator to act again in this way—as in the liberation from Egypt and from every slavery—is most fully to repeat the act of creation.

Shabbat emerges from its cosmic place to dwell among the people Israel as the first step in the redemption of the human race from the curse of endless toil that ends the delight of Eden: "In the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread," says God to Adam; between Adam and adamah (lit., ground), between human and humus, "all the days of your life" there shall be agony and conflict (Gen. 3:17-19). But in the moment of liberation from slavery there rises up from its hidden cosmic place one day that will not be toil and agony: one day of rest, of Eden. To begin with, only one day—and only for one people. But it is because shabbat echoes the fullness of Eden that it also beckons us toward the messianic days when all days will be fully shabbat for all peoples.

From this perspective it is no accident that just as in Eden the war between humans and the earth is precipitated by an act of eating, so in the wilderness the advent of shabbat comes with an act of eating. For eating— in strife or in peace—is the crucial nexus between humans and the earth.

In the next great crisis of the people Israel, in the period of cultural and military conquest by Hellenism and dispersal from the land of Israel across the whole Mediterranean and Near East, there occurred another redefinition of shabbat. The agrarian shabbat of the shemittah and jubilee years was diminished in force; the seventh-day shabbat was made more "portable"—less rooted in the land—and the prohibitions of work made detailed and urban.

By the time of the codification ot me Mishnah, around 200 C.E., abstentions from work and the definition of rest had been greatly broadened. The Mishnah's discussions of the boundaries of permissible work suggest some interesting underlying ideas. For one thing, the Mishnah tractate Shabbat opens with a seemingly odd discussion—and then assertion—that an act that would be work if one person did it, and therefore prohibited on shabbat, is not work if it is begun by one person and completed by another.

The underlying thought may be that work is the full accomplishment of a willed act by a single willing soul. Perhaps an act that is only initiated or only concluded by a single person is what today would be called play, and this is permissible on shabbat. One might even detect in this seemingly dry halakhic discussion—especially because it begins the whole examination of shabbat—a hint that, in the beginning, God's making of the world in the first six days was a fully accomplished act—a piece of work—that could not be continued on shabbat.

For six chapters, the Mishnah examines and in a workmanlike way settles such issues as whether cloth may be dyed before shabbat if the colors will continue setting into the shabbat, and how the oil may be placed in the shabbat lamp. Only after this examination is under way does the Mishnah turn in the seventh chapter to take up certain broader questions of general principle—as if the Mishnah itself were moving from work to shabbat. Among these principles is the enunciation of the labors that are forbidden on shabbat, cast in a near-poetic or liturgical form in that the Mishnah says not a prosaic "thirty-nine" but:

Main labors: forty minus one.
Sowing, plowing, reaping, binding;
Threshing, winnowing, combing, grinding;
Here they are— Main labors: forty minus one.

The Talmud, redacted by about 500 C.E. from sayings heard and learned over the previous centuries, acknowledges that these "forty minus one" main labors are known from the Torah (BT Shab. 49b). But the Talmud is at first not certain why this is. Do the thirty-nine labors correspond to thirty-nine mentions of the word labor in the Torah? The Talmud concludes that they actually correspond to the forms of labor necessary to build the travelimng shrine or mishkan. in the wilderness. Presumably, the rabbis make this theological leap because the broad commands for resting on shabbat come from God to Moses and from Moses to the people in the context of the command to build the mishkan (Ex. 35). For in building the mishkan, says the Talmud, "they sowed; hence you must not sow; they reaped, hence you must not reap; they lifted up the boards from the ground to the cart, hence you must not carry in from a public to a private domain."

Although many additional forms of prohibited work are deduced from these "forty minus one" basic forms, in principle from at latest the time of Talmud on, the rest undertaken by the Jewish people on shabbat consists of abstinence from the work that built the shrine of God's presence on earth. God rested from making the macrocosmos, hence the people rest from making the microcosm (the mishkan); they rested from making the microcosm, hence we rest from remaking the cosmos. Even the holiest act of work—indeed, especially the holiest act—is fulfilled only by stopping, by recognizing and celebrating its completeness.

The "forty minus one" main forms of work, and their directly deducible lesser forms that the Talmud concludes are prohibited by the Torah itself, are extended by the rabbis' own prohibition of still other activities. These rabbinic prohibitions are called shevut (rest, from the same root as shabbat) and include such acts as blowing the shofar or throwing an object from one private domain to another. The rabbis enjoin the people to avoid situations that would make Shabbat violations more likely –- handling tools, for example – out of fear that if the tools are close to hand, someone may forget it is Shabbat and use them.
Besides elucidating special forms of rest, we must note, the rabbis also give shabbat a special air of celebration by prescribing special meals, the lighting of candles and the drinking of wine at the beginning and end of the day, the wearing of festive clothes, walking slowly rather than hurrying. Among all Jewish communities, it was understood that the whole community was responsible for ensuring that all families had the food, wine, shelter, and companionship to celebrate shabbat with joy rather than pain. Through this practice, shabbat became a time to affirm and act out—for only a moment, and therefore imperfectly—the social equality of all Jews.

This direct experience of shabbat as a moment of utter release from the burdens of work, commerce, and poverty, and into the realm of song, joy, sharing, prayer, and Torah study—this direct experience lay beneath the rabbis' comments that Shabbat was a foretaste of the messianic age, and that if all Israel kept shabbat properly just one time (or, said some, twice in a row—possibly to prove it was no accident), the messianic age would begin. The connection between shabbat and the days of the Messiah—days that would be "yom shekulo shabbat," fully shabbat—is an index to the seriousness with which Jewish tradition has taken shabbat as a theological category. Shabbat, and only shabbat, connected the three supernal moments of history: the creation of the world, the revelation of the Torah at Sinai, and the messianic redemption. The entrance of shabbat into human experience, which is the first step in curing the post-Edenic wound of painful toil and enmity between human beings and the earth, will be fulfilled when the world can fully celebrate shabbat.

At the same time that the rabbis were expanding and encoding the practice of the shabbat of the seventh day, they were restricting the practice of shemittah and dror in the seventh and fiftieth years. As they lost control over the economy of the land of Israel to the growing power of Hellenists and Romans—and then as the Jewish population was scattered across the world—it became less and less tenable to celebrate or enforce the year-long "rest" of the economy. Debts were no longer annulled, the practice of fallowing the land was not carried into the Diaspora, and the jubilee was explained away as inoperative when the Jewish people was even partly in exile. So while the seventh-day repose was developed in ways that made it much more portable, the other shabbat rhythms mostly lapsed.

We have sketched three moments of crisis in Jewish history in which there appeared a change in the formulation of shabbat: the moment in which the people was first formed in its own self-understanding, when shabbat was seen as a cosmic reality embedded in the rhythms of the created world, to be reenacted by human beings; the crisis of internal social conflict, the Babylonian threat, and the Exile, when shabbat was turned into an instrument of social justice and liberation; and the crisis of Hellenism, before and after the destruction of the Second Temple, when the rabbis encoded the repose of the day and gave it a much stronger messianic significance. We now seem to be in another such crisis moment, living as we do in a time of, struggle to reformulate Judaism in the wake of the disintegration of the rabbinic version of it under the pressure of modernity.

In these circumstances, such postmodern thinkers as Erich Fromm and Abraham Joshua Heschel have again reformulated shabbat. In an era of technological triumph, writing in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust and the first use of nuclear weapons, they see shabbat as an affirmation of values beyond technology. Says Fromm, "Work is any interference by man, be it constructive or destructive, with the physical world. "Rest" is a state of peace between man and nature. "2 Fromm interprets in this light the seemingly obsessive prohibitions of Jewish tradition upon accomplishing on shabbat even the lightest, least effortful changes of the ownership or place of objects in the world. So shabbat becomes for him an actual (though brief) transformation of the human path into a real experience of messianic harmony and peace. For Heschel, shabbat is an affirmation that holiness is borne more by the flow and rhythm of time than by objects in space, and he too sees shabbat as a challenge to a "technical civilization" obsessed with the conquest of space and the improvement of objects:

"To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature—is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man's progress than the Sabbath?"3

It is notable that both Fromm and Heschel suggest that the practice of shabbat, in some form, may be of profound importance to the whole human race—and not to the Jewish people alone—in redeeming the world from the threat of untrammeled technology.

The current crisis of modernity and technology may be profoundly connected with another crisis, the remaking of relationships between women and men. And the connection may extend into the world of shabbat. It is becoming clear that the traditional forms of practice of shabbat, as well as its theology, face new questions in the wake of the advent of full participation by women in all aspects of Jewish life. The traditional practice of shabbat neither required nor encouraged women who were doing the work of nurturing a family and raising children to rest from that work. Rather, traditional Judaism saw precisely such nurturance and communion as rest rather than work—and while shabbat freed men to do this resting, it did not free women from the worklike aspects of it.

In a world where men were assigned to acting and women to nurturing, once action became unbridled technology the involvement of women in public life may have been in part an attempt to redress the balance in a new way by bringing nurturance out of the ghetto of the family into rhe public-sphere. Under the new conditions of new forms of relationship between women and men, the full celebration of shabbat may require that, on that day, there be an even fuller sharing of nurturance and community, an even more conscious shattering of separate roles of women and men, than on the six workdays. And this new understanding of shabbat may also have theological implications. For if shabbat entered the conscious practice of the people Israel as a first step in reversing the post-Edenic curse upon Adam that he must toil in the sweat of his brow to wrest bread from the hostile earth, then it may also become a first step in reversing the post-Edenic curse upon Eve: that she must be ruled over by her husband and must suffer child-rearing as painful labor.

From these complementary postmodern perspectives, there might emerge a reexamination not only of the shabbat of the seventh day, but of the shabbat of the seventh year and fiftieth year. For the human race as a whole, can "the land" be seen as "the earth"? What would be the implications of pausing every seventh year from technological research and development, to reevaluate its meaning and direction? What would it mean to proclaim a shabbat upon the development of new weapons?

The advent of such questions within the Jewish community may signal another moment in the reformulation of shabbat. If the Deuteronomic period saw the theme of social justice and liberation as an unfolding of the cosmic theme of shabbat, we may see ourselves as taking the process of unfolding another spiral turn: for we are moving from concerns over human justice and liberation toward reaffirming the creation and pausing from production in order to preserve the creation itself (and with it, human freedom and justice).

At the end of an epoch in which the human race has gained enormous knowledge and great mastery, shabbat remains the emblem and practice of mystery. If we do not know what to do next, instead of trying to conquer our ignorance we may more fruitfully—and truthfully—celebrate shabbat as our way of acknowledging that we do not know: that there is in the world not merely ignorance, but mystery.


1. It should be noted that Jeremiah's criticism was probably directed at commercial transactions on shabbat, not at riding a horse or donkey on shabbat, since in II Kings 4:23 we have evidence that in Elisha's day some two hundred and fifty years before, it was normal to ride a donkey on shabbat in order to visit a "man of God," or a seer.

2. Erich Fromm, You Shall Be as Gods, 154 (italics in original). See also Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language, 241 ff.

3. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (1962), 28.


Abraham Joshua Hescchel, I'he Sabbath (1962).

Arthur Waskow, Godwrestiing (1978), 110-27.

Arthur Waskow, These Holy Sparks (1983), 78-79.


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