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The Jewish Sabbath is presented in the Old Testament:

8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Exodus 20:8-11.

I would like to know about the historical origins of this practice. Is the practice of having a weekly day of rest and devotion original to Judaism, or can its origins be traced back to a prior non-Jewish source?

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    reformjudaism says it is a mystery - not shared with other contemporary cultures. Wiki contains the same information. – MCW Feb 17 at 18:12
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    @MarkC.Wallace - In fact that link contains more interesting things: In ancient Babylonia, the Akkadian word shab/pattum corresponded to the fifteenth day of the month as a day of quieting god’s heart. There are those who maintain that it comes from another Akkadian word, sebutum, meaning the seventh day...It is also not clear how the noun Shabbat was originally connected to the verb shavat, meaning “to rest,” or if one was actually derived from the other. – cipricus Feb 17 at 22:30
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    The Wikipedia article on the week attributes this to "holy days" every 7 days after each New Moon in ancient Babylonia. – Spencer Feb 17 at 23:00
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    Why do you say it's controversial? – cipricus Feb 17 at 23:05
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    The old Christian churches never had a problem with having a day of rest, but they created Sunday, Day of the Lord, inspired but different from the Sabbath (Saturday). The neoprotestant debates are not a matter for history. – cipricus Feb 17 at 23:26
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I think we can have an answer based on the two comments by @MarkC.Wallace and @Spencer under the question, linking to

Let’s take a look at some passages of the first article:

In ancient Babylonia, the Akkadian word shab/pattum corresponded to the fifteenth day of the month as a day of quieting god’s heart. There are those who maintain that it comes from another Akkadian word, sebutum, meaning the seventh day…

It is also not clear how the noun Shabbat was originally connected to the verb shavat, meaning “to rest,” or if one was actually derived from the other.

All ancient facts are more or less mysterious, but as expected there is a clear pre-Jewish Summerian-Akkadian (Mesopotamian) connection.

Looking at Wikipedia article:

The earliest evidence of an astrological significance of a seven-day period is connected to Gudea, the priest-king of Lagash in Summer during the Gutian dynasty, who built a seven-room temple, which he dedicated with a seven-day festival. In the flood story of the Assyro-Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the storm lasts for seven days, the dove is sent out after seven days, and the Noah-like character of Utnapishtim leaves the ark seven days after it reaches the firm ground.

Counting from the new moon, the Babylonians celebrated the 7th, 14th, 21st and 28th as "holy-days", also called "evil days" (meaning "unsuitable" for prohibited activities). On these days, officials were prohibited from various activities and common men were forbidden to "make a wish", and at least the 28th was known as a "rest-day". On each of them, offerings were made to a different god and goddess. In a frequently-quoted suggestion going back to the early 20th century,the Hebrew Sabbath is compared to the Sumerian sa-bat "mid-rest", a term for the full moon. The Sumerian term has been reconstructed as rendered Sapattum or Sabattum in Babylonian... It is possible that the Hebrew seven-day week is based on the Babylonian tradition, although going through certain adaptations.

As the question is whether a weekly day of rest and devotion is original to Judaism, or can its origins be traced back to a prior non-Jewish source, the answer is obvious.

  • The seven-day cycle is an astronomical/astrological idea invented and developed by older civilizations of the Fertile Crescent that influenced the Canaan area (Summer, Akkad, Babilon).
  • In that 7-day moon cycle, each 7th day was sacred, during which some actions were prohibited
  • At least one in four of these sacred days was a day of rest
  • The very name Sabbath can be traced back to Sumer

But on this background Jewish/Biblical interpretations can be seen as innovative:

  • The astrologically-centered moon-cyclic meaning is replaced in the Bible with a perspective centered on the monotheistic principle.
  • Judaism promoted a moral discriminatory idea of the sacred itself: the sacred day ceases to be both “holy” and “evil”.

Some older Western historiography was inclined (especially in the protestant Anglo-Saxon world) to look for absolute originality of all things Jewish. Until recently there was even a “Biblical archaeology” trend of simply “proving” the Bible literally true by unearthing what the Bible described. The recent and more scientific approach on the matter is to ask how and to what degree anything in the Middle East is related to the larger context created by the massive and important Sumerian and Egyptian cultures that preceded any others by millennia. On that background, looking for absolute innovations doesn’t make much sense, and any innovation can be related to some precedent, as a continuation and/or as a change. Most Jewish traditions are modifications (in some cases revolutionary reinterpretations) of previous elements. Taking into account their background is a prerequisite to understanding changes involved in these innovations.

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    "Until recently there was even a 'Biblical archaeology' trend" Biblical archaeology is alive and, maybe not "well," but it's doing its thing: christianitytoday.com/news/2020/december/… – Juhasz Feb 18 at 19:55
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    @Juhasz - I am using the term in a more limited and polemic sense, I don't mean any archeology related to biblical time and space, but research that takes too easy biblical accounts for true history e.g. a large kingdom of David or the Exodus. – cipricus Feb 18 at 21:59
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    I understand. I'm familiar with Finkelstein and his critiques of this form of scholarship. That was what I was referencing, too. Though some of the items in the list I linked may have been studied from a neutral lens, others are clearly not, e.g. item 8, "Archaeologists believe this building was an outpost of the kingdom of Geshur, an ally of King David. David’s wife Maacah, the mother of Absalom, was the daughter of the king of Geshur." Or, consider the aptly named Biblical Archaeology Society, e.g. biblicalarchaeology.org/magazine/… – Juhasz Feb 18 at 22:14
  • @Juhasz - How mainstream is this (frankly: propagandist!) trend? I am more familiarized with the critique than with this, but Wikipedia, internet and media are full of it. I should post a question on that I think, although it might stir up a hornet's nest. – cipricus Feb 19 at 7:07
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    That's a good question, which I don't have a ready answer to. I only read archaeology casually. My sense is that Biblical archaeology is quite common, possibly even as common as the kind of biblicaly minimalist archaeology Finkelstein et al. practice and promote. You should post that question. I'd be interested to read the answers. – Juhasz Feb 19 at 17:29

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