The Origin of the Seven-Day Week: The Slave’s Lesson

shabbat candles in the windIt‘s only Monday, and I‘m already looking forward to the weekend. But since I’ve got a ways to go, it got me to thinking, Where did the idea of the weekend come from? Seven days seems so arbitrary. In fact, it would make more sense if the week were five days long. Then at least there would be a regular number of weeks in the year – 73, not 52.142857. And wouldn’t it be cool, and probably healthy, to have a four-day work week followed by a fifth day off 73 times a year? Yet every country in the world counts a week as seven days and takes one or two days at the end of each cycle to relax from work. Where did this random-seeming idea come from?

The fact is, it took a nation of former slaves, the Jews, to invent the idea around the 14th century BCE. Moses liberates them from bondage in Egypt. They flee as quickly as they can, knowing Pharaoh is likely to change his mind again. He does, and in pursuing them his army is drowned in the Red Sea. Safely across, Moses leads the Children of Israel, now a horde of several million, into the wasteland east of Egypt. They come to Mount Sinai and camp at the bottom while Moses ascends to get further instructions from God. After 40 days, he brings down the Ten Commandments. One of the ten is this incredible innovation: set aside one day a week to rest and worship God and keep the day holy. Since then, the Shabbat, as Jews call it, has become one of the Jews’ extraordinary gifts to world civilization.

Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy. It’s an abstract, positive commandment that doesn’t seem quite to fit with the don’ts (commit adultery, murder, covet, bear false witness, steal, worship idols, have other gods, or abuse My Name) and the only other do (honor your parents), which is personal. Yet, the Sabbath is one of Judaism’s holiest concepts, the foundation of how Jews measure time. Further, it originates with them.

This is not an example of cultural borrowing. The Sumerians, Akkadians, nor the Babylonians had nothing quite like it. Although there is fragmentary evidence they may have counted seven day periods from the new moon, their “week,” if it existed at all, was unstable. The Egyptians used a ten-day cycle. The Sabbath was created ab novo by Jews. If you cannot accept that it’s divinely inspired, then it’s admittedly – like those two other Jewish inventions at Sinai, the phonetic alphabet and monotheism – at very least an invention so extraordinary and transformative that it inspires the world.

Jews place such importance on the Sabbath day that their calendar is fixed around the stability and sanctity of the seven-day week, and they go to great lengths to preserve it. A lunar cycle is actually 29.53 days. If you don’t add an extra day now and then to the lunar calendar (called intercalation) to catch up with the sun’s rhythms, the calendar will soon be a mess as it gets out of sync with the annual seasons and the solar year. Instead of adding a day to the week, Jews loosen the concept of a month and subjugate it to the week, intercalating an extra day at the beginning or end of certain months rather than lose a fixed, certain Sabbath. They even add an extra whole month every two or three years rather than violating the rhythm of the week, which of course also commemorates the seven days of Creation. 

Considering that the new (or full) moon is the most evident regular marker of time, and there is nothing in nature to suggest anything special about a seven-day week, the abstraction of the Sabbath arising in an agrarian world seems yet more remarkable. It also defeats any argument that some previous culture had anything like it. In fact, it is so distinctively Jewish, and so intimately bound to the original revelation of God and the Bible that give the Jews their identity, that it even is part of the traditional proof of the validity of Judaism.

Around 740 CE, Bulan, King of the Khazars – a vast nomadic Turkic nation controlling all of Eastern Europe – had a mystical revelation that he had to embrace the one true religion. He interviewed a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew. In the end, he chose Judaism and converted his entire people. Four centuries later, Rabbi Judah HaLevi recounted the Jew’s audience with the King in his book, The Kuzari. The Rabbi makes several arguments defending Judaism, but one of the most persuasive, because it is indisputable, is the worldwide acceptance of the seven-day week culminating in a Sabbath.

Rabbi: Did you ever hear of a nation that does not accept the standard seven-day week, beginning on Sunday and ending on the Sabbath? How is it possible that the people of China agree with the inhabitants of the westernmost islands on this matter, without some initial contact, collaboration, and agreement?

King: It is improbable….unless we are all the descendants of Adam, Noah, or some other ancestor from whom we received the seven-day week.

  • R. Judah HaLevi, The Kuzari (1140)

The Kuzari is still studied by Jews as an essential testament of faith.

Even if we regard the Sabbath as a merely cultural practice, devoid of any religious significance, it indisputably marks one of the most monumental social revolutions in history. By forbidding work on one day every seven, the Sabbath distinguishes humans from beasts, who have a very different notion of time, if they have “notions” at all. It distinguishes free people from slaves, who don’t control their time or their work. This must have been especially and immediately poignant to the Jews, slaves just a short time before they receive the Sabbath. And now thirty-five hundred years later its transformations of work, play, time, freedom and self-determination still resonate globally.

Jews light candles to mark the beginning of the Sabbath at sundown Friday. In my home, lighting the candles to distinguish the start of something different from the mundane and ordinary, to welcome something soulful into our hectic lives, was the only perfectly consistent ritual we observed throughout my children’s lives. We also called it a birthday party for the world. The Sabbath gave them a sense, even before they could talk, that there may just be something beyond all the material stuff in life, something inexpressible and delightful and filled with light. I see it in my grandchildren, all under five years old. I hope and pray they also grow up to appreciate the other lesson of Shabbat, the slave’s lesson, that time is precious and transcendent. Our freedom to do with it as we choose is one of the sweetest things in life.

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