Jewish Studies Sabbath
Omer Hacker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0211


In Judaism, the Sabbath is the seventh and the sacred day of the week, a recurring seven-day temporal unit. The concept of Sabbath influenced the Christian Sunday and the Muslim Friday, and with the expansion of both, the seven-day week became a globally common temporal unit. As such, the Sabbath is identified with two highly influential ideas: the seven-day week institution of cyclical temporality almost disconnected from nature, and the dichotomy of sacred and profane days. The Jewish Sabbath is famously introduced by the first biblical story of creation, as God sanctifies the seventh day and rests from his labor of creation. Therefore, some etymologists suggest the Hebrew word Shabbat is derived from rest (Shevita), and some point to its similarity to the number seven (Sheva). However, the information in the Bible regarding the Sabbath is limited and deals mainly with the prohibition of labor. It is only by the Second Temple period and later in rabbinical writings that the Sabbath is seen as a day of communal worship, complex practices, rituals, and limitations that are not directly related to cessation from work. The academic scholarship on the Sabbath, which is the focus of this bibliography, usually concentrates on contextualizing the elements of the Sabbath to specific periods and locations. Thus, academic scholarship does not present the Sabbath as a whole, but instead picture it as a multilayered social institution, gradually developed across thousands of years, with no clear starting point and, of course, as ever changing. Already by the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, the “Sabbath question” was an urgent scholarly discussion regarding its Mesopotamian origins, its parallels in other cultures, and the idea of the week. Through these debates, the specific Jewish concept became a universal category for thinking of time, society, and religion. Moreover, the academic scholarship created a direct link between the Jewish concept of Sabbath and the Christian concepts of Sunday and the seven-day week. Therefore, instead of leading to difference and confrontation, as in earlier periods, the Sabbath became a Judeo-Christian idea, separating this group from the rest of the world. In the second half of the 20th century, scholarship shifted from the big question of origin to more minor aspects of it, shading light on the different stages of Sabbath development, like the Second Temple period, classical rabbinic writings, and Kabbalah. It seems that the last centuries present the popular current phase of the Sabbath as a rest day in capitalist and secular modern societies. A unique case here is the formation of the modern State of Israel, which recreated the Sabbath as a national rather than a religious category, being another intriguing turn in the relationship between the Sabbath and Jewish identity.

General Overviews

Several authors in recent years have offered a comprehensive perspective of the Sabbath, different from the academic sliced view of the day. Usually, these broad overviews are arranged around some argument regarding the “essence” of the Sabbath, a notion that helps to explain the “meaning” of the day. Among these, the most foundational was Heschel 1951, which constructed the Sabbath as the counter reality of modernity, a pattern that was adopted by many and enhanced the modern interest in thinking of the Sabbath. The different overviews might offer considerably different concepts of the Sabbath. For example, Eliade 1954 and Zerubavel 1985 offered universal thinking on sacred time and the seven-day cycle that was adopted by scholars of the Jewish Sabbath, whereas many Jewish authors view the Sabbath as a particular Jewish framework that evolved as part of Jewish life, as seen in Barack 1965. Of course, as argued in Bacchiocchi 1977, the Sabbath is central also for Christianity, as many groups cherish aspects of the Sabbath on Sunday, and some even observe the seventh day itself. Ringwald 2007 expands the framework even more and views the Sabbath as a religious concept shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Lastly, the Sabbath can be understood in more personal terms, as in Shulevitz 2011, or as reflecting the story of one community through time, as done in Erlich 1999. This section in the bibliography also offers different paths for writings on Sabbath—prose, rabbinical writings, Christian perspectives—that are different from most of the academic scholarship on the Jewish Sabbath.

  • Bacchiocchi, Samuele. From Sabbath to Sunday. Rome: Pontifical Gregorian University Press, 1977.

    To a large extent, the global importance of the Sabbath is due to the Christian engagements with the day and the institutionalization of Sunday. As such, for many Christians the word Sabbath might denote Sunday rather than Saturday. In this influential book, Bacchiocchi explores the historical process that led Christianity to abandon Sabbath and adopt Sunday. He argues that the early church did observe the Sabbath, and it is only by the 2nd century that the transformation happened, for some political and social reasons. The author is a Seventh-day Adventist scholar, and his view is definitely not the consensus, but it does reflect the modern Christian scholarship on the relationship between Sabbath and Sunday.

  • Barack, Nathan A. A History of the Sabbath. New York: Jonathan David Press, 1965.

    Somewhere between rabbinical sermons and a historical perspective, Barack’s book is a good example of Orthodox Jewish historical narrative of the Sabbath: from the creation of the world, through the commandments, and then shifting to the extensive legal discussions of the sages and their practical implications that continue to nowadays.

  • Eliade, Mircea. The Myth of the Eternal Return, or, Cosmos and History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954.

    While rarely focuses on the Sabbath, and despite his sometimes hostile view of Judaism in general, Eliade’s conceptualization of time in religion is in the background of many of the academic texts discussing the Sabbath. His main contribution is the powerful presentation of combining the dichotomy of sacred and profane into the idea of cyclical rhythms.

  • Erlich, Josef. Sabbath. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1999.

    Despite many authors describing the Sabbath as creating community, not many write about the Sabbath as a story of community. Erlich’s book is the story of Sabbath in the shtetl of Wolbrom in Poland around the 1930s, where the author grew up. The style is something between prose and ethnographic field notes, including a very detailed description of the extinct shtetl Sabbath. The book was published originally in Yiddish in 1970 and was translated into several languages.

  • Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951.

    Probably the most popular and influential Jewish thought treatise on the Sabbath in the 20th century. Heschel fused here rabbinical texts, theology, philosophy, and academic scholarship to create a highly inspirational concept of Sabbath as “a palace in time.” He views the Sabbath as the spiritual antidote for earthly “low” desires that “enslave” human beings, and with that offers an effective translation of the meaning of the day for modern secular and capitalist societies.

  • Ringwald, Christopher D. A Day Apart: How Jews, Christians, and Muslims find Faith, Freedom, and Joy on the Sabbath. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    A unique book that combines the Islamic Jumu’ah, the Jewish Sabbath, and the Christian Lord’s Day into one shared framework of a sacred day and a rest day. The journalistic style combines religious chronology of the Sabbath from Genesis to the modern-day United States, along with sporadic descriptions of three contemporary American families: Christian-Catholic (that’s of the author), Conservative-Jewish, and Sunni-Islamic.

  • Shulevitz, Judith. The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time. New York: Random House, 2011.

    In recent years, many authors, especially Jewish and Christian ones, used the concept of Sabbath rest as a lever to criticize the contemporary hectic labor culture and the grip of communication technologies. This book is not pioneering this trend, but is unique in offering a personal quest with a highly intellectual one, and in weaving both by great writing. As part of it, though the author is obviously supportive of many aspects of the Jewish or Christian Sabbath, this is not a religious text in the conventional sense and genre.

  • Zerubavel, Eviatar. The Seven Day Circle: The History and Meaning of the Week. New York: Free Press, 1985.

    A singular sociological exploration of the Sabbath, and especially the seven-day rhythm it creates. The author offers theoretical analysis for the history of the week, from the question of origins through the challenges of secular modernity. Though it concentrates on the Abrahamic-religions week, he offers a comparative view of “weekly” units in various times and places. The overarching (Durkheimian) argument is that the week is not a natural phenomenon, but an ingenious cultural creation. Zerubavel’s scholarship is complex and rich yet delivered with great brightness and therefore accessible.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.