The Sabbath(Hebrew shabbath, cessation, rest; Greek Sabbaton; Latin Sabbatum), is the seventh day of the week among the Hebrews, the day being counted from sunset to sunset, that is, from Friday evening to Saturday evening.
Prescriptions concerning the sabbath: The Sabbath was a day of rest "sanctified to the Lord" (Exodus 16:23; 31:15; Deuteronomy 5:14). All work was forbidden, the prohibition including strangers as well as Israelites, beasts as well as men (Exodus 20:8-10; 31:13-17; Deuteronomy 5:12-14). The following particular actions are mentioned as forbidden: cooking (Exodus 16:23); gathering manna (16:26 sqq.); plowing and reaping (34:21); lighting a fire (for cooking, 35:3); gathering wood (Numbers 15:32 sqq.); carrying burdens (Jeremiah 17:21-22); pressing grapes, bringing in sheaves, and loading animals (Nehemiah 13:15); trading (Ibid., 15 sqq.). Travelling, at least with a religious object, was not forbidden, the prohibition of Exodus 16:29, referring only to leaving the camp to gather food; it is implied in the institution of holy assemblies (Leviticus 23:2-3, Heb. text), and was customary in the time of the kings (2 Kings 4:23). At a later period, however, all movement was restricted to a distance of 2000 cubits (between five and six furlongs), or a "sabbath day's journey" (Acts 1:12). Total abstention from work was prescribed only for the Sabbath and the Day of Atonement; on the other feast-days servile work alone was prohibited (Exodus 12:16; Leviticus 23:7 sqq.). Wilful violation of the Sabbath was punished with death (Exodus 31:14-15; Numbers 15:32-36). The prohibition of work made it necessary to prepare food, and whatever might be needed, the day before the Sabbath, hence known as the day of preparation, or Parasceve (paraskeue; Matthew 27:62; Mark 15:42; etc.). Besides abstention from work, special religious observances were prescribed. (a) The daily sacrifices were doubled, that is two lambs of a year old without blemish were offered up in the morning, and two in the evening, with twice the usual quantity of flour tempered with oil and of the wine of libation (Numbers 28:3-10). (b) New loaves of proposition were placed before the Lord (Leviticus 24:5; 1 Chronicles 9:32). (c) A sacred assembly was to be held in the sanctuary for solemn worship (Leviticus 23:2-3, Hebrew text; Ezekiel 46:3). We have no details as to what was done by those living at a distance from the sanctuary. Synagogal worship belongs to the post-Exilic period; still it is probably a development of an old custom. In earlier days the people were wont to go to hear the instructions of the Prophets (2 Kings 4:23), and it is not unlikely that meetings for edification and prayer were common from the oldest times.
Meaning of the sabbath: The Sabbath was the consecration of one day of the weekly period to God as the Author of the universe and of time. The day thus being the Lord's, it required that man should abstain from working for his own ends and interests, since by working he would appropriate the day to himself, and that he should devoted his activity to God by special acts of positive worship. After the Sinaitic covenant God stood to Israel in the relation of Lord of that covenant. The Sabbath thereby also became a sign, and its observance an acknowledgment of the pact: "See that thou keep my sabbath; because it is a sign between me and you in your generations; that you may know that I am the Lord, who sanctify you" (Exodus 31:13). But while the Sabbath was primarily a religious day, it had a social and philanthropic side. It was also intended as a day of rest and relaxation, particularly for the slaves (Deuteronomy 5:14). Because of the double character, religious and philanthropic, of the day, two different reasons are given for its observance. The first is taken from God's rest on the seventh day of creation: "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, . . .and rested on the seventh day: therefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it" (Exodus 20:11; 31:17). This does not mean that the Sabbath was instituted at the Creation, as some commentators have thought, but that the Israelites were to imitate God's example and rest on the day which He had sanctified by His rest. The Sabbath as the sign of the Sinaitic covenant recalled the deliverance from the bondage of Egypt. Hence, in the second place, the Israelites are bidden to remember that they were once slaves in Egypt, and should therefore in grateful remembrance of their deliverance rest themselves and allow their bond-servants to rest (Deuteronomy 5:14-15). As a reminder of God's benefits to Israel the Sabbath was to be a day of joy (Isaiah 58:13) and such it was in practice (cf. Hosea 2:11; Lamentations 2:6). No fasting was done on the Sabbath (Judith 8:6) on the contrary, the choicest meals were served to which friends were invited.
Origin of the sabbath: The Sabbath is first met with in connection with the fall of the manna (Exodus 16:22 sqq.), but it there appears as an institution already known to the Israelites. The Sinaitic legislation therefore only gave the force of law to an existing custom. The origin of this custom is involved in obscurity. It was not borrowed from the Egyptians, as the week of seven days closing with a day of rest was unknown to them. In recent years a Babylonian origin has been advocated. A lexicographical tablet gives shabattu as the equivalent of um nuh libbi, "the day of the appeasement of the heart" (of the gods). Furthermore, a religious calendar of the intercalary month Elul and of the month Marchesvan mentions the 7th, 14th, 21st, 28th, and 19th days, the latter probably because it was the 49th (7x7) day from the beginning of the preceding month, as days on which the king, the magician, and the physician were to abstain from certain acts. The king, for instance, was not to eat food prepared with fire, put on bright garments, ride in a chariot, or exercise acts of authority. These days were then, days of propitiation, and therefore shabattu days. We have thus periods of seven days the last day of which is marked by abstention from certain actions, and called shabattu, in other words the equivalent of the Sabbath. A Babylonian origin is not in itself improbable, since Chaldea was the original home of the Hebrews, but there is no proof that such is actually the case. The reading shabattu is uncertain, shapattu being at lest equally probable. Besides, there is no evidence that these days were called shabattu; the signs so read are found affixed only to the 15th day of the month, where, however, sha patti, "division" of the month is the more probable reading. These days, moreover, differed entirely from the Sabbath. They were not days of general rest, business being transacted as on other days. The abstention from certain acts had for object to appease the anger of the gods; the days were, therefore, days of penance, not of joy like the Sabbath. Lastly, these days followed the phases of the moon, whereas the Sabbath was independent of them. Since the Sabbath always appear as a weekly feast without connexion with the moon, it cannot be derived, as is done by some writers, from the Babylonian feast of the full moon, or fifteenth day of the month, which, moreover, has only doubtful claim to the designation shabattu.
Observance of the sabbath: Violations of the Sabbath seem to have been rather common before and during the exile (Jeremiah 17:19 sqq., Ezekiel 20:13, 16, 21, 24; 22:8; 22:38); hence the Prophets laid great stress on its proper observance (Amos 8:5; Isaiah 1:13; 58:13-14; Jeremiah loc. cit.; Ezekiel 20:12 sqq.). After the Restoration the day was openly profaned, and Nehemias found some difficulty in stopping the abuse (Nehemiah 13:15-22). Soon, however, a movement set in towards a meticulous observance which went far beyond what the law contemplated. At the time of the Machabees the faithful Jews allowed themselves to be massacred rather than fight on the Sabbath (1 Maccabees 2:35-38); Mathathias and his followers realizing the folly of such a policy decided to defend themselves if attacked on the Sabbath, though they would not assume the offensive (1 Maccabees 2:40-41; 2 Maccabees 8:26). Under the influence of pharasaic rigorism a system of minute and burdensome regulations was elaborated, while the higher purpose of the Sabbath was lost sight of. The Mishna treatise Shabbath enumerates thirty-nine main heads of forbidden actions, each with subdivisions. Among the main heads are such trifling actions as weaving two threads, sewing two stitches, writing two letters, etc. To pluck two ears of wheat was considered as reaping, while to rub them was a species of threshing (cf. Matthew 12:1-2; Mark 2:23-24; Luke 6:1-2). To carry an object of the weight of a fig was carrying a burden; hence to carry a bed (John 5:10) was a gross breach of the Sabbath. It was unlawful to cure on the Sabbath, or to apply a remedy unless life was endangered (cf. Matthew 12:10 sqq.; Mark 3:2 sqq.; Luke 6:7 sqq.). This explains why the sick were brought to Christ after sundown (Mark, I, 32). It was even forbidden to use a medicament the preceding day if it produced its effect on the Sabbath. In the time of Christ it was allowed to lift an animal out of a pit (Matthew 12:11; Luke 14:5), but this was later modified so that it was not permitted to lay hold of it and lift it out, though it might be helped to come out of itself by means of mattresses and cushions. These examples, and they are not the worst, show the narrowness of the system. Some of the rules were, however, found too burdensome, and a treatise of the Mishna (Erubin) tempers their rigour by subtle devices.
The sabbath in the New Testament: Christ, while observing the Sabbath, set himself in word and act against this absurd rigorism which made man a slave of the day. He reproved the scribes and Pharisees for putting an intolerable burden on men's shoulders (Matthew 23:4), and proclaimed the principle that "the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath" (Mark 2:27). He cured on the Sabbath, and defended His disciples for plucking ears of corn on that day. In His arguments with the Pharisees on this account He showed that the Sabbath is not broken in cases of necessity or by acts of charity (Matthew 12:3 sqq.; Mark 2:25 sqq.; Luke 6:3 sqq.; 14:5). St. Paul enumerates the Sabbath among the Jewish observances which are not obligatory on Christians (Colossians 2:16; Galatians 4:9-10; Romans 14:5). The gentile converts held their religious meetings on Sunday (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2) and with the disappearance of the Jewish Christian churches this day was exclusively observed as the Lord's Day.