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Archive for July, 2015

The Etymology of ‘Sabbath’

Professor Francoisde Blois15 July 2015

The following is a lecture about the etymology of the ‘Sabbath’ given at the Workshop on ‘The Origins of the Seven-Day Week’ on 25 June 2015 at University College London. To download a pdf version please click here: SABBATH paper.





שַׁבָּת šabbòṯ m./f. ‘Sabbath, Saturday’ (Old Hebr. *šabbat)

שָׁבַת šòḇaṯ ‘to rest, cease’, (like Arabic sabata; also Ugaritic and Punic šbt in derived stems only)

שָׁבוּעַ šòḇūaʽ ‘week, group of seven’

שֶׁבַע šέḇaʽ ‘seven’


GREEK (Koine)

σάββατον n., σάββατα n. pl. ‘Sabbath, Saturday’, but also ‘week’

The more usual word for ‘week’ is ἑβδομάς f.

δὶς τοῦ σαββάτου ‘twice in the week’ (Luc. 18:12)

μία σαββάτων ‘Sunday’ (e.g. Matt. 28:1)


ARAMAIC (Syriac)

determined state: šabbṯā f. ‘Sabbath, Saturday, week’

absolute state: šabbā f., as in:

ḥaḏ b-šabbā ‘Sunday’

trēn b-šabbā ‘Monday’ etc.

(as opposed to trēn b-šabbṯā in Luc.18:12)

but Mandaic has šʼptʼ ‘Saturday’, presumably /šappṯā/



The attested forms in Manichaean Parthian (Pa), Manichaean Middle Persian (MP), and in Early New Persian (NP):

Sunday: Pa. ēw-šambat; MP. yak-šambed, -t; NP. yak-šambih

Monday: Pa./MP. dō-šambat; NP. dō-šambih

Tuesday: NP. si-šambih

Wednesday: NP. č(ah)ār-šambih

Thursday: NP. panj-šambih

Friday: NP. āδīna; later normally Arabic jumʽa

Saturday: Pa. šambat; MP. šambed; NP. šambih; Judaeo-Persian also šambid


AKKADIAN (Babylonian)

arḫu ‘moon, month, 1st day of the lunar month’

sebūtu ‘7th day of the month’

šapattu (or šabattu) ‘15th day of the month, full moon, fifteen days’

sebe f., sebet m. ‘seven’

sebū (also šebʼu, šabū) m., sebūtu f. ‘seventh’




The Hebrew name for the seventh day of the week, the Jewish day of rest, is, in the pronunciation implied by the Tiberian pointing, šabbòṯ, in Ashkenazic pronunciation /šabos/, in Sephardic pronunciation /šabat/; in Old Hebrew it was presumably *šabbat. It is used both as a masculine and as a feminine noun. Concerning the origin of this word there have been basically two positions: One is that it is a purely Hebrew word derived from the verbal stem š‑b‑t ‘to rest’; the other is that it is a loan word from Akkadian. We will look at these two etymologies in turn.


A connection between the verb šòḇaṯ ‘he rested’ and the noun šabbòṯ in the sense ‘day of rest’ is eminently plausible and the latter has explicitly been derived from the former at least since the time of Josephus (Ant. 1.1.1) who tells us that ‘in the dialect of the Hebrews’ the word σάββατα means ἀνάπαυσις. One does, however, need to consider the possibility that the noun is not derived from the verb, but rather that the verb is derived from the noun. It is true that in many of its occurrences in the Bible the verb š‑b‑t refers explicitly to rest on the Sabbath. Right at the beginning of the Bible, in the creation story, we read that on the seventh day God ‘rested’ (Gen. 2:2: way-yišboṯ) from his creative labour. But there are probably just as many passages where the same verb is used simply for ‘to rest’ or ‘to cease’ without any reference to the Sabbath, thus (a random example) Gen. 8:22: ‘While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease (lo yišboṯu)’. Both usages seem to be common in all compositional strands (J, E, P, D) of the Pentateuch, as well as in the other books of the Hebrew Bible. To maintain the notion that the verb šòḇaṯ is denominal from the noun šabbòṯ one would have to argue that the idea of the Sabbath is so central to Jewish thinking that a verb which originally meant merely ‘to keep the Sabbath’ became so engrained in the language that it developed into the general word for ‘stop’ or ‘cease’. But another difficulty is that this root has clear cognates in Semitic (Arabic sabata; also Ugaritic and Punic š‑b‑t in derived stems, all in the sense ‘to rest’). To explain this the ‘denominalist’ school has argued that Arabic sabata is either a loan from Hebrew, or that it has been influenced by Jewish usage, but this can hardly be the case with Ugaritic. On the other hand, the view that the noun šabbòṯ (*šabbat) derives from the verb š‑b‑t also has its difficulties, insofar as nouns of the patterns qattal, qittal, quttal are, as a rule, primary concrete nouns, often animal names (e.g. Syriac ṣepprā, abs. ṣeppar ‘small bird’), and not deverbal abstract nouns.


The concept of the Sabbath is inevitably tied up with that of the week, in Hebrew šòḇūaʽ, which is manifestly derived from the number ‘seven’ šέḇaʽ. The words for ‘week’ and for ‘Sabbath’ share the same first two consonants, but the third consonant is different: /t/ in the case of ‘Sabbath’ and ‘rest’, and /ʽ/ in the case of ‘week’ and ‘seven’. There is of course the view that Semitic or Hamito-Semitic roots originally consisted of only two consonants, to which a third, semantically empty, consonant could be appended (very much like the ‘root’ and ‘extension’ posited for ancient Indo-European), but this, if true, would apply to proto-Semitic or pre-Semitic but would have no relevance for a concept like that of the week, which emerged in historic times. We need therefore to regard š‑b‑t and š‑b‑ʽ as two totally separate roots.


The ancient Greeks did not have the concept of a week and thus there is no word for ‘week’ or for any of the days of the week in classical Greek. But in Greek writings by Jews and Christians we do have such terms. The seventh day is designated by the Hebrew or Aramaic loan word σάββατον (neuter singular) or σάββατα (neuter plural). Although there are a few passages where σάββατα does in fact mean ‘two or more Sabbaths’, in most cases both the singular and the plural forms are used to designate a single Sabbath. In particular, in the Septuagint we can observe that Hebrew šabbòṯ is translated either by σάββατον or by σάββατα without any discernable difference of meaning. It seems possible that σάββατα is in fact a borrowing of the Old Aramaic singular noun in the determined state *šabbatā (Middle Aramaic: šabbṯā), which Greek speakers subsequently reinterpreted as a neuter plural and that the sigular σάββατον is a back-formation.


The most commmon Greek word for ‘week’ is ἑβδομάς, a classical word for ‘group of seven’. But occasionally the ‘week’ is called σάββατον. This is clearly the case in Luke 18:12, the story of the pious tax collector and the hypocritical Pharesee, where the latter says that he fasts δὶς τοῦ σαββάτου, which must mean ‘twice a week’, not ‘twice on the Sabbath’. The names of the week days from Sunday to Thursday are formed from the cardinal or (more commonly) ordinal numbers plus the genitive σαββάτων, thus, for example, in Matt. 28:1 μία σαββάτων ‘Sunday’, which can be analysed as ‘(day) one of the week’, though I suppose it could also be understood to mean ‘(day) one of the (cycle of) Sabbaths’.


If we turn now to Aramaic, and specifically to Syriac, we find both the determined state šabbṯā and the absolute state šabbā. This word is manifestly borrowed from Hebrew, but with a decisive difference: In Hebrew the final /t/ is part of the root, but in Syriac it has been reinterpreted as the feminine ending /-t/, which in the absolute state is (here, as always in Aramaic) replaced by the ending /-ā/. Thus, while the Hebrew masculine or feminine noun šabbòṯ is attached to the root š‑b‑t, in Syriac the feminine noun šabbṯā belongs ostensibly to a root š‑b‑b, plus the feminine suffix -t.


The determined state šabbṯā is the Syriac word both for ‘Saturday’ and for ‘week’. The names for the days from ‘Sunday’ to ‘Thursday’ are formed from the cardinal numbers (the masculine forms for ‘one’ and ‘two’, but the feminine forms for the others) followed by the preposition b- and the absolute state šabbā. There is thus a distinction between trēn b-šabbā ‘(day) two in the week’, for ‘Monday’, and trēn b-šabbṯā ‘two (times) in the week’, which translates δὶς τοῦ σαββάτου in the above-mentioned passage in Luke 18. Friday is ʽrūḇtā ‘preparation (for the Sabbath)’, like Greek παρασκευή (notably Matt. 27:62). As can be seen, the Syriac designation of the days of the week is very similar to that in koine Greek, but I am not sure whether we are dealing with a Semitism in Greek or a Hellenism in Aramaic. I would note, however, that the constructions are not entirely identical: Greek follows the numbers with a genitive plural, but Syriac follows them by a preposition with a singular noun.


In Iranian languges we have names for the days of the week in Jewish, Christian, Manichaean and Islamic texts; the week is not used by Zoroastrians. The attested Parthian and Persian forms are listed in the handout. For ‘Saturday’ (and for the ‘Sabbath’ component of the compounded day names) we have šambed in Middle Persian and early Judaeo-Persian[1], and šambat in Parthian (and as a Parthian form in Middle Persian texts); these represent (I suggest) earlier and later borrowings of Aramaic šabbṯā (the former borrowed before, the latter after the Persian and Parthian voicing of post-vocalic voiceless stops) with dissimilation of ‑bb‑ to ‑mb‑, as in other Aramaic loanwords in Iranian (e.g. gumbaδ < qubbṯā, ‘dome’), and in the words for ‘Sabbath’ is many other languages (e.g. Geʽez sanbat, Church Slavonic сѫбота, OHG sambaztag > NHG samstag). The names for the days from Sunday to Thursday are formed (as in Aramaic) from the cardinal numbers followed by word for ‘Sabbath’; early New Persain āδīna is presumably the equivalent of ʽrūḇtā, but its etymology is contested. It is unlikely that the Persian Muslims had these names from the Manichaeans; it would seem rather that they borrowed them yet again from Christians or Jews. In any case, the Persian week is definitely an off-shoot of the Aramaic week. By contrast, the Sogdian Manichaeans used the planetary week[2].


I turn your attention now to the very interesting situation in Akkadian. The Babylonians and Assyrians did not have a week in the sense that we are using for this word, namely a fixed and repeating cycle of seven days, nor did they have anything really comparable with the Jewish Sabbath. They did however have several schemes for dividing their lunar months into periods of a fixed number of days, with their limits defined approximately by the cardinal phases on the moon: new moon, first quarter, full moon and third quarter. One of these schemes involves a set of special names for the first, seventh and fifteenth day of any month.


The first day is called arḫu (older warḫu), which is the ordinary word for ‘moon’, ‘month’, and then also ‘first day of the lunar month’, cognate with the word for ‘moon, month’ in most other Semitic languages[3].


The seventh day is called sebūtu, which is obviously derived from the word for the number ‘seven’: sebe (with a feminine referent) and sebet (with a masculine referent). These illustrate two significant linguistic events: First, the general rule that in Babylonian (the Southern dialect of Akkadian) all the Semitic laryngials except for /x/ are lost, in this case the final /ʽ/ of Semitic *s1abʽ. Second, the irregular replacement, in the word for ‘seven’, of Akkadian /š/ (for Semitic /s1/) by Akkadian /s/ (the usual reflex of Semitic /s3/), presumably as a result of dissimilation of the consecutive numerals ‘six’ (Semitic *s1idϑ) and ‘seven’ (*s1abʽ). sebūtu is formally identical with the feminine of the ordinal number sebū ‘seventh’; thus in principal sebūtu could simply mean ‘seventh’ with an implied feminine referent (perhaps mušītu ‘night, evening’), though the authors of the Akkadian dictionaries have preferred to see it as a separate, but homophonous feminine noun.


The fifteenth day is called šapattu or šabattu, which is also used for ‘full moon’ and ‘period of fifteen days’. As yet there is no satisfactory etymology for this. I suggest tentatively that it might be connected with the Akkadian word šaptu ‘lip’, cognate with Hebrew śòp̅ò, Arabic šafatun, Syriac sep̅tā, etc., from Semitic *s2ap-(a)t-. In Akkadian, besides meaning ‘lip’, šaptu has a number of figurative senses such as ‘edge, rim, bank of a river’; Syriac sep̅tā has similar usages. The full moon occurs when the sun and moon are in opposition; the moon rises when the sun sets and sets when the sun rises. It is thus conceivable that the Babylonians thought of the full moon as sitting on the ‘rim’ or ‘edge’ of the bright hemisphere. The proposed development of šaptu to šapattu would involve only a secondary gemination of the feminine suffix, something for which there are other examples in Akkadian. Although spellings which imply šapattu (with /p/) are more common, there are also spellings that unambiguously imply /b/, as well as many spellings that can be interpreted either way. Fluctuation between /p/ and /b/ is fairly common in Akkadian, and also in Babylonian Aramaic, including such tantalising examples as the Mandaic name for ‘Saturday’, šʼptʼ, presumably for šappṯā.


These three terms are mentioned together in at least two texts. They are not names of three random days, rather they belong together as designations for three important cultic events in any month. They also mark three of the cardinal points of the lunar month: the sighting of the new moon on the first day of the month, the first quarter on or about the seventh, and the full moon on or about the fifteenth. There is a longstanding discussion among both Assyriologists and Biblical scholars about a possible connection between the Hebrew šabbòṯ and the Babylonian šapattu. From the point of view of phonological correspondence the equation of the two words is not particularly problematic, especially if we take the Babylonian varriant šabattu (with voiced /b/) as our point of departure. šabbòṯ (older *šabbat) and šabattu have not only the same consonants, but even the same vowels; they differ really only in the distribution of the gemination. In late Babylonian the case endings were still written (often not correctly) but evidently no longer pronounced. Thus šabattu would have been pronounced as šabatt, but since Hebrew and Aramaic do not allow geminated consonants in final position the Hebrews would have reduced the final consonant to /-t/ and then perhaps compensated by geminating the labial in the preceeding syllable. The difficulty with this is the semantics. šabattu is the 15th day of the month, the time of the full moon, while šabbòṯ is the seventh day of a recurring cycle. Semantically it would seem actually more attractive to compare šabbòṯ with sebūtu, the seventh day of the month, but from a phonological point of view these two cannot very well be connected.


I offer the following as a hypothesis. The ancient Hebrews could have been aware of the Babylonian practice of celebrating a major festival on the seventh day of the lunar month, sebūtu. They might have adopted this as a name for the seventh day, then for the seventh after it, and the seventh after it, and so forth until the end of the month. Thus there would be four “sebūtus” in every month, on the 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th day. The second sebūtu would coincide approximately with the Babylonian šapattu (šabattu) on the 15th day of the month, the day of the full moon. Prompted perhaps by the superficial similarity of sebūtu and šabattu, and by an association of both with Hebrew šέḇaʽ ‘seven’ (in the case of sebūtu correctly, in that of šabattu wrongly), and perhaps a further (spurious) association of both with Hebrew šòḇaṯ ‘to rest’, they might have come to regard sibūtu and šabattu as synonyms and applied the latter name to all four of the cardinal points of the month. We would then have to assume that at a later stage the Hebrews abandonned the practice of recommencing the counting of heptads at the beginning of every month and instead adopted a constantly recurring cycle of seven days without regard to the moon.


My proposal is thus to revive in a new guise the old suggestion that Hebrew šabbòṯ is a loan word from Babylonian šapattu. This means that it is etymologically not connected with the Hebrew root š‑b‑t ‘to rest’, thus relieving us of the mentioned difficulties of deriving either one of these from the other. The Sabbath is in essence the seventh day. The linguistic link with its seventh-ness is via the Babylonian sibūtu, which was contaminated (as we say in linguistics) with the unrelated šapattu. The connection with ‘rest’ is secondary, and essentially theological.


[This paper is for the most part a synthesis of the information contained in the standard dictionaries, in particular (for Hebrew) Koehler/Baumgartner3; Gesenius/Meyer/Donner (=Gesenius18); TWzAT; (for Greek) Liddell/Scott/Jones; Bauer/Reichmann/Aland/Aland (=Bauer6); TWzNT; (for Syriac) R. Payne-Smith; Brockelmann2; Brockelmann/Sokoloff; (for Mandaic) Drower/Macuch; (for Western Middle Iranian) Durkin-Meisterernst; (for Akkadian) CAD, AHw. I have not worked through the enormous mass of secondary literature, but I have benefited from re-reading Landsberger’s classic study Der kultische Kalender der Babylonier und Assyrer, 1915.]

[1] MacKenzie, BSOAS 31, 1968, p. 254. New Persian شنبه šambih )not šamba) rhymes with bih ‘better’ (see, for example, the verse by Niẓāmī cited s.v. in the Luγatnāma); the development of -eδ to –ih is irregular.


[2] Henning, Ein manichäisches Bet- und Beichtbuch, APAW 1936, 10, p. 85.


[3] See Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd edition, s.v. Taʼrīkh.

The origins of the seven-day week

IlariaBultrighini8 July 2015

Our 5th Workshop, ‘The origins of the seven-day week’, took place on the 25th of June 2015. With it, we inaugurated a new format of very focussed workshops, which are meant to address, in turn, individual research interests of each member of our multidisciplinary team. The first workshop of this new series dealt with the theme investigated by this post’s writer. The seven-day week stems from two distinct traditions: the Biblical week of the Sabbath, and the astrological, planetary week. The main purpose of this workshop was to explore how these two traditions emerged and spread in the Roman Empire, and how they combined remarkably into a single, seven-day unit of time reckoning that was to become standard in the medieval and modern worlds.

We arranged the workshop programme into three thematic sessions: ‘The planetary week’, ‘The Jewish seven-day week’, and ‘The seven-day week in the Roman Empire’.


After a brief general introduction by Sacha Stern (UCL), Wolfgang Hübner (Münster) opened the first session with a paper entitled ‘When and where was the planetary week invented?’. An examination of the (rather scanty) relevant sources led him to confirm the general assumption that the so-called system of the chronocrators – according to which the seven ‘planets’ rule in succession the hours and days of the week – underlies the planetary week cycle. This system is based on the ‘Chaldean order’ of the planetary spheres, which would thus appear to lead back to ancient Babylonia, the birthplace of astrology; nonetheless, there are no traces of this order before the 2nd century BCE, when astral sciences were much developed, not in Babylonia, however, but in the Hellenised Egypt of the Ptolemies. Further hints pointing to an origin of the planetary week in Hellenistic Egypt are not lacking; on these bases, Hübner proposed that this weekly system was created during the 3rd or 2nd century BCE in Alexandria. Béatrice Bakhouche (Montpellier) spoke about ‘Evidence of the planetary week in Rome: issues and debates’. By reconsidering part of the evidence that had already been examined in the previous talk, as well as the most significant Roman sources related to the adoption and use of the planetary week in the Roman west, she emphasised how the Romans were strongly influenced by astrological and Pythagorean ideas towards the end of the Republican period. This may have played a role in the Roman adoption of the planetary week, which, however, had initially a strictly astrological use, before evolving into a real calendrical tool. Given the limited number of sources attesting to the existence and use of this type of week in the early imperial period, she argued that the planetary week was not officially used in the Roman west earlier than the late 2nd – early 3rd century CE. In addition, she contributed to the question of the origins of the planetary week by stressing how a Jewish influence on the Roman calendar can hardly be assumed, considering the Romans’ general view of the Jews, which was mainly linked to an idea of marginality. Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim (Goldsmiths) offered a glimpse into a different historical and geographical context with her talk on ‘Notes on the Tibetan planetary week and its possible sources’. She pointed out that the planetary week presumably arrived to Tibet through India and, in turn, it was the Hellenic culture that transmitted this knowledge to India. Indeed, contacts and relations between Greeks and Indians go back to as early as the Hellenistic period, since the Indian campaign that Alexander the Great started a few years before his death. Unfortunately the times and modes of this transmission are not known; it is however attractive to imagine that the astrological notion of the planetary week spread towards India from Ptolemaic Egypt during the late Hellenistic period. We would thus have a further confirmation for the assumption that the planetary week originated in the Hellenised Egypt of the Ptolemies.

In the second session of our workshop, François de Blois (UCL) discussed ‘The etymology of Sabbath’. The Hebrew name for the seventh day has usually been connected with the verbal root š‑b‑t “to rest”, assuming either a denominal verb or a deverbal noun. Both of these options are, however, linguistically problematic. An alternative suggestion has been to connect it with Babylonian šapattu (or šabattu), which designates the 15th day of the lunar month, the full moon, or a group of 15 days. This is phonologically relatively unproblematic, but it is difficult from a semantic point of view. The paper attempted to problematize this situation and offered some tentative solutions. Jonathan Ben-Dov (Haifa) enlightened us about ‘The early history of the Jewish week’. Despite the great antiquity of the Biblical seven-day week, the weekly cycle was not used as a principle for constructing the calendar in the Bible, nor is there any trace of days of the seven-day week in priestly literature. A change occurs in the Book of Jubilees, which dates to the mid-2nd century BCE, and, slightly later, in the Qumran texts. The value of these sources as evidence that the week was used for practical purposes, however, is not certain. Days of the week are still absent from date formulae in the same period, and will make their first appearance, on ostraca, only in the 1st century CE. Ben-Dov’s assumption is that the Jews started using days of the week for practical purposes in the 1st century BCE; however, there are no traces of any connection of the Jewish week with the planetary week, which seemingly first appeared around the same period in the western Roman world.


My own contribution, together with that of Sacha Stern, made up the third and last session of the workshop. In my paper ‘The diversity and spread of the seven-day week in the Roman Empire’, I presented the results of the full database of literary, epigraphic, and documentary sources in Greek and Latin either including days of the week or dealing with the week, which I have been creating in approximately the last two years. I first focussed on the origins, earliest attestations, and diffusion of the planetary week in the Roman Empire, as well as on the contexts and uses of this dating system. My assumption is that although an actual calendrical use developed quite early, the planetary week first spread in the Roman west as an astrological concept, which most likely originated in Ptolemaic Egypt during the late Hellenistic period. During the imperial period the early Christians adopted the Jewish week with its six days denoted by numbers and the Sabbath as its seventh, and adapted it to their religion by dedicating the first day of the week – Sunday, the Lord’s Day – to their own God. However, the evidence shows that the Christian week did not gain much popularity, at least in the Roman west, where, despite reiterated attempts by the Church Fathers and preachers to eradicate the habit, common people, including Christians, largely continued to name the days of the week after the seven planets in late antiquity, due to the longer tradition of the planetary week in this area of the Roman Empire. Sacha Stern (UCL) discussed ‘The seven-day count in the Roman Empire: standardization and fixation.’ The main goal of this paper was to assess how standard was the reckoning of the seven-day week, i.e., to what extent, e.g., Sunday was the same day for everyone, from Ptolemaic Egypt to late Antiquity. Our database of ancient sources allowed him to carry out a statistical study, according to which in late antiquity – the period for which we have an adequate sample of certainly dated sources – the day of the week was overwhelmingly standard and in phase with ours. The study also confirmed the standard equation of planetary and Jewish/Christian days (e.g. day of Saturn = Sabbath). In the second part of his talk, he focussed on evidence covering the Ptolemaic and early Roman periods. He first showed the results of a similar, statistical study that he conducted on the material included in the Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum, which comprises securely dated papyri, ostraca, and inscriptions from Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, written by, for, or about Jews. The working hypothesis is that Jews did not work on the Sabbath, including legal work, commerce, and financial transactions, and therefore that most documents (contracts, receipts, etc.) should not have been written on the Sabbath. On this basis, it should be possible to verify whether or not this day was in phase with the standard week. According to this study, in these early periods the week was not standard and in phase with ours. A similar result emerged from an analogous study of a dossier of receipts for the payment of the ‘Jewish Tax’ from Edfu, in Upper Egypt. This is a special tax that the Emperor Vespasian imposed on the Jews in the Roman Empire after the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 CE. A dated graffito from Pompeii from this same period, along with the sole dated document from the Ptolemaic period included in our database, further confirmed this result, and led to the concluding conjecture that the Sabbath in Ptolemaic Egypt corresponded to what is for us Tuesday or Wednesday.

This workshop was particularly well attended, and well received by the participants. Both members of our team and external attendees generally agreed on its highly instructive value, which applied to experts on the very specific topic of the workshop and ‘neophytes’ alike.