Adaption of Sermon I gave last Saturday
As a Jew, I’ve lived my entire life with Shabbat. It means not working from Friday to Saturday night. Growing up it meant not writing, drawing, using electricity, or any other task that might cause a permanent change. It shaped a large part of who I am, but I’d never given its origin a second thought. How did we, the Jewish people, come up with this? Were there any cultures that had it before us? In what form? I put on my scholar’s hat, and got to work.
It’s believed the Israelites didn’t start using the Jewish Calendar until King Solomon’s time. Before that we used the Pentecontad calendar -big in Mesopotamia at the time. It consisted of 7- 7 week cycles -7 days in each week. 7 weeks is 49 days so they threw in a bonus day each period for a grand total of 50. That 7 times in a year made for 350 standard days. To round out the year, there was a 15 day harvesting time called the Shappatum. Some believe that Shappatum turned into Shabbat. It was the same principle of having a separated time.
Or perhaps it was the Babylonian calendar that inspired it. The 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th of their months were days when officials were prohibited from various activities and common men were forbidden to “make a wish.” (Wikipedia) These were days of repentance, and once a month they had a day called Sabattum which is argued to come from the Sumerian Sa-bat meaning ‘mid-rest.’
Even if I discovered the origin of who was the first to have a seven day week ending in a Sabbath, we’re still left with where did Shabbat originally come from? Saying there was other cultures with Shabbat built into their calendar is really just pushing the source back in history, not going to the origin.
This is not an easy question to answer. In pre-Judaic Mesopotamia mythology there is only a single example of someone resting on the seventh day. It’s tenuous, but fascinating enough to share.
In the Epic of Atra-Hasis, a story predating the Epic of Gilgamesh, the following is told. For those who took the time read the original (well worth it), I apologize for any artistic license I might be taking.
The lower gods were sick of working. All they did all day was work, and it was getting to them. They filed a complaint and the 7 great Anunna gods listened to them, deciding the best course of action was to kill whoever complained.
Now when Ea heard about this, she said “Whoah -let’s not kill them – how about we just get humans to do the work for us? I mean Belet-ili can create man – she has a woom.” This was a good solution for the Igigi gods, the lower gods, as it didn’t involve them dying. Belet-ili passed the buck over to Enki and man was created to do the dirty work for the gods.
However, there was a problem. These humans were loud. So loud, in fact, that the gods decided that while it was a decent idea, the humans would have to go. It was time to go back to the old system. They decided to wipe out man with a flood. Only one man survived, a man by the name of Atra-Hasis. He built an ark and I quote, “on the seventh day the flood ended and that on this day silence or stillness reigned the earth, man was gone except those on Atra-Hasis’s boat”
The Epic of Gilgamesh, based off of this, is phrased thusly:
When the seventh day arrived, the flood (-carrying) south-storm subsided in the battle, which it had fought like an army. The sea grew quiet, the tempest was still, the flood ceased. I looked at the weather: stillness had set in, and all of mankind had returned to clay.
While I doubt that’s the origin of Shabbat, a tenuous relation at best, there were some convincing arguments to the contrary.
The dead end quote I came to was
In spite of extensive efforts of more than a century of study into extra-Israelite Sabbath origins, it is still shrouded in mystery. No hypothesis whether astrological, menological, sociological, etymological, or cultic commands the respect of a scholarly consensus. Each hypothesis or combination of hypotheses has insurmountable problems. The quest for the origin of the Sabbath outside of the Old Testament cannot be pronounced to have been successful. It is, therefore, not surprising that this quest has been pushed into the background of studies on the Sabbath in recent years. (David Noel Freedman 1992)
So after a long search into the history of where Shabbis comes from, I found there were no definitive answers. If we’re to answer the question of why does Shabbis exist, trying to answer it from a biblical or scholarly perspective will take us places, but won’t give us the answer. However, Shabbis does exists for a very specific reason. Mark Bittmen wrote the following a year ago on what he called a secular sabbath. It’s one of the best defenses I’ve heard to convince a less observant camper, congrargent or friend on the value of Shabbat. Here’s a snippet:
I took a real day off this weekend: computers shut down, cellphone left in my work bag, land-line ringer off. I was fully disconnected for 24 hours….
On my first weekend last fall, I eagerly shut it all down on Friday night, then went to bed to read. (I chose Saturday because my rules include no television, and I had to watch the Giants on Sunday). I woke up nervous, eager for my laptop. That forbidden, I reached for the phone. No, not that either. Send a text message? No. I quickly realized that I was feeling the same way I do when the electricity goes out and, finding one appliance nonfunctional, I go immediately to the next. I was jumpy, twitchy, uneven….I managed.
Then later it finishes up with:
I would no more make a new-agey call to find inner peace than I would encourage a return to the mimeograph. But I do believe that there has to be a way to regularly impose some thoughtfulness, or at least calm, into modern life — or at least my version. Once I moved beyond the fear of being unavailable and what it might cost me, I experienced what, if I wasn’t such a skeptic, I would call a lightness of being. I felt connected to myself rather than my computer. I had time to think, and distance from normal demands. I got to stop.
So I came in with the question “What is the origin of Shabbis?” and leave with the answer to “What does it mean today?” I’d still love to know the former, but I’m glad there continues to be a relevant answer to the latter.