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What Is the Sabbath? Definition & Command of Rest

Sabbath comes from the word Shabbath which essentially, as listed above, means “a day of rest.” God commanded a day of rest because He wants us to trust Him, and taking a Sabbath helps keep us from idolizing work. Also, we fall apart if we don’t rest.
Updated Mar 19, 2024
What Is the Sabbath? Definition & Command of Rest

The term "Sabbath" comes from the Hebrew word "Shabbat," which means "rest" or "cessation." The Sabbath is observed as a day of rest and worship, a time for spiritual renewal, communal worship, and a break from the regular routines of work. The specific practices associated with the Sabbath can differ significantly between religious communities and denominations.

One of the Ten Commandments American Christians struggle the most to keep was given in Exodus 20:8-11: Keep the Sabbath holy.

Unlike the previous commandments, which the Bible seems to list and then move on to the next one, the writer (Moses) pauses here and gives an explanation about Sabbath:

  • People work six days a week. (Exodus 20:9)
  • On the seventh day, no one should work. Not your daughter, son, cattle, etc. (Exodus 20:10)
  • God, when creating the world, took a day off to rest, so why can’t you? (Exodus 20:11)

We’ll dive into the significance of Sabbaths, how the idea of this got skewed during Jesus’ time, and what it looks like for Christians today to take a day off weekly.

Sabbath Definition in Hebrew

As the reader might have already derived, a Sabbath means a day of rest. What did it mean in the original Hebrew?

Sabbath comes from the word Shabbath which essentially, as listed above, means “a day of rest.” The word Saturday appears to come from this word, which could point to the Israelites taking a Sabbath on Saturdays.

Is the Sabbath Day Saturday or Sunday?

The designation of the Sabbath as either Saturday or Sunday hinges on the historical and theological perspective of various Christian denominations. This distinction largely arises from the understanding of the day on which Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Early Christians, influenced by the resurrection narrative in the Gospels, shifted their primary day of communal worship and rest from the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) to the first day of the week, Sunday. This choice symbolizes the Christian belief in the significance of Christ's resurrection, as recorded in the New Testament.

While many mainstream Christian denominations observe Sunday as the Lord's Day and the Christian Sabbath, certain groups, notably Seventh-day Adventists and some Seventh-day Baptists, uphold the seventh-day Sabbath, adhering to the Saturday observance. These communities trace their practice back to the continuity of Sabbath observance among Jewish Christians in the early Christian period. The theological rationale for Sunday observance often centers on the resurrection, while those observing Saturday emphasize continuity with the biblical Sabbath commandment.

Sabbath Day Scripture

"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy."

"And the Lord said to Moses, 'You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, "Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.'"

"Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the Lord in all your dwelling places."

"And he said to them, 'The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.'"

  • Jesus' Resurrection on the First Day (Mark 16:1-2, ESV):

"When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb."

Why Did God Give Us the Sabbath? 

God seems to mandate a Sabbath for a number of reasons:

1. God wants us to trust Him. When the Israelites wandered the desert before they reached the Promised Land, God would make manna, a type of bread-like substance that would give them sustenance, and quail rain from the sky (Exodus 16).

Every day they would go out and collect that day’s rations and only that day’s rations. Any extra they tried to collect would end up full of maggots in the morning. But on the sixth day, God commanded them to gather twice as much so they wouldn’t work to get their food on the seventh day.

Like the Israelites tended to do in the Old Testament, some didn’t listen, and they wound up hungry on the Sabbath because they didn’t collect enough the day before. God wants us to trust Him. He will provide for us, even if we don’t work one day of the week.

2. We fall apart if we don’t rest. There were also practical reasons God commanded rest on the Sabbath. Those who work without taking a day’s break will encounter “physical exhaustion and breakdown,” according to the American Association of Christian Counselors

We are not meant to work nonstop. When we work seven-day weeks, we exhaust our brain so its creative functions cannot work properly. We become more stressed and wear ourselves out to the point we become susceptible to more illnesses.

3. We avoid idolatry when we take a Sabbath. If we work and do nothing but work, we run the risk of placing it before God in terms of importance.

Does Sabbath Still Matter Today?

Writing this, I know I have to work 45-55+ hour weeks to make rent and living expenses. I work hard. And those reading this might have large families and even larger bills to pay, and you might not know if you will be able to pay it all this month. Some of you may work round-the-clock jobs that require you to be available seven days a week. It’s difficult to take a whole day off in our society, which expects us to run at full capacity all the time.

Sabbaths might look a little different for us. It might just mean avoiding checking emails on weekends to avoid that extra stress. For those who work round-the-clock jobs, this might mean concentrating on a set number of hours and dedicating them to rest, even if, at this current time, you can’t designate 24 hours at once. Maybe designate 24 hours for the whole week and space it out.

Ultimately, it matters that we dedicate 24 hours a week (whether spaced out or at once) to rest, rejuvenate, and trust God to provide when our work hours cannot.

A Prayer to Observe the Sabbath and Keep it Holy

Lord of the Sabbath, I admit that I have not always observed the Sabbath as I should have. You created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. I should do the same. I acknowledge that you have a plan for me and that tomorrow's workweek can wait. I know that no matter what happens, the tasks will get down if I steward my time well and observe periods of rest. Help me to withdraw from a workaholic mindset that my culture perpetuates. Although it is important to work hard and do everything as if I was working for you, I should also withdraw and rest in your presence as well. Jesus, you withdrew from the crowds to spend time praying. May I do the same with my work and my work week. Amen.

How did the Sabbath get so complicated by the Pharisees' time?

The Pharisees got so stringent about not working on the Lord’s Day that they tried to condemn Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath (Mark 6:1-3). And when his disciples even plucked a head of grain (Mark 2:23), Pharisees claimed they were working on the Sabbath.

Essentially, the Pharisees took the commandments of the Old Testament and created hedges, their versions of the commandments, around those commandments, just to avoid sinning.

Think of it this way:

- Drunkenness is wrong.

- Someone with a Pharisaical mindset would first say you cannot drink any alcohol at any time (a hedge around the commandment against drunkenness).

- They might create another hedge: any product that has alcohol content (soy sauce, for instance) is now banned. That’s a hedge around another hedge.

- If they see you dipping your sushi into soy sauce, they’ll say you’ve sinned.

They became so obsessed with the rules; they lost the point. They warped God’s gift of rest into a burden.

A Sabbath does not mean you get a day off from helping someone in need. Jesus healed on the Sabbath, after all. A Sabbath means concentrating time and giving it to the Lord, acknowledging He’ll provide for needs and finances via other means.

Hope Bolinger is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E. and a recent graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 350 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her column "Hope's Hacks," tips and tricks to avoid writer's block, reaches 3,000+ readers weekly and is featured monthly on Cyle Young's blog. Her modern-day Daniel, “Blaze,” (Illuminate YA) released June 2019 and the sequel releases a year from now. Find out more about her here.

Photo Credit: Getty Images/Marinela Malcheva

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