95 The Torah u-Madda Journal (15/2008-09

Unnatural Time: Its History
and Theological Significance
ow we reckon time is something to which we pay almost no
attention—we think of it, if at all, as the framework we use to
organize that which matters, not as something that merits scruti-
ny in its own right. Yet, if we think about how humans measure time and
why we measure it the way that we do, we may gain a fundamental insight
into two things that matter greatly to us: how we should think about his-
tory and how we should think about our relationship with God. Along
the way, we can gain insight into the foundational document inherited
from those who first used the framework of time—the Bible.
But first, some basic background on the annals of timekeeping.
Until the clock was invented, nearly all time measurements used by
human beings had one thing in common: almost every time unit was
defined as the interval between when something happens in the sky and
the next time that natural event occurs. A day is the time between one
sunset and the next, or between one sunrise and the next; a month—or
moonth—was defined as the time between one new moon and the next;
a year is the time it takes for the sun to return to a given place in the sky.
We should therefore not be surprised to find that marking the passage
of time with days, months, and years is an ancient and near-universal
practice; almost every significant civilization on every continent and in
every era used and uses these concepts.
ALLEN FRIEDMAN heads the Tax Planning Group at J.P. Morgan Chase, is Treasurer
of the Orthodox Caucus, and serves as a board member of several regional and
national Jewish organizations. He has also published on the Jewish liturgy and
Jewish education.
Our ancestors made one exception to the definition of a given time
unit as the interval between when something happens in the sky and the
next time that event takes place. That exception is known as “the week.”
Rather than being a single interval between recurrences of an astronomical
event, a week is a seven-fold multiple of such an event—a day.
Furthermore, unlike the relationship between a day and a month or
between a month and a year, in which the larger unit of time is equal in
length to a multiple of its component units, the length of a week seems
deliberately chosen so as not to fit neatly into the two longer common time
units. Months and years are never (with the exception of February) equal
to a multiple of a whole number of weeks. This is true of the Christian/sec-
ular year as well as the Jewish calendar: there are almost always between
fifty plus a fraction and fifty-five plus a fraction weeks in a Jewish year.
Consequently—and to the good fortune of calendar makers—days of the
week must always be tracked separately from days and months, as a given
date of a month will (with rare exceptions) not fall out on the same day of
the week in the following month or in the following year.
Thus, the week can be said to be both artificial and unnatural. It is
artificial in the sense that, unlike the other three time units, it does not rep-
resent the interval between a recurring astronomical event; it required man
(or God) to define it and thereby bring it into being. It is unnatural in the
sense that it does not fit into the larger naturally self-defining time units of
a month and a year and must therefore be tracked separately from them.
Because of its artificial and unnatural quality, for an agricultural society
that depends on natural cycles for its survival—which is to say, for all soci-
eties until relatively recent human history—a week is useless. And the
Sabbatical week, with its enforced rest every seventh day, is worse than use-
less: the day of rest impedes the tasks of plowing, planting, harvesting, and
all the other time-sensitive activities that a farmer needs to do.
Given the un-intuitiveness of the week as a way of measuring time
and how useless, and possibly counter-productive, that concept is, we
should not be surprised to learn that until relatively recently in human
history, roughly two millennia ago, hardly anyone used this seemingly
arbitrary way of marking time—except, of course, the Jews. Although
some earlier scholars claimed to find the roots of the Israelite Sabbatical
week in the concepts and customs of Israel’s neighbors, the scholarly con-
sensus today is that the Sabbatical week—a constantly repeating cycle of
marking time completely disassociated from the lunar cycle and culmi-
nating in a Sabbath—is an independent and uniquely Jewish creation.
We are left with an obvious question: if the Sabbatical week was—in
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the time and place of its creation and adoption—unintuitive, useless
and counter-productive, how and why did the concept arise?
This question has usually been answered in one of two ways. The
traditional and far better known response is that the six day work week
followed by Shabbat was established by God as, in the words of the
Friday night Kiddush, a “zikkaron le-ma‘aseh Bereshit”—a reminder of
God’s creation of the world in six days and His resting on the seventh.
There is, however, a second explanation that sees the significance of
the week as directly related to its artificial and unnatural character. This
perspective is succinctly articulated by Eviatar Zerubavel:
[T]he rise of the Sabbath…within Judaism coincided with the withdraw-
al from worshipping the celestial bodies. . . . In other words, the disasso-
ciation of the week from a natural cycle such as the waxing and waning of
the moon can be seen as part of a general movement toward introducing
a supernatural deity. Not being personified as any particular natural
force, the Jewish God was to be regarded as untouched by nature in any
way. Accordingly, the day dedicated to this God was to be regarded as
part of a divine temporal pattern that transcends even nature itself [empha-
sis added]. That obviously involved disassociating the week from nature
and its rhythms. Only by being based on an entirely artificial mathemati-
cal rhythm [emphasis in original] could the Sabbath observance become
totally independent of the lunar or any other natural cycle.
Put slightly differently, our ancestors saw the reason for, and the sig-
nificance of, the Sabbath in that which made it unique. The fact that rest
is mandated on it did not by itself make Shabbat unique, as in that sense
it is similar to the other Jewish festivals and perhaps even to non-Israelite
Ancient Near Eastern holy days.
The fact that the observance of the
Sabbath is related to the number seven also did not make it unique,
again, not among either Israelite or non-Israelite festivals.
Rather, the
uniqueness of the Sabbath was—and its significance therefore flows
directly from the fact—that, unlike all other holy days of all religions, it
recurred in a cycle that was intended to not coincide with natural cycles,
thereby logically suggesting a purpose of reinforcing the other uniquely
Israelite idea—that of the one God who created and controls those nat-
ural cycles. Viewed this way, the week is not “merely” an aide mémoire for
the creation narrative; rather, its very structure is intended to convey a
fundamental theological concept—a concept that is applied in and rein-
forced by the creation story.
There has been not as much effort as one might expect (and almost
none by traditional Jewish commentators) to relate the two perspec-
Allen Friedman 97
tives—the traditional one which is rooted in the account of creation,
and the second, “the-week-as-unnatural-time” one. For the balance of
this article we do just that and demonstrate that the latter greatly
enhances our understanding of the former and gives us insights into
otherwise puzzling elements of the Hebrew Bible.
An effort to develop the relationship between the two perspectives
must begin with an exploration of the point summarized in the earlier
excerpt from Zerubavel. Ancient Israelites lived in a world in which
their neighbors both marked time by and worshipped the sun, the
moon, the planets and the stars—celestial bodies that appear in the
heavens at regular intervals. Those neighbors were, to use the familiar
Hebrew term for idol worshippers, “ovedei kokhavim,” “those who wor-
ship and are subservient to the heavenly bodies.” As Moses warns the
Jews, “And lest you raise your eyes to the heaven and see the sun, the
moon and the stars—the entire legion of heaven—and you be drawn
astray and bow to them and worship them, which the Lord your God has
apportioned to all the peoples under the entire heaven” (Deut. 4:19). This
description of what the neighbors of the Jews worshipped is very consis-
tent with extra-biblical sources, from which it is clear that the gods
those peoples worshipped were generally personifications of celestial
bodies and of natural forces.
Israel, the Torah tells us, is meant to be
different; Jews are not to worship the sun, the moon, or the stars, but are
instead commanded to worship the one God who created all of them.
Israelites were also instructed not to mark time the same way that their
neighbors did, solely by the sun, the moon, and the stars, but are instead
to use a unique way of marking time that proclaims their faith in the
one God who created those celestial bodies and everything else. Of
course, these two points—the worship of the one God, creator of all
(and not worship of the sun, the moon or the stars) and the unique
Israelite system of marking time—go hand-in-hand.
In summary, we might say that Jews proclaim their belief in a God
who is above nature by marking time in a way that is disassociated from
Thus, while the Sabbath is certainly a commemoration of the seventh
day of creation, limiting the idea of Shabbat to this conceptualization miss-
es a profound point: that the week that culminates in the Sabbath is the
demarcation of time using a deliberately artificial and unnatural con-
struct—a construct that proclaims, through its very being, the existence
and supremacy of the God-Who-Is-Not-Nature. In fact, we might go so far
as to say that the generally accepted relationship between the Sabbatical
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week and creation needs to be inverted: the Sabbatical week itself is the
“message,” while the purpose of the creation story is to flesh out the con-
cept of the God-Who-Is-Not-Nature that is evidenced by the week.
Ironically, before the week achieved world-wide “success,” begin-
ning around the time of Christianity’s ascendance, the significance of
the Jewishly-created Sabbatical week was likely much more evident to
both Jews and non-Jews.
Its uniqueness and significance have actually
been obscured by the spread—and now near-ubiquity—of the seven
day week. Although the exact “how”s and “why”s are lost to history, it
seems relatively clear that the concept spread with the expansion of
Christianity in the early centuries of the common era; over time, its
inherently religious origins were largely forgotten, or at least ignored.
The curious result is that over six billion people organize their time
based on the system invented in ancient Israel to proclaim a belief in the
Let us now relate the above idea—the notion that the week is theo-
logically significant because it is a way to mark time that is deliberately
disassociated from nature—with another novel aspect of the ancient
Israelite worldview. We have noted that in ancient times everyone (except
the Jews) marked time by—and worshipped—celestial bodies that
appeared in regular intervals. To put this idea in the context of the
broader worldview of those times, Israel’s neighbors in the ancient world
saw the universe as governed by an iron triangle of nature, the gods, and
history. The gods were identified with, and were personified by, the celes-
tial bodies that controlled nature. The celestial bodies—those gods—
moved, appeared, and disappeared in unceasing, predictable intervals.
History was not viewed as something separate or different from nature;
just like nature, just like the celestial bodies in the sky, history too repeat-
ed itself in unceasing intervals. As Thomas Cahill puts it,
All evidence points to there having been, in the earliest religious thought,
a vision of the cosmos that was profoundly cyclical. The assumptions that
early man made about the world were little different from the assump-
tions that later and more sophisticated societies, like Greece and India,
would make in a more sophisticated manner. As Henri-Charles Puech
says of Greek thought. . . . “No event is unique, nothing is enacted but
once . . . every event has been enacted, and will be enacted perpetually; the
same individuals have appeared, appear, and will appear at every turn of
the circle.” The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to
find a new way of thinking and experiencing, a new way of understanding
and feeling the world, so much so that it may be said with some justice
that theirs is the only new idea that human beings have ever had.
Allen Friedman 99
This new way of thinking and experiencing, this “only new idea that
human beings have ever had,” the idea that natural cycles and history
are not the same, that we are not at the mercy of the endless cycle of the
celestial bodies—this idea had as its foundation the Jewish belief in an
invisible God who is separate from the celestial bodies, who controls
those stars in the heavens, and who controls and ensures a progressive
history—a history that unfolds in a way that He dictates and in a way
that fulfills His purposes.
There is a natural—perhaps a necessary—relationship between a belief
in a God-Who-Is-Not-Nature and a belief in a God-Who-Progresses-
History. Certainly, in the Ancient Near East—and to a great extent, in the
ancient world as a whole—the converse was true: belief in gods who were
part of nature was almost axiomatically associated with a belief in nature as
representing history: cyclical, without any concept of progression.
“Artificial/Unnatural time” and the Bible
Let us now see how the three points just described—the idea of the
Sabbatical week as a proclamation of the ancient Jewish belief in the God-
Who-Is-Not-Nature, of the very-related ancient Jewish belief in the God-
Who-Progresses-History, and the idea that the week itself is the mes-
sage—manifest themselves in the Bible. In the process, we hope to answer
three of the more famous questions asked by biblical commentators.
1) The postponement of the creation of the celestial bodies until the
fourth day—the God-Who-is-Not-Nature. One of the more remarkable
and commented upon aspects of the cosmogony of Genesis is the post-
ponement of the creation of the sun, moon, and stars until the middle
of the week. Both the postponement and—as we will shortly see—the
description of the heavenly bodies when they are “finally” created are
clearly intended to deliver the same message as is delivered by the Bible’s
establishment of the unnatural system of the week: that God controls
the heavenly bodies, and that the heavenly bodies are not—as was
thought throughout the ancient world—themselves gods.
The biblical description of the creation of the sun, moon, and stars
in Genesis 1:14-18 repeatedly stresses—five times in five verses—that the
luminaries are meant to serve “as signs to mark seasons and days and
years [and] . . . to give light on the earth”—and by strong negative impli-
cation, not as beings to be worshipped.
The “demotion” of the sun and
the moon from “god status” is further highlighted by the Torah’s avoid-
ance of their proper names, the names that Deuteronomy 4:19 uses when
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referring to their divinity in the eyes of non-Israelites. It refers to them
instead as “the large luminary” and “the small luminary.”
2) The Exodus as reason for the Sabbath—the God-Who-Progresses-
History. The Torah offers two reasons for keeping Shabbat, and thus for
our marking time with a repeating, artificial cycle of seven days.
first and more oft-cited reason is the one discussed above—God chose
to start time with a seven day period, creating the world in six and rest-
ing on the seventh; to commemorate this, we too mark time with seven-
day periods, engaging in creative activity for six days and resting on the
seventh. There is, however, a second reason given by the Bible—one that
seems, at first blush, far less intuitive: you, the nation of Israel, should
engage in creative activity for six days and rest on the seventh because
God took your ancestors out of Egypt (Deut. 5:12-15). While the
Exodus from Egypt is obviously central to Judaism, the Bible’s formula-
tion of the connection between Creation and the Exodus seems like a
non sequitur—one that traditional and modern commentators have
puzzled over.
What we have said above may shed light on this question. We noted
the inter-relatedness of the novel Israelite beliefs about God: that God is
not nature, that nature is not history, that therefore human history is not
cyclical but is progressive and its progress is controlled by the God-Who-
Is-Not-Nature. It therefore seems clear that the Sabbatical week—the
marking of time in a way designed to interfere with the natural cycles—
was meant as a proclamation of the religion’s belief in this invisible God
who ensures that progressive, non-cyclical, not-tied-to-nature history.
Thus, the Sabbatical week is most naturally associated with the God
who brings about progress in history and therefore with the event that
demonstrates like no other the concrete application of the idea of a pro-
gressive human history unmoored from nature—the Exodus from Egypt.
Put slightly differently, when the Bible tells the Jews to observe the
Sabbath zekher li-yez
i’at Miz
rayim—as a commemoration of the Exodus
from Egypt—it is telling them to use unnatural time to commemorate
unnatural history, to remember the God-Who-Progresses-History by
breaking the “natural cycle.”
Viewed this way, the idea of the Sabbath
as a commemoration of the Exodus is, if anything, a more obvious one
than the idea of the Sabbath as a commemoration of creation.
This explanation is consistent with two other aspects of the discus-
sion of the Sabbath in the Decalogue presented in Deuteronomy.
Neither in that presentation of the miz
vah of the Sabbath, nor in the
other numerous times that the Sabbath is mentioned in the Torah, are
Allen Friedman 101
the Jews commanded to “rest”—la-nuah
—on the Sabbath; instead they
are commanded lishbot—to cease (from working). Other than God
Himself, the only ones who are directly described as “resting” on the
Sabbath are the non-Israelite and non-human members of the house-
hold: “The seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord your God; on it you
shall not do any manner of work . . . nor shall your servant . . . or your
cattle . . . so that your servant . . . may rest as you do” (Deut. 5:14).
absence of a command to the Israelites to rest on the Sabbath is espe-
cially striking in the Deuteronomy Decalogue, given the connection
made there between the Exodus, presumably implying the Israelites’ rest
upon their release from Egyptian bondage, and the Sabbath.
A second notable aspect is that the principal emphasis in Deuter-
onomy is not on God’s taking the Jews out of Egypt as the reason for
their observance of the Sabbath. Rather, the Shabbat-Exodus connection
focuses on the way God took the Israelites out of Egypt and how that
taking out was a deliberate intervention into human history: “And you
shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the
Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an
outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep
the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15).
These two aspects—the fact that Israelites are commanded to cause
others to “rest” on the Sabbath but are not themselves commanded to
“rest” and the emphasis in the Sabbath-Exodus connection on the
Exodus as a divine intervention into human history—make most sense
in light of what we noted above. The shevitah—ceasing from work—of
the Israelite, on the one hand, and the menuh
ah—the rest that the
Israelite brings about among the non-Israelite and non-human members
of his household—on the other, are both applications of the principle of
imitato Dei, but with each emphasizing a different aspect of the theme of
Shabbat. The shevitah of the Israelite every seventh day recalls God’s con-
trol over nature and history as manifested in Creation (Shabbat as
zikkaron le-ma‘aseh Bereshit). The menuh
ah the Israelite causes among
his servants and animals recalls God’s control over nature and history as
manifested in the Exodus (Shabbat as zekher le-yez
i’at Miz
3) The completion of creation on the Sabbath—the week itself as “the
message.” The Torah concludes the description of creation by telling us
that “God concluded on the seventh day all the work that He did, and
God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it because on that day He
ceased/rested from all the labor that God created to do” (Gen. 2:1).
Many exegetes comment on this seemingly oxymoronic statement and
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explain how God could simultaneously cease from work and complete
His work on the seventh day. There are many beautiful explanations
that are given, but to these we would like to add the following. It is clear
(as several commentators note) that Genesis 2:1 is meant as a bookend
to Genesis 1:1 — the biblical account opens by telling us that God began
the creation of the heavens and the earth (Bereshit bara Elokim et ha-
shamayim ve-et ha-arez
), and ends by telling us that God concluded the
creation of the heavens and the earth (va-yekhulu ha-shamayim ve-ha-
). Given the bookend structure, and keeping in mind the “week as
the message” theme developed above, the double emphasis that the
bookend is closed on the seventh day—“God concluded on the seventh
day . . . on that day He ceased/rested”—is best understood as expressing
just that concept: that the Sabbatical week itself is the “message” and
that the purpose of the creation story is to flesh out the concept of the
God-Who-Is-Not-Nature that is evidenced by the week.
This article has sought to rescue the uniquely Jewish conception of time
known as “the week” from the obscurity caused, ironically, by its own
success. We have seen how the deliberate interference of the week with
natural timekeeping is both a part of the broader revolutionary theolog-
ical message of Judaism and a key to unlocking a number of difficult
passages in the Bible. In particular, we have used this key to gain a new
understanding of the relationship between the Sabbatical week and
another bedrock element of Judaism, the Exodus.
I am grateful to two anonymous referees as well as to David Shatz and Meira
Mintz for their very helpful comments on drafts of this article.
1. E.G. Richards, Mapping Time: The Calendar and its History (Oxford, 1998),
1. The most significant modern exception to the statement in the text is the
Islamic calendar. Although pre-Islamic Arabian culture used a lunisolar cal-
endar—that is, a calendar that (like the Jewish and other calendars) coordi-
nated the lunar year and the solar year through the addition of an intercalary
month—Islam uses a purely lunar calendar. It thus “loses” approximately
eleven days each year relative to the solar (or lunisolar) calendar.
2. It is of course this “unnaturalness” that makes the week different from the
30/31 day months that ancient solar calendars adopted to fit within a solar
Allen Friedman 103
year or as an approximation of a fraction of a solar season, and different
from the multi-day, fractions-of-a-month periods used by some Ancient
Near Eastern cultures. As Eviatar Zerubavel put it, “Quasi weeks [tied to the
lunar cycle] and [sabbatical] weeks actually represent two fundamentally
distinct modes of temporal organization of human life, the former involving
partial adaptation to nature, and the latter stressing total emancipation from
it.” See Eviatar Zerubavel, The Seven Day Circle: The History and Meaning of
the Week (Chicago, 1989), 11. For further discussion of and sources about
this topic, see the following note.
3. The consensus among modern scholars is that the religious or economic
cycles of Israel’s neighbors that were viewed by early twentieth-century
scholars as the roots of the Sabbatical week—cycles re-discovered with the
rise in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of modern archaeol-
ogy—are either (a) unrelated to the Sabbatical week and/or (b) more in the
nature of contrasts than parallels and cannot be seen as the inspiration for
that concept. For example, the religious cycles seen by earlier scholars as par-
allel are tied to the new moon and often do not occur every seven days. See,
for example, William W. Hallo, “New Moons and Sabbaths: A Case Study in
the Contrastive Approach,” Hebrew Union College Annual 48 (1978): 1.
Hallo concludes, after an exhaustive review of the lunar-based calendar and
festivals of the Ancient Near East, that
[t]here is nothing . . . to suggest that the sabbatical conception depend-
ed in any way on the luni-solar calendar. . . . The week was fundamen-
tal to the biblical calendar and immune to violation by any other con-
sideration, least of all the phases of the moon. Even though these
consist of ca. 7 3/8 days each, the biblical week is wholly independent
of them.
See also Jeffrey Tigay, “Shavua,” in Mo‘adei Yisra’el: Time and Holy
Days in the Biblical and Second Commonwealth Periods (Heb.), ed. Jacob S.
Licht (Jerusalem, 1998), 22-23.
Similarly, market days that occurred at regular intervals and that some
earlier scholars viewed as the precursor of the Sabbatical week (such as five-
day intervals between market days that possibly existed in Assyria) empha-
size not the cessation from commercial activity but its opposite and, in any
case, did not (in the Ancient Near East) occur every seven days. See Hallo,
“New Moons,” 12-13; Tigay, “Shavua,” 24. Tigay writes:
There is no evidence for a seven-day interval between market days
among primitive nations [and in any case] given that market days are
a concept that is diametrically opposed to the concept of the Sabbath
. . . they cannot be seen as the source for the Israelite institution.
Furthermore, there is no definitive evidence for the existence of spe-
cial market days in the Ancient Near East.
See also The Anchor Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Sabbath” (New York, 1992),
vol. 5, p. 851: “There is no evidence for a seven-day cycle of market days
from the Ancient Near East or anywhere else. The development from a mar-
ket day to a regularly recurring cycle of weekly sabbath celebrations remains
likewise unaccounted for.”
After summarizing numerous efforts by early twentieth century scholars,
Tigay concludes as follows:
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Historians have sought to find parallels to and roots of the concept of
the Sabbatical week in different institutions in the ancient world. One
might think a priori that such an effort would be successful since, after
all, the number seven is important throughout the world and defined
periods of seven days are well known in the ancient world. And despite
this, there has not been found a precise parallel to the Sabbatical week.
[For example,] in the Akkadian (as well as Ugaritic) records that men-
tion units of time, there is no mention of the week, and there is not
even a word for the concept of a week. . . . It is clear that among the
neighboring nations that were in position to have an influence over
Israel—and in fact which did influence it in various matters—there is
no precise parallel to the Israelite Sabbatical week. This leads to the
conclusion that the Sabbatical week, which is as unique to Israel as the
Sabbath from which it flows, is an independent Israelite creation.
See also Tigay, “Shavua,”15-26 and another essay by him in Licht (ed.),
“Shabbat,” 83-100. After a similar summary of the attempted parallels, The
Anchor Bible Dictionary concludes: “In spite of the extensive efforts of more
than a century of study into extra-Israelite sabbath origins . . . [every] hypoth-
esis whether astrological, menological, sociological, etymological or cultic . . .
has insurmountable problems” (Anchor Bible Dictionary, “Sabbath,” vol. 5 p.
851). Perhaps the most succinct summary of the modern scholarly consensus
is found in Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis
(Philadelphia, 1989), 14:
The biblical institution of the weekly Sabbath is unparalleled in the
ancient world. In fact, the concept of a seven-day week is unique to
Israel. . . . [This phenomenon] is extraordinary in light of the wide-
spread use of a seven-day unit of time, both as a literary convention
and as an aspect of cultic observance in the ancient Near East. The
wonderment is compounded by additional data. The other major
units of time—day, month, and year—are uniformly based on the
phases of the moon and the movement of the sun, and the calendars
of the ancient world are rooted in the seasonal manifestations of
nature. Remarkably, the Israelite week has no such linkage and is
entirely independent of the movement of celestial bodies.
See also Zerubavel, The Seven Day Circle, esp. chap. 1.
All of this is, in any case, only tangentially relevant to the discussion in
the text. Even those—now largely out-of-favor—early twentieth century
scholars who did not consider the Sabbatical week to be an independent cre-
ation, nonetheless considered it to be a unique creation. That is, even those
earlier scholars who saw the Sabbatical week as drawing on elements of the
religious and/or economic practices of Israel’s neighbors acknowledged that
the way those elements were modified, assembled, and incorporated into the
Sabbatical week was unique to Israel. The question posed in the text is there-
fore relevant according to their view as well: why did this unique creation
come to be, especially when it seems both useless and counterproductive
from an objective standpoint?
4. We deliberately conflate the idea of the observance of the Sabbath every sev-
enth day with that of the seven-day week. There is considerable scholarly
discussion regarding the idea that while early Israelite society observed the
Allen Friedman 105
Sabbath every seven days, it did so without necessarily viewing the week qua
week as an important time division. See, for example, Jeffrey Tigay, “Notes
on the Development of the Jewish Week,” Erez
Yisra’el 14 (1967): 111-21.
The notion that Israelite subsistence farmers would not find great signifi-
cance in the week outside the need to assure their observance of the Sabbath
on its proper day is intuitively logical (see further discussion of a related
point in n. 11). Whether or not early Israelite society viewed the every-sev-
enth-day Sabbath as part of what we think of today as “the week” is, howev-
er, not relevant to the subject discussed in this article. For discussion of the
early Israelite’s conception of time, see Sacha Stern, Time and Process in
Ancient Judaism (Oxford, 2003).
5. When we say that two principal answers have been proposed, what we mean
is that two principal explanations have been given for the significance the
Israelites assigned to the Sabbath. There have been numerous explanations
—albeit largely discredited ones—for what inspired them or what and whose
ideas they were copying. See discussion in n. 3 and sources cited therein.
6. Zerubavel, The Seven Day Circle, 11. See also Hallo, “New Moons” and
Matitiahu Tsevat, “The Basic Meaning of the Biblical Sabbath,” Zeitschrift fur
die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 84 (1972): 447.
7. See, for example, Maren R. Niehoff, Philo on Jewish Identity and Culture
(Tubingen, Germany, 2001), 107, n. 32 and sources cited therein.
8. Much attention has been given to the question of why seven is the number of
days in the week—or, to put it in terms of the “traditional” explanation given
above, why God chose to create the world in seven days—as well as the more
general question of the significance of the number seven. Although full dis-
cussion of this topic is outside the scope of this article, it is worth noting that
that attention generally focuses on (a) the prevalence of that number in the
Bible, in Jewish and Christian thought, in the Ancient Near East and in the
ancient world in general and (b) on the idea that seven represents complete-
ness or perfection. The choice of seven for the numbers of days in the week is,
of course, consistent with this idea. For further discussion of the significance
of the number seven in Jewish thought see I. Weinstock, Be-Ma‘agalei ha-
Nigleh ve-ha-Nistar (Jerusalem, 1969), esp. 153-241, which contains an
exhaustive discussion of the significance of the number seven in the Bible and
Rabbinic literature; R. Sampson Raphael Hirsch, Collected Writings III (New
York, 1984), 96-111, who develops the idea that God chose to create the
world in seven days because that number represents wholeness and perfec-
tion; and Maharal, Derekh H
ayyim, Avot 5:25, who attributes the similarity
between the words “shiv‘ah”—seven—and “seivah”—fullness—to the idea
that the number seven represents a complete cycle. I am grateful to the
anonymous referee who brought these last two sources to my attention.
9. See Tsevat, “The Basic Meaning,” 457-8: “The sabbatical cycle . . . represents
a neutral structuring of empty time. . . . The intention was . . . to fill time
with a content that is uncontaminated by, and distinct from, anything relat-
ed to natural time. . . . That content . . . is the idea of the absolute sovereign-
ty of God. . . .”
I capitalize the word “creation” when it is used in juxtaposition to
“Exodus,” which is customarily capitalized. Otherwise, as in the text to
which this note is appended, I write “creation” (lower case).
10. As one author put it, “In the pagan conception [the powers of nature and
The Torah u-Madda Journal 106
the heavenly bodies] are personified as the gods, themselves part of the nat-
ural order, and subject to its powers or wielding them as the case may be.”
Herbert Chanan Brichto, The Names of God: Poetic Readings in Biblical
Beginnings (New York, 1998), 61.
11. There is a rich literature discussing the mutually reinforcing relationship
between how a given society measures time and how it relates to the world
around it. See, Zerubavel, The Seven Day Circle, 11 and Lewis Mumford,
Technics and Civilization (New York, 1934), 15: “[The clock] disassociated
time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent
world of mathematically measurable sequences [in which the] abstract
framework of divided time [became] the point of reference for both action
and thought.”
It is likely that the institution of the Sabbath should be viewed in light
of this mutually reinforcing relationship: a subsistence farmer whose entire
day-to-day existence was inextricably bound up with natural cycles could
not, in the normal course, be expected to organize his time around anything
other than those cycles. Furthermore, it would consequently be almost
inevitable that his worldview would be shaped by those natural cycles. Thus,
the only way to imprint on such an individual a way of viewing the world
other than through the lens of natural cycles was to force him—at intervals
deliberately not connected to those cycles—to cease his bound-up-with
nature activities.
12. This reading is conceptually similar to that of Rashbam. In his commentary
to Genesis 1:1, he expresses the view that the reason the Bible begins with the
creation narrative is in order to provide an explanation for the later com-
mandment of the Sabbath. As Ethan Tucker puts it: “[In the view of the
Rashbam, t]he creation story [is] a prop for understanding the Torah’s cen-
tral concern about time, which is not about what happened when the uni-
verse began, but what is to happen in contemporary human societies once a
week.” See http://parshanut.blogspot.com/2007/10/bereishit-i-purpose-of-
creation-story.html. For a fuller discussion of Rashbam’s view see Sarah
Kamin, “Rashbam’s Conception of the Creation in Light of the Intellectual
Currents of His Time,” Scripta Hierosolymitana 31(1986): 91-132.
13. It is fascinating to read the writings of both Jews and non-Jews from the
Second Temple period commenting on this phenomenon. Many Roman and
Greek writers, for example, ridicule the Jews for wasting one-seventh of their
lives in idleness. See, for example, the oft-cited views of Seneca as noted by
Augustine in City of God 6:11: “Seneca . . . also found fault with the sacred
things of the Jews, and especially the sabbaths, affirming that they act use-
lessly in keeping those seventh days, whereby they lose through idleness
about the seventh part of their life, and also many things which demand
immediate attention are damaged.” See Philip Schaff (ed.), Nicene and Post-
Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (New York, 1899), II, 120. See also
Licht (ed.), “Mo‘adei Yisra’el,” 98 and sources cited there.
14. Zerubavel, The Seven Day Circle, 20-25. One interesting example of the loss of
the consciousness of the Israelite origins and religious significance of the week
is found in Rabbinic literature. In Ex. Rabbah 1:28, Moses is described as say-
ing to God, “Every nation has one day in the week that they rest, but not
Israel,” whereupon God tells Moses that he should choose one such day for the
Israelites and Moses picks the seventh day. The midrash thus proceeds from
Allen Friedman 107
the assumption that the week is not a uniquely Israelite creation or institution.
15. Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed
the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York, 1998), 5.
16. There has been considerable debate regarding the accuracy of the dichoto-
mous understanding that views the Israelite conception of history as “linear”
or “progressive” while characterizing that of other ancient cultures as “cycli-
cal.” Some see large elements of commonality between the different world-
views, while others assert that the Israelite view is best expressed through the
metaphor of an ascending spiral. See, for example, Stern, Time and Process,
8-9 and sources cited there. That discussion, while interesting and impor-
tant, is not central to the validity of the thesis in the text. What is central to
the validity of the text’s thesis are two statements whose basic truth has not
been seriously disputed by any of the parties to the debate. The first is that at
the core of Israelite theology was a belief in an omnipotent God who has
long-term goals for human history that He brings about by intervening in
the natural order, and that Israelites viewed this idea as one that distin-
guished their beliefs from those of the other cultures and nations of their
time. The second is that the deities of the nations of the Ancient Near East—
and of much of the ancient world—were to a great extent personifications of
the heavenly bodies and of natural forces and, as such, behaved in the way
those bodies and forces were perceived as behaving. In other words, what is
crucial to our thesis is the chasm between the Israelite belief in an omnipo-
tent God who shapes history by controlling nature and the general belief in
the ancient world in gods who are nature. We use the shorthand description
of the former belief as identical with a “linear” or “progressive” view of his-
tory and the latter as identical with a “cyclical” view because this description
is familiar, convenient, and—at least for the limited purposes for which
those terms are employed in the text—accurate, but without an intent to
wade into the broader debate on the accuracy of these terms.
17. I am grateful to Rachel Friedman, who brought this point to my attention as
part of a talk “Why Does the Bible Begin With Creation?” at Drisha Institute
in 2007. See Ralbag, Sefer Milh
amot Hashem VI:2:8, and Sarna, The JPS
Torah Commentary on Gen. 1:16.
18. See Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, trans. John H. Mark,
(London, 1976), 55, who notes that the Semitic word for “sun” was also a
divine name.
19. As will be discussed in more detail in n. 25, some discern in the biblical text
three or four explanations for the observance of the Sabbath. As we elaborate
in that footnote, the additional reasons should not be viewed as indepen-
dent, but rather as part of the two discussed in the text. In any event, the two
reasons discussed in the text are the ones stated in the Aseret ha-Dibberot,
which is the most familiar source, as well as the one that the composers of
the liturgy emphasize. For example, in the kiddush recited every Friday night,
we declare that God has commanded us to keep the Sabbath as a “zikkaron
le-ma‘aseh Bereshit”—a reminder of the Creation—and as a “zekher li-yez
rayim”—a reminder of the Exodus.
20. It is instructive to compare the explanation in the text with that of Nah
which it resembles in certain respects. In his commentary on Deut. 5:14,
manides explains that both Creation and the Exodus are expressions of
the idea that God is the Creator and Master of the universe; the Exodus proves
The Torah u-Madda Journal 108
that Creation was not the end of God’s involvement with the world and with
nature, but that He still maintains absolute power to intervene and override
the laws of nature at will. Like the explanation in the text, Nah
manides’ expla-
nation ties together Creation, Exodus and Shabbat, and sees the connection as
related to God’s continuing role in history. Unlike the explanation in the text,
however, Nahmanides’ explanation does not see an organic connection
between the Sabbatical week and the Exodus; rather, it sees the Exodus as an
extension of the significance of the Creation account that is the “real” reason
for the Sabbatical week. The explanation in the text, by contrast, sees both the
creation story and the Exodus as expressions of, and as being intrinsically con-
nected to, the “unnatural time” message of the Sabbatical week.
21. Based on the thesis in the text, we can also better understand the reason for
the first of the Ten Commandment’s linking the belief in God to the Exodus
(“I am the Lord your God who took you out of the Land of Egypt”), rather
than to Creation. The Bible is telling its readers to believe in the God who
intervenes in history—all religions throughout the world have their own cre-
ation myth that describe how their god(s) created the world; what is most
obviously unique to the Israelite conception of God is that He is a God who
intervenes in nature and thereby ensures a progressive history. Note that we
refer to “the Israelite conception of God,” not “the Israelite God”—the
emphasis in this explanation is not only on the Exodus as creating a unique
bond with the Jewish people, but on the Exodus as creating a uniquely
Jewish conception of a universal God. In other words, the Exodus is used as
a paradigm for the kinds of things that God—as uniquely conceived by the
Jews—does in His role as the one who progresses history.
Ironically, like “the week,” the originality of the Jewish understanding
of God’s role—and therefore the role of the Exodus in expressing that
understanding—has also been obscured by that understanding being co-
opted by Christianity and Islam.
22. The idea that the Sabbath is a reminder of the Exodus precisely because it
interferes with the natural cycle dovetails beautifully with the once-a-year com-
memoration of the Exodus at a fixed time of the natural cycle. The latter is
intent on vouching for the historicity of the Exodus—that it was an actual
event that occurred at a given time in a given place. The commemoration
takes place, as commemorations always do and as the Torah constantly
emphasizes that this one must, on the calendrical anniversary of the event.
Having vouched for the historicity of the event through the once-a-year, fixed-
in-the-natural-cycle commemoration, the Torah then gives us, through the
Sabbath that interferes with natural cycles, a year-round reminder of the les-
son to be drawn from it: God is the one who controls nature and shapes histo-
ry. In other words, sippur yez
i’at Miz
rayim (the once-a-year commemoration
of the Exodus) and zekhirat yez
i’at Miz
rayim (the throughout-the-year
reminder of the significance of the Exodus) are mutually reinforcing miz
The relationship between Passover and the Sabbath also explains why
the korban pesah
—the paschal sacrifice—is the only sacrifice brought by
individuals whose offering overrides the Sabbath. Symbolically, the obser-
vance of the Sabbath as marking God’s “interference” in history cannot take
place until the existence of that interference has been vouched for by the
paschal sacrifice.
23. I have not yet found in other sources discussion of the “unnatural time/unnat-
Allen Friedman 109
ural history” connection between the Sabbath and the Exodus set forth here. If
there is in fact no such discussion, perhaps this absence is attributable to the
largely mutually exclusive perspectives that commentators have brought to the
table. On the one hand, traditional commentators have not used the “week as
Jewish creation of artificial time” perspective that is the basis for the unnatural
time/unnatural history connection. On the other hand, those commentators
who do hold (or at least exhibit awareness of) that perspective tend not to view
the Torah as a unitary whole. They may therefore be less disposed to see a con-
nection between the allegedly late Decalogue text in Deuteronomy, which con-
nects the Sabbath to the Exodus, and the allegedly earlier texts in the first four
books of the Bible that discuss the Sabbath.
24. While the verse does end with a backhanded reference to the Israelite’s rest
on the Sabbath—“so that [they] may rest as you do (kamokha)”—the verse
seems to go out of its way not to describe this resting as something com-
manded of the Jews. The seemingly strange absence of a command to
Israelites to rest on the Sabbath has been a popular subject of discussion
among Christian scholars. See, for example, Jon Laansma, I Will Give You
Rest (Tubingen, Germany, 1997), esp. 17-75, and Ian Hart, “Genesis 1:1-2:3
As a Prologue to the Book of Genesis,” Tyndale Bulletin 46: 2 (1995): 325-
326, and sources cited there.
25. My account does not regard the Decalogue’s command that servants, ani-
mals, and non-Israelite residents of Israel be allowed to rest as an indepen-
dent (and third) reason for Shabbat; instead the account views the command
as an integral part of the Sabbath-Exodus connection. See Da‘at Mikra on
Deut. 5:15, s.v. “‘Ve-zakharta:’ ‘And you shall remember [that you were
slaves in Egypt and that God redeemed your from there]’: the first word of
Deut. 5:15 is connected to the text that comes immediately before it [“so that
your servant and maidservant may rest”] and it is telling us that through
your giving rest to your servants you will come to remember your servitude
in Egypt and you will remember your redemption from there and the mira-
cles that God did for you.”
Interestingly, the most obvious example of the dichotomy between she-
vitah for Israelites and menuh
ah for non-Israelites is found in the verse that
most strongly suggests a “purely” humanitarian motive for the Sabbath. Ex.
23:12 tells us that, “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day
you shall cease [tishbot]; that your ox and your donkey may have rest [yanu-
], and the son of your handmaid, and the stranger, may be refreshed.” The
juxtaposition of the two words, which in the Hebrew is almost immediate
(“u-va-yom ha-shevi‘i tishbot lema‘an yanuah
”), heightens the contrast
between the shevitah the Israelite is commanded to do for himself and the
impact of menuhah
that his shevitah is meant to have on others. While there
is undoubtedly a humanitarian aspect to this formulation—that is, an intent
to benefit those who are given rest—both logic and a close reading of the
text strongly suggest a connection between shevitah and menuh
ah that paral-
lels that in the Dibberot in Deuteronomy. In other words, there is a primary
intent to have the menuh
ah impact the Israelite who is granting the rest,
rather than those who are being caused to rest. From a logical perspective,
the “lumping together” of servants and farm animals is much more under-
standable if their significance is that they are sentient beings under the con-
trol of their owner.
The Torah u-Madda Journal 110
If, then, the impact of the rest-giving is primarily on the Israelite rest-
giver, what is the significance of that impact? A close reading of the text in
Exodus gives a strong hint. Ex. 23:12 is the close of a four-verse segment that
begins in Ex. 23:9. The opening of that segment commands the Israelites not
to oppress the stranger, “for you know the soul of the stranger since you
were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and immediately follows it with a com-
mand to work the fields for six units of time and to rest on the seventh. The
closing bookend clearly echoes the language of the opening verses—in clos-
ing verse 12 with the same word (stranger—ger) that opened verse 9, in its
concern for the stranger’s soul (nefesh ha-ger [v.9]—ve-yinnafesh . . . ha-ger
(v.12)), and in its command to work for six units of time and rest on the sev-
enth. It appears that the Torah is strongly suggesting that the giving of rest to
the members of the Israelites’ household is also connected to remembrance
of the slavery in Egypt.
I also do not regard the Torah’s statement that the Sabbath is to be a
sign of the eternity of the covenant between Israel and God (Ex. 31:12-18) as
an independent reason for the Sabbath. It is instead an outgrowth of the
other two reasons discussed in the text: Israel is unique among the nations in
its observance of the Sabbath, and thus unique in its testimony to God’s con-
trol over nature and history; that uniqueness in and of itself serves as a sign
of the bond between Israel and God. See Tsevat, “The Basic Meaning,” 450,
who argues that the humanitarian explanation of Ex. 23:12 cannot be
regarded as the primary rationale for the Sabbath, and 449, n. 4, noting that
the rationale of Sabbath as a sign of the covenant cannot be understood as an
independent reason for the Sabbath.
Allen Friedman 111

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