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Orgins of shabbat (1)

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05 Scientific knowledge and scholarly lore

02 Religious and ideological symbols and iconographic motifs

05 Scientific knowledge and scholarly lore

Neo-Assyrian Empire
Old Testament

Mesopotamians used the word šapattu, which is related to the modern words ‘shabbat’ and ‘sabbatical’, but they applied it only to the lunar month, to mean the fifteenth day of the month when the moon was full, ‘the day of peace of heart’. This was the moon’s least dangerous phase between rising up from the Underworld, which was inhabited by potentially vindictive ghosts, and descending back into it. Such regular contact with the spirit world brought a periodic need for appeasement; only on the fifteenth could one relax. These beliefs affected the days on which business could be carried out, as we know both from hemerologies (manuals which set out which days were auspicious for particular activities) and from the marked absence of cuneiform business records on certain dates. In biblical Hebrew the phrase ‘new moon or shabbat’ seems to imply that the shabbat could refer to a phase of the moon, and Amos 8:5 implies that business was not carried out on those shabbat days because the moon was full. However, a different use of the word is found in the fourth Commandment given in Exodus 20:8-9, which is derived from the Creation according to Genesis 2:2-3, where it meant one day of rest after six days of labour:

“Remember the shabbat day and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a shabbat for Yahweh your God. You shall do no work that day.”

The chapter in Leviticus which defines the jubilee year gives a third definition to the shabbat as the seventh year in which the fields will lie fallow.

“For six years you shall sow your field, for six years you shall prune your vine and gather its produce. But in the seventh year the land is to have its rest, a shabbat for Yahweh. You must not sow your field or prune your vine.” (Leviticus 25:3-4)

Essentially, therefore, the biblical word applied to a period of rest, and was flexible both in duration and in frequency; nowadays the shabbat means one day of the week, but ‘sabbatical’ has a less regular timing and duration, and it has lost its association with the phases of the moon.

Sources (list of abbreviations) (source links will open in a new browser window)
Amos 8:5
Exodus 20:8-9
Genesis 2:2-3
Leviticus 25:3-4


Dalley 1998, 71Dalley, Stephanie. “The Influence of Mesopotamia upon Israel and the Bible.” In: S. Dalley (ed.). The Legacy of Mesopotamia. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1998, 57-83.

Stephanie Dalley

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