What is the Biblical Sjabbat?


Christians can be aware of the importance of Sjabbat in Judaism from the many discussions on it in the gospels. But these are almost always overlooked by them or they consider them being irrelevant. These discussions are assumed as refutations of the Lord Jesus of those. Seldom have they realized why those discussions play such a great part in them. Is there a reason for it in the Bible?

Sjabbat is the mandatory feast- and commemoration day which God commanded for His people. It finds its origin in God’s completion of His creation works (Gn 2:2; Ex 20:11; Hb 4:4) and the explicit command to keep it (Ex 20:8).

According to God’s command Sjabbat means[1]:
• Completing (Hebrew root: kalah) the weekly activities
• Ending (sjavat) each work order (mela‘kah)
• Blessing (barach) the seventh day of the week
• Dedicating (qadasj) the Sjabbat day to God

God attributes much value on keeping Sjabbat, since it is a vital part of creation. It sustains creation. Without observation of Sjabbat the order of creation would get disturbed. That explains why God demands restoration of Sjabbat keeping when this has been neglected (Lv 26:34).

It thus is logical that Sjabbat was already kept long before it was mentioned in the conditions of the covenant of Moses (Ex 16:23)[2].

Word study
That keeping Sjabbat is actually much more than just resting becomes clear from the fact that in the Bible quite different words are used to express ‘to rest’. Most important are sjamat – letting go (Ex 23:11), noeach – resting (20:11), sjaqat – being quiet (Joz 11:23) and sjakav – retiring (Ex 22:27).

The verbal root sjavat doesn’t mean resting, but ending/stopping. But it is remarkable that the word can also mean holding a feast. So, instead of resting it represents activity. So, Sjabbat most certainly doesn’t represent inactivity. Laziness is being condemned in the Bible (Prov 6:6, 10).

The verbal root sjavat is used just 67* in the Bible, but only 10* the way Sjabbat is used in the books of Moses. Mostly the verb is used in the sense of ending, making to stop, taking away or destroying. This shows that God wanted Sjabbat to have a very particular meaning for His purpose.

Therefore, it is remarkable that the noun Sjabbat occurs 74*. Moses mentions Sjabbat just 10*. In comparison, Sjabbat is most often mentioned in the New Testament (NT)[3] (35*). But is strange that the word Sjabbat in the NT was kept untranslated[4], although it was written in a Greek transcription Sabbata or tin himeran toon Sabbatoon. Another Greek reference to it is himera ti hebdomi – seventh day.

A higher level
The Sjabbat is the only feast which is mentioned in the 10 Words. Despite the great emphasis on Jom Kipoer (Reconciliation Day) and the feasts to commemorate the exodus (Pésach (Passover), Sjawoe‘ot (Easter) and Soekot (feast of the Tabernacles)). Why?

It has to be clear that the 10 Words are concerned with daily religious life. Jom Kipoer and the feasts of the exodus are commemoration feasts which are only held once a year and determine the religious calendar. God has put the six labor days + the Sjabbat on a higher level while the calendar runs its course[5]. So, the 10 words are closer to the reality of daily life, but that gives them also has a much higher degree of responsibility for the believer.

But Sjabbat has other practical meanings as well. It underlines that all earthly activities in each week of the year are marked by the order of God, since keeping the weekly Sjabbat dedicates those activities to God[6]. This is not only so for the current order in creation. For in the Bible, it is repeatedly and expressly stated that God rejects that current order. He shall bring a new order. In two phases. First, in part, that of His Messiah and then, completely, that of Himself. So, Sjabbat also represents a getting a taste for that new order.

Another practical consequence of Sjabbat is that it makes up the week, namely in six days of labor followed by a day dedicated to God. This structure is in line with the order of creation God made. So, it is not just beneficial for the human constitution to end six days of labor with a day without laboring. It is also beneficial for the whole of creation. For the plants, the animals and all other parts of creation[7].

Jom Sjabbaton
Next to Sjabbat also a command is given to keep Jom Sjabbaton. The weekly Sjabbat ends the weekly period of laboring and the Jom Sjabbaton marks (the beginning and sometimes also the ending of) feast or commemoration days[8]. The total of the Biblical Sjabbat’s is the command of keeping the Sjabbatical month (the 7th), the Sjabbatical year and to sum up the years with a jubilation year (7*7 years). Sjabbat represents time dedicated to God.

Christian religion
Christianity claims that the command to keep the Sjabbat was only literally meant for the people of Israel, but also that this command, together with the whole of the Torah of Moses, was no longer relevant. This is the way Christianity wants to radically distinguish itself from Judaism[9].

Spiritually the celebration of the Sunday was seen to be a residue of the day of Sjabbat. That explains why Christianity has made the Sunday the most important day of the week for the service of the community of believers.

Some even rename the Sunday therefore to seventh day. This is remarkable, since Christians should know that the Sunday in the Biblical sense is the first day of the week, because the Lord Jesus was resurrected from death on it (For example: Mt 28:1)[10].

Completing the weekly activities
Six days are given to man to perform useful labor, to (re-)build or to break down and gather income or make investments. These activities are limited and fenced in by God[11]. Man seems to be eager to become preoccupied with itself, and thus quickly forgets God. That explains why He puts a mark on the week. Since, it should all be about Him, because for Him it was all created.

By expressly completing the weekly activities these are not just marked as being temporarily rounded up, but useless if they were not done for Him. Sjabbat is meant to make aware that activities of the week in which He was involved were beautiful. But no one knows what will happen after the Sjabbat. In life unexpected things happen all the time.

The Sjabbat command demands on Friday evening a state of mind of completion of the past week. One needs to forget the weekly activities and not even think about the eventual schedule for the following week.

The believer needs to abandon the activities of the ended week of labor to God, but needs to be sure that this is possible. If something still has to be made right, for example with the neighbor, then Friday afternoon is the moment to make it so (Mt 5:23-24; Rm 12:18; 1 Tim 2:8). In this way one can enter Sjabbat with an undivided heart.

This issue – completing the weekly labor – seems to distinguish the seventh day of Sjabbat from the six days of working (disconnect), but that is only so in a human sense. Creation functions in the same way on the day of Sjabbat as on the six days of labor before it. The fact that God works on Sjabbat[12] shows that keeping Sjabbat is of course also a work, an ‘activity’. But in the Bible works of God are distinguished from secular/profane works.

Ending each work order
There is much emphasis on resting on Sjabbat. People tend to interpret Sjabbat foremost as resting from labors. But what is that ‘labor’ actually in the sense of the Sjabbat command? It is about the type of ‘labor’ or activity that needs to be avoided or is forbidden.

In Biblical sense it’s the Hebrew word mela‘kah that matters. This represents a work order. The Hebrew word stems from the non-existing root mal‘ach, meaning delegate or representation. So, in the most fundamental sense it’s about work that is being done under the direction of someone else and which is being rewarded; working for a wage.

But mela‘kah is not only about work someone does for a boss. It’s also about work which is charged and thus also the accountable person who accepted the charge from someone or the one who placed an order to do something in return for something else.

So, mela‘kah represents the work that typifies the week of six days which is relevant for Sjabbat. Work for a living, to gain income from it. Specifically, that type of work is expressly named to be stopped or ended on Sjabbat. But this also includes other work that satisfies the need for being useful, so also working as voluntary worker or any work from which we have some kind of gain for ourselves, like working in the garden or cleaning-up for personal benefit.

It’s remarkable that the word mal‘ach also means angel. That means that mela‘kah also seems to be involved with the angels and that this is another reason to stop that on Sjabbat. So, believers are commanded by God to have a different attitude towards angels on Sjabbat. For also they have to keep Sjabbat[13].

Lighting a fire/a light
Moses gave the stringent rule for Sjabbat about lighting a fire (Ex 35:3). For example, a light. About this rule some confusion exists. Judaism has resolved this by interpreting this rule literally until today[14].

But the context in which Moses gave this prohibition was on making a fire for the daily life support[15], like for preparing food. In the days of Moses that took a substantial (additional) part of the day doing extensive activities: gathering wood for the fire far off, setting up a campfire and keeping the fire burning (Nm 15:32-36). So, this prohibition has nothing to with making lights in the house of believers, as Exodus 35:3 seems to suggest[16].

Nowadays food can quite easily and quickly be prepared. But it is however necessary to have all what is needed by hand just before Sjabbat (Ex 16:5, 23). So, one should not go and buy food and then also go and bring all what is needed together to prepare food on Sjabbat.

Still, it is encouraged to eat delicious foods on Sjabbat and this has sometimes to be prepared. The stringent prohibition is about how much effort is needed to prepare the food. When this takes a substantial (additional) part of the day of Sjabbat, leaving neither time nor focus on the important elements of Sjabbat, then indeed the prohibition is trespassed. Then the Sjabbat command is clearly being corrupted.

[1] Notice the difference in the way Sunday is been kept in Christian tradition.
[2] God’s covenant confirms also formal matters which long since existed. Covenants don’t institute them. The Bible isn’t covenant centric or in any other way centric other than God-centric.
[3] The New Testament is made up out of 27 writings and still almost half of Biblical reference to Sjabbat occurs in these writings. Most occurrences are in the gospel of Luke.
[4] So, apparently the Bible writers took it for common knowledge that keeping Sjabbat as they knew it from contemporary Judaism was to be continued.
[5] The 10 Words are of ‘higher importance’ then the other covenant conditions. Since they are an aggregation of those. The religious calendar represents the established Kingdom of God on earth, since it requires the collective observance by the people of God. This is however today impossible due to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the dispersion of Israel.
[6] Despite the place where the people of God reside and despite in which state they remain (free or bound).
[7] It is for example evident that in heaven also Sjabbat is kept.
[8] So, the yearly feast days of the Biblical calendar are incorporated in the command of the 10 Words to keep the Sjabbat.
[9] The benefit for Israelite believers of this is that it prevented Christianity becoming ‘mingled’ with Judaism.
[10] Even the Lord Jesus and God, the Father, respected Sjabbat by doing so.
[11] Man and paganism are typified by unquenchable and insatiable ‘desires’, but also in continuously overshooting into immoderateness.
[12] For example by blessing.
[13] At least the angels who have worked during the week. Other angels specifically ‘work’ on Sjabbat. For example, angels involved in the service in the Temple in heaven.
[14] Judaism claims that the commandments and rules of God cannot or do not have to be understood. Spirit-filled believers however do understand these, since that is how God have meant them to be.
[15] Specifically, all additional activities for daily life support needed to be stopped and ended on Sjabbat. This is the core of the prohibition. Nothing else.
[16] Not making light when it gets dark would lead to (very) dangerous situations (falling/stumbling), for which Judaism obviously has long since invented all kinds of solutions.