The Sabbath:

                                                   The Peaceful Day Provoked

                                                    Sadducees and Pharisees



As I wrote in my recent book “Mysteries of Judaism,” all the biblical holidays were changed by the rabbis because of the conditions of their time, especially because the temple was destroyed in 70 CE and sacrifices, which were an integral part of many holidays, were discontinued. As a result, Jews today practice Rabbinic Judaism and not Torah Judaism. The Sabbath is an example. The following is based on a chapter in “Mysteries of Judaism.”

The laws of the Sabbath according to Mishnah Chagigah 1:8, composed around 200 CE, are like “mountains hanging by a thread.” The rabbis are admitting with this statement that there is no biblical support for the many rabbinical laws concerning the Sabbath, thirty-nine different categories of prohibited acts with many sub-categories.


The Biblical Laws

The first details about the Sabbath laws are in Exodus 16. The Israelites were told to collect a double portion of manna on the sixth day. They were also told not to cook or bake the manna on the Sabbath but to prepare it before the Sabbath. Exodus 16:23 states: “Tomorrow is a holy Sabbath day for the Lord. Bake whatever you want to bake and cook whatever you want to cook.” Numbers 11:8 adds the prohibition against grinding and milling the manna, acts apparently necessary for the cooking and baking.

The second detailed law is Numbers 15:32–36 which describes an episode where Israelites “found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day.” Verse 36 states that he was stoned for this offence.

The first prohibition seems to forbid preparing manna on the Sabbath and does not require that the prohibition apply to other foods. It is possible that the rule only applied to the manna, which was an important food since it miraculously came from God. The episode of the stick gatherer is more problematic and more obscure. It is unclear what the man did wrong. The rabbis felt that there is no biblical prohibition against picking up sticks or picking up anything else on the Sabbath. Under rabbinical law, a Jew is forbidden to break a stick or the Sabbath and to carry anything a certain distance. However, there is no indication in the tale that the man did either of these things and, more significantly, even if he did, the prohibitions are rabbinical and were promulgated during the post-biblical period.

A third detailed prohibition is in Exodus 35:3 lo teva’aru eish b’khol moshveikhem b’yom hashabat. The Sadducees of the late Second Temple period, who insisted on maintaining the ancient practices, defined teva’aru as “burn” and translated the verse ‘You may not burn a fire in all of your habitations on the Sabbath day” and sat in darkness and cold on the Sabbath.[1] The Pharisees, who sought ways to make the laws more lenient, and from whom rabbinical Judaism evolved, translated teva’aru as “kindle.” They prohibited making a fire, but if the fire already existed one could enjoy its light and heat.

The two versions of the Decalogue, Exodus 20:7–10 and Deuteronomy 5:11–14, have a fourth prohibition. They add the obligation to refrain from work on the Shabbat, but the definition of “work,” melakhah in Hebrew, is absent. Perhaps, the stick-gatherer was found guilty of the crime of melakhah as it was understood in ancient times. It may be that this ancient understanding was very restrictive and the prohibition was made more lenient by the rabbis. It is possible that the biblical Sabbath was considered a holy day when everything that was needed for the day should be completed before the Sabbath began so that no work should be done on the Sabbath itself. This may have been how the Sadducees understood it.

In Summary

While the biblical laws concerning Shabbat are obscure, it is clear is that like all other holy days, the biblical Sabbath practices were totally different than those of the Sabbath we have today and the post-biblical laws have no real basis in the Torah; as the Mishnah states. The Shabbat laws are rabbinical and are like “mountains” (huge) hanging on what is mentioned in the Torah “by a thread.”

Be this as it may, the Shabbat is one of the greatest inventions of Judaism and one of its greatest contributions to civilization. The Sabbath has within it the idea that people and animals need physical and psychological rest and need the freedom to rest. And more than Jews kept the Shabbat laws, the Shabbat laws kept the Jews in existence.[2]


[1] Many scholars are convinced that the Sadducees were maintaining the biblical traditions against the Pharisees who were changing the laws to make them more accommodating to the population. Jewish tradition states they rejected the “oral Torah,” which many translate to mean the explanations God gave to Moses orally as to how the biblical commands should be understood, such as “an eye for an eye” means monetary compensation. However the scholars interpret the words to mean the changes introduced by the Pharisees and the rabbis who were their descendants and who began to function after the temple was destroyed in 70 CE. Notably no Jewish sage before 70 was called “rabbi,” even the famed Hillel who lived at the beginning of the Common Era.

[2] The famous Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE), known as Seneca the younger, had a different view. He held outrageous notions about Jews. Saint Augustine quotes him calling Jews an “accursed nation” in his “The City of God.” Augustine tells Seneca’s views concerning the Shabbat: The Jews “act uselessly in keeping the seventh day whereby they lose through idleness about a seventh part of their life.”