Learning the Origins of Shabbat

Shabbat is a day of rest, as well as a day of pleasure and delight. Shabbat is a time that is set aside to take notice of the wonders around us.

Biblical Origins

The model of Sabbath rest can be found in Genesis 2:1-3:

"The heaven and earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work which God had been doing, and God ceased [rested] on the seventh day from all the work which God had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased [rested] from all the work of creation which God had done."

Thus, the pattern of work and rest is woven into the very fabric of the universe. Rest means more than physical cessation of work. It implies taking oneself out of the ordinary, out of the routine, out of the every-day. This kind of rest gives us the opportunity to re-create our spirit and restore our soul.

Not only is the Sabbath an integral part of the creation story, it is the only holiday mentioned in the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments appear twice in the Bible, and the Sabbath commandment is formulated somewhat differently in each instance.

From Exodus 20:8-11:

“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of Adonai your God: you shall not do any work -- you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days, Adonai made heaven and earth and sea, all that is in them, and God rested on the seventh day; therefore Adonai has blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it."

From Deuteronomy 5:12-15:

“Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as Adonai your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of Adonai your God: you shall not do any work -- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox of your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and Adonai your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore Adonai your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day”

These two passages point out two different aspects of Shabbat: Exodus tells us to remember the Sabbath, while Deuteronomy stresses the observance of the day. And each passage offers us a different rationale for Shabbat: Exodus reminds us that on Shabbat we rejoice in the creation of the physical universe; Deuteronomy reminds us of our own experience of slavery, and that we must remember our Exodus from Egypt and recognize the freedom we enjoy.


There are few details about specific Shabbat observances in the Torah, other than “do no work” (Exodus 20:10, Exodus 35:2, Deuteronomy 5:14). The only specific prohibitions mentioned are against kindling fire, gathering wood, and plowing.

After the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, the ancient Rabbis had to adapt their customs and teachings to a new reality. Through this process, they laid the foundation of Rabbinic Judaism, which is now the basis for modern Jewish life.

A major area of concern for the Rabbis was creating rules for Shabbat observance. Based on an injunction not to work on Shabbat that appears in the midst of the Torah’s description of how the Israelites were to build the Tabernacle (Exodus 31:13), the Rabbis concluded that the work required to build the Tabernacle should form the basis of the kinds of work prohibited on Shabbat. They identified 39 categories of work, largely concerned with creating, destroying, and harvesting, and based their restrictions on these kinds of labor and other tasks related to them.

The Rabbis also translated the Torah’s commandments to “remember” and “keep” the Sabbath into liturgy, including special blessings and rituals as positive elements of observance.

Both the prohibitions and the liturgy and rituals have evolved over time, adapting to the social structures, customs, and ideologies of different communities. The mystics of the Middle Ages gave us a new image of Shabbat as a bride and queen, to be welcomed with joy and song. Prohibitions have sometimes expanded as technologies have changed, and artists through the ages have continues to add to the liturgy, creating the beautiful observances we can experience today.

Learn more about Shabbat.