🔼The name Sabbath: Summary
- Rest, Cessation
- From the verb שבת (shabat), to cease or to rest.
🔼The name Sabbath in the Bible
Sabbath is the name of the seventh and last day of the week (Exodus 20:8), and is the only day of the week with a Hebrew name (the other days are numbered but not named). In the Greek New Testament, the name Sabbath is spelled σαββατον (sabbaton), occurs 68 times (see full New Testament concordance), and may also refer to a whole week (Matthew 28:1, Luke 18:2).
The Sabbath is a constitutional element of Israel. The instruction to "keep" it is one of the Ten Commandments, and covers about a quarter of the text of the Ten Commandments. It ties into the authority of the Creator, and is the most elaborate command after the First (which identifies the Creator as the only God).
Historically, the purpose of the Sabbath was the same as that of all other rule and regulation, namely to wean mankind off the laws of the jungle (kill or be killed, survival of the fittest, being subjected to the weather, the seasons and other natural forces) and onto a set of laws that identified mankind as wholly separate from the rest of nature (with no killing, ensuring the survival of everybody and an existence above and beyond the tyranny of natural forces).
The brilliance of the Sabbath is in its seven days. All other units of time in the ancient world (day, month, year) derive from the movement of celestial bodies but the week is specifically synthetic. There's nothing in nature that does a week, and forcing a society to heed the week forced it to disregard the natural cycles and instead base all proceedings on an artificial calendar. That makes the week-based calendar as supernatural and thus as liberating as any kind of technology, and is ultimately one of the founding pillars of Information Technology (writing, calculating, administration, planning) that has come to define mankind in its modern form (and see our article on YHWH for reasons why Information Technology matters).
A society can only have a Sabbath if its people's lifestyle allows the planning of activities and the storing of reserves. And this would exclude hunter-gatherers and herd-following nomads. And that means that the command to keep the Sabbath not simply speaks of having a day off, but rather of taking control of one's own life, and the pursuit of an urban and synthetic habitat, and ultimately a mastery of nature.
Moses wrote "Teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom" (Psalm 90:12), which celebrates the importance of a calendar that's disconnected from celestial cycles. Humans are the only creatures on earth that have a calendar like that, and man is the only animal that lives in a world that functions regardless of whether it's summer or winter, day or night, rain or shine, high tide or low. Archeologists often wonder why the great civilizations of the past built all their important temples and monuments and then abandoned them, but the obvious answer is that these buildings were all expressions of a people still firmly in the throes of the natural cycles. When global mankind followed the Jews into using the week-based calendar, the celestial gods that once seemed so invincible were quickly surpassed, and their temples were abandoned in favor for more useful buildings.
Today, mankind is wholly organized around the week, and so is no longer bound by the cycles of celestial bodies. This means that the whole of mankind indeed "keeps the Sabbath" (knowingly or not), which makes the command itself seem somewhat outdated. But this is deceptive. The command to keep the Sabbath not merely speaks of the celestial cycles but any kind of cycle of obligation (or addictive pleasure; Isaiah 58:13) that mankind can either succumb to or else rise above.
Sages of old tried to precisely define what counts as "work" and should be avoided on the Sabbath, but that's interesting only as a legal exercise and in precisely the same way as trying to define what constitutes murder or theft (Matthew 5:20-22). To the average person, the general rule is clear enough: on Sabbath we break our cycles of bondage.
Here are some tips that may help you to "keep the Sabbath":
- Most people don't know what they want, which is why they end up in situations they don't like. The very small voice of one's own heart is continuously drowned out by the demands of society, and "keeping the Sabbath" is the name of a mental exercise that allows a person to assume radio silence, and find the elusive point of intersection of one's own desires and the freedoms allowed by the larger forces of society and nature.
- Freedom is not about having a choice but about keeping it. And that requires mastery and maturity. The First Commandment identifies YHWH as the One who leads out of bondage (Exodus 20:2). Jesus proclaimed release to the captives (Luke 4:18) and Paul exclaimed that "it's for freedom that Christ has set us free" (Galatians 5:1). Bondage comes gratis with every kind of incompetence and foolishness but freedom is a skill that must be continuously practiced. The ancients established that the best way to master freedom is to radically assume it for twenty-four consecutive hours once every week. So doing, the Sabbath would be the lead-day after which the activities of the other days would slowly but surely follow.
- Most jobs are about doing more of the same, for a boss who does the thinking. But most great leaps of discovery where made by people who weren't following orders, and rather let their minds roam free. That means that most progress was made on Sabbath (or on the morning directly after). The Sabbath is not a religious or ceremonial thing but a willful and conscious investment of a smart society into its own health and progress.
- The Sabbath is about human liberty. Any rule that tries to force you to do something particular on the Sabbath misses the point. The only rule is to avoid rules and obligations and be free — yet, the word for freedom that Paul uses is the democratic ideal of ελευθερια (eleutheria), or freedom-by-law, certainly not freedom from law. Freedom comes from mastery and thus transcendence of the rules we first submit to. Freedom of speech is only possible when we adhere to the rules of our language. Freedom to bike wherever we want to go is only possible when we master the rules of physics that govern riding a bike, as well as the rules that keep our traffic safe to engage in.
- Listen. Just listen. Freedom has a very weird sound about it. If vanilla ice cream were a sound, the Sabbath would sound just like that. Don't plan your Sabbath. Do all your shopping and house cleaning on some other day and keep the entire Sabbath free. Let the Sabbath itself tell you what it wants. Just wake up and listen and heed whatever fills your heart. Then simply embrace your journey, and join the things that grow.
- The Sabbath is not merely a day off; it's a collective day off. The Global Consciousness Project of Princeton University shows that human minds have the tendency to bundle up and makes things happen by working together at a subconscious level. Of course there will be people who have to work on certain days, but the rest of us should try to keep our Sabbath on the same day. That day, of course, is Saturday (and the Saturday was called Sabbath Day long before it was called Saturday).
- It's deliciously unclear when exactly the Sabbath should start and end, so even that is up to everybody's own good humor. Here at Abarim Publications we usually try to have all our work done on Friday afternoon, so that by sunset we can turn everything off: all computers and smart phones go off, and we don't use the Internet or check email (or stats or markets) until after sunset on Saturday. And the trick is to make no exceptions, not even on Saturday morning right after getting out of bed, or to quickly check the weather before heading out (we check the weather for Saturday on Friday, or simply take our chances and enjoy whatever happens).
- The Internet today is quite what the celestial heavens were in the olden days, and it seems to us here at Abarim Publications that the Internet is quickly becoming a bondage more than a liberty. It would, of course, be far from us to tell the reader what to do on Sabbath, but for us, going offline for 24 hours per week has been a life changer.
- Humans need diversion as much as food and breath. Avoid developing some sort of Sabbath-routine (a contradiction in terms) and try doing something crazy, new, unexpected. Go somewhere else. Go with someone you wouldn't normally do anything with. Getting out your comfort zone helps battle depression. So do something scary. If you never have enough time to do everything you have to, then on Sabbath do absolutely nothing. Go to the park and sit on a bench. Don't even bring a book. You'll find you'll get more work done in six days than in seven.
- Remember that anything that you can't control is your master. And whatever you can't master has you enslaved.
🔼Etymology of the name Sabbath
The name Sabbath has to do with the verb שבת (shabat), meaning to cease or to rest:
The verb שוב (shub) tells of a reversal in motion; the point where an upward motion becomes a downward one, or vice versa, or a westward motion an eastward one, and so on. This very frequently occurring verb is mostly translated with to turn or return, and is often used to mean to convert or return to a more fruitful way of life, and hence to restore, to retrieve or even to abstain, to reply and to repeat. Noun שובה (shuba) means withdrawal; noun שיבה (shiba) means restoration, and noun תשובה (teshuba) means answer. Adjectives שובב (shobab), שובב (shobeb) and משובה (meshuba) mean backsliding, or transitioning from a positive to a negative way of life.
Verb ישב (yashab) means to sit (the act which occurs precisely in between a person's descent and ascent) or to remain or dwell (in between traveling to and from some place). Nouns שבת (shebet) and מושב (moshab) mean both seat or dwelling place. Noun תושב (toshab) means sojourner.
The verb שבת (shabbat) means to rest or cease activity, and the familiar noun שבת (shabbat) means a rest or stoppage. Noun שבת (shebbet) means cessation and is closely similar to the noun שבת (shebet), meaning seat, mentioned above. Noun משבת (mishbat) also means cessation. Denominative verb שבת (shabat) means to keep the Sabbath and the noun שבתון (shabbaton) denotes a sabbatical observance.
Verb שבה (shaba) means to take captive, or to put a halt to someone's preferred trajectory and coerce them to go somewhere else. Nouns שבי (shebi) and שביה (shibya) mean captivity or captives collectively, but with the emphasis on being moved somewhere rather than the static condition of being imprisoned. Likewise, the noun שביה (shebiya) means captive. Noun שבית (shebit) or שבות (shebut) means captivity but since the parent verb speaks of a sudden change of destiny rather than a particular destination, this noun may also be used to mean restoration. The noun שבו (shebo) describes some sort of gem, apparently a real "head-turner."