The Torah gives several reasons for the existence of the Sabbath, each of which is placed in a different narrative-conceptual context. The Sabbath is first mentioned in the story of Creation, in Genesis. Unlike holidays that are connected to the annual agricultural cycle, and unlike the months, whose days are related to the movement of heavenly bodies – the Sabbath is not rooted in nature. Time is divided into days, nights, months and years, not into seven-day cycles. The Creation story ties the seven-day cycle to Creation itself, attributing the first Sabbath to God.
According to the initial Creation story and other associated in the Torah, the Sabbath, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, is “a sanctuary in time.” In the Torah, there are holy places, holy objects, holy individuals, even holy times. The Sabbath’s holiness is expressed in the fact that the day cannot be used for profane purposes – that is, on it one must abstain from work. Thus, God’s action is reenacted and perpetuated.
In one of the collections of laws in the Book of Exodus, the Sabbath is presented as a day of rest: “on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed” (Exodus 23:12). Deuteronomy elaborates: “the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:14-15).
Deuteronomy links the Sabbath to past events – the Exodus from Egypt – but not to Creation. The memory of the Israelites’ bondage and their thankfulness to God for freeing them from slavery are expressed in this day of rest for all toilers, human and animal. The words “therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” indicate that, according to this version, rest for the laborers was the essence of the Sabbath.
In Parashat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), an additional narrative explains the Sabbath’s origins and meaning. God informs Moses: “I will rain down bread for you from the sky” (Exod. 16:4). This bread, manna, will fall to the ground and the Israelites will collect it every morning. God explains to Moses manna’s function: “that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow my instructions or not” (Exod. 16:4).
The Israelites have just left Egypt and have not yet received the Torah. Does the provision of manna precede the granting of the Torah or is it the initial stage in its granting? Whatever the case, God uses manna to gauge Israel’s loyalty.
The instructions they receive are to collect a fixed amount of this special bread each day, but on Fridays, something special is meant to take place: “But on the sixth day, when they apportion what they have brought in, it shall prove to be double the amount they gather each day” (Exodus 16:5).
The verse has been understood, among other things, as an instruction to “prepare” their Sabbath needs, but in the language of the Bible, “preparation” means “measuring.” For example, Deuteronomy contains the commandment regarding the cities of refuge for those who commit manslaughter: “you shall set aside three cities in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess. You shall survey the distances, and divide into three parts the territory of the country that the Lord your God has allotted to you, so that any manslayer may have a place to flee to” (Deut. 19:2-3). To ensure that the cities of refuge will be sufficiently close to those seeking shelter, they must be distributed throughout the land. The route must be prepared – that is, surveyed and measured – and the land must be divided into three regions, each with a city of refuge.
On Fridays, the Israelites will gather their daily portion of bread but, upon returning to their tents and measuring the quantity they have gathered to cook their meal, will discover they have “double the [daily] amount.” The manna will double itself miraculously and they will have double their usual allotment.
On weekdays, they must gather enough for their family’s daily needs: “Gather as much of it as each of you requires to eat for as many of you as there are” (Exod. 16:16). They must not store bread for tomorrow. They are escaped slaves, who lack security and do not know what tomorrow will bring. The prohibition against hoarding forces them to rely on God and to believe that he will supply sustenance tomorrow. Some Israelites, however, violate this directive: “some of them left of it until morning, and it became infested with maggots and stank” (Exod. 16:20).
On Fridays, when they have a double quantity of manna, the Israelites are commanded to store what remains for the following day: “‘Bake what you would bake and boil what you would boil; and all that is left put aside to be kept until morning.’ So they put it aside until morning, as Moses had ordered; and it did not turn foul, and there were no maggots in it” (Exod. 16:23-24). During the week, anything left over from the bread becomes rancid; on the Sabbath it remains fresh. The Sabbath day is a miracle, overriding nature’s laws.
Another dimension of the Sabbath is connected to the belief that God will provide for our needs. Unlike the requirement to work, as presented in Deuteronomy – “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God” (Deut. 5:13-14) – Parashat Beshalach describes our daily earnings not as resulting from hard work during the six days of the week, but as the product of an ongoing act of divine compassion, which the Sabbath embodies. The mythological past in the desert is depicted as heaven on earth: The Israelites do not have to work for their bread, but instead gather it when it descends from heaven. The Sabbath brings to the present something of the compassion and miracles of our days of yore in the desert.
All biblical quotations are taken from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.