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 (The Doctrine of Sabbath)
Chapter 7: The Inter-Testamental Period
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CHAPTER 7: The Inter-Testamental Period

7.1         Introduction

The inter-testamental period was a time of assiduous activity for the Jewish teachers, for it was then that they developed a plethora of oral traditions relating to the Mosaic Law. In this chapter, we shall look at some of the traditions, their content, purpose, and their impact on the lives of the Jewish people. Having this overview enables us to put into context those parts of the Gospels that detail Jesus’ manner of Sabbath-keeping, His teachings and His encounters with the Jewish leaders.

7.2         The different oral traditions

7.2.1      Public readings of the Mosaic Law

Beginning in the fifth century BC, when the Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem, the religious leaders strived to promote a renewed understanding of the Scriptures. Ezra, the priest and scribe, began the process by instituting public readings of the Mosaic Law, with help from the Levites (Neh 8:1–8). This period marked the beginning of the Sopherim[1] movement.

7.2.2      Targumim

A major issue facing the returnees was a language barrier. After seventy years in exile, the new generation had difficulties understanding the Hebrew Scriptures and needed them to be interpreted into Aramaic (see Neh 8:3, 8). It was against this background that the scribes began the oral transmission of targumim, which were the interpretations, transliterations and paraphrases of Scripture.[2] In time, these were put into writing, resulting in two official Aramaic versions of the Hebrew Scriptures: Targum Onkelos on the Torah (the Law) and Targum Jonathan ben Uzziel on the Nevi’im (the Prophets).

7.2.3      Midrash and Halakah

The scribes also developed a method of scriptural interpretation called midrash[3] which provided the people with a verse by verse commentary on the Scriptures. The method used to interpret the Mosaic Law specifically was called midrash halakah,[4] while the method used to interpret the moral teachings and theological concepts was midrash aggadah.[5] These were the scribes’ attempts at making the content of the Scriptures more comprehensible and relevant to the new generation of Jews. Following on was the development of a body of oral laws and traditions called the Halakah that were based on the literal or implied meanings of the Mosaic Law. Over time, they became as important and as binding as the written Law.

The intention of the religious leaders was to ensure the people’s absolute understanding and compliance with the Mosaic Law. However, the outcome was an ever-expanding body of judgments, opinions and rules. To complicate matters, there was often more than one school of thought.

 7.2.4     The mishna method of interpretation

In the first century AD, another group of teachers, the Zugot, developed a method of teaching and study that no longer involved direct reference to the Scriptures. This method was called mishna. Due to their volume, it was now easier to study and teach the oral laws by topic, rather than to follow the order of the Scriptures. Committing the laws to memory was achieved through a process of continuous repetition, hence the name mishna, which is derived from the word shana, meaning “to repeat”.

7.2.5      Haggadah

From the fifth century BC, the scribes also began developing parables, homilies, stories, prayers and letter symbolism whose purpose was to amplify the Scriptures. These were known as the Haggadah.[6] Some of the material was later incorporated into the Talmud, the Jewish canon.

7.3         The redaction of the Jewish oral laws

7.3.1      The Mishna, Gemara and Talmud

In AD 200, Judah haNasi collated and wrote down many of the oral laws from both midrashic and mishnaic sources. The result was the Mishna.[7] After that, the Amoraim spent another 300 years analyzing, discussing and commenting on the text. Their written commentary became the Gemara, which, together with the Mishna, formed the Talmud (“Oral Law”). Two versions of the latter were produced: the Palestinian (Jerusalem) Talmud, written in Western Aramaic in AD 425, and the Babylonian Talmud, written in Eastern Aramaic in AD 500.   

7.3.2      Structure and content of the Mishna

Within the Mishna, there are six orders (sedarim) containing a total of sixty-three books or “tractates” (massekhtot), which are further divided into chapters (peraqim). The six orders are:

     Zera’im (“Seeds”)—laws pertaining to agriculture.

     Mo’ed (Festival”)—laws on ceremonies and rituals, and prohibitions relating to the Sabbath, festivals and fast days.

     Nashim (“Women”)—laws on betrothal, marriage and divorce.

     Neziqin (“Damages”)—civil and criminal laws.

     Qodashim (“Sacred Things”)—laws on temple sacrifice, offerings and donations.

     Tohorot (“Purifications”)—laws relating to the ritual purity of vessels, dwellings, foods and people.

7.3.3      Sabbath regulations in the Mishna

Most of the laws concerning the Sabbath come under the order of Mo’ed. Two entire tractates are devoted to them: Shabbat (“Sabbath”) and Erubin (“Mixtures”).

(a) Thirty-nine types of prohibited work

The main Sabbath regulations are found in Shabbat, which has twenty-four chapters. Shabbat 7:2 details thirty-nine types of prohibited work:

He who sews, ploughs, reaps, binds sheaves, threshes, winnows, selects [fit from unfit produce or crops], grinds, sifts, kneads, bakes;

he who shears wool, washes it, beats it, dyes it;

spins, weaves,

makes two loops, weaves two threads, separates two threads;

ties, unties,

sews two stitches, tears in order to sew two stitches;

he who traps a deer, slaughters it, flays it, slats it, cures its hide, scrapes it, and cuts it up;

he who writes two letters, erases two letters in order to write two letters;

he who builds, tears down;

he who puts out a fire, kindles a fire;

he who hits with a hammer; he who transports an object from one domain to another—

lo, these are the forty generative acts of labor less one.

                          Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation, 1988 

The list in its most basic form originated from the rabbis’ exegetical analysis of Exodus 35—a chapter that records God’s commandment to rest (Ex 35:2), the prohibition against the kindling of fire (Ex 35:3) and the instructions for the building of the tabernacle (Ex 35:4–35). The opinion of the rabbis was that the actions required to build the tabernacle constituted “work” of the sort that must be prohibited on the Sabbath.  

(b) Other Sabbath laws

In addition to the thirty-nine prohibited types of work, the rabbis also developed laws about things to be avoided on the Sabbath, even though work is not directly involved. They included a prohibition relating to the consumption of eggs laid on this day (Betzah 1:1).

The rabbis also prohibited some activities they felt had the potential to detract from the Sabbath rest and the sanctity of the day. They included the climbing of trees, riding animals, swimming, clapping, slapping the thighs and stamping the feet. Other prohibitions related to the administration of justice, betrothal, levirate marriage and burials (Betzah 5:2; Shabbat 23:4, 5).

Other Sabbath regulations dealt with cooking (Betzah 2:1) and the seventh year of rest (Tractate Shebit; cf. Ex 23:10–11; Lev 25:1–7; Deut 15:1).

(c) Laws relating to the healing and saving of life

In the Mishna, there is a prohibition against healing on the Sabbath. This originated from a concern on the part of the rabbis that people would break the law relating to work in the course of preparing medicines, particularly when grinding herbs and other therapeutic substances. The outcome was that they forbade the treatment of any non-life threatening or chronic condition. The Mishna states, for example, that people are not permitted to:

     eat Greek hyssop, or use root oil as a remedy (Shabbat 14:3)

     gargle with vinegar for toothache, or treat a pain in the pelvic region with wine or vinegar (Shabbat 14:4)

     take an emetic, or pour cold water onto a dislocated hand or foot (Shabbat 22:6)

One of the few matters that overrides the Sabbath laws is the danger to life. If there is any possibility that a life is in danger, a person can, and is obliged to, act. The tractate Yoma contains the following teaching from Rabbi Mattiah ben Harash: “He who has a pain in his throat—they drop medicine into his mouth on the Sabbath because it is a matter of doubt as to danger to life. And any matter of doubt as to danger to life overrides the prohibitions of the Sabbath” (Yoma 8:6). The same tractate states that if a building falls down and it is uncertain whether someone is alive or not, others can shift the debris to look for him. If he is found alive, he should be freed; if he is dead, his body should be left where it is until after the Sabbath (Yoma 8:7).

(d)  Laws on travelling and carrying

Within the Mishna there are many laws to do with the carrying of items on the Sabbath: from a private to a public domain and vice versa, and within a public domain. These derive from Jeremiah 17:21: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Take heed to yourselves, and bear no burden on the Sabbath day, nor bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem, nor carry a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath day, not do any work, but hallow the Sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers.’ ”

The rabbinical laws address matters such as the transfer of objects between domains (Shabbat 1:1; 11), the amount that may be carried (Shabbat 7:3–4; 8:1), and the manner in which they can be carried (Shabbat 10:2–4). Underpinning a number of these laws is the issue of motivation, as indicated by the descriptions of the quantities that are prohibited: “Honey enough to put on a sore; oil enough to anoint a small limb…” (Shabbat 8:1). 

In the tractate Erubin (“Mixtures”), ten chapters concern travel and the carrying of items on the Sabbath. They also detail the circumstances under which the laws can be alleviated. It is here that we find a travel restriction of 2000 cubits (Erubin 4:3, 5, 7, 8)—a law that was evidently familiar to the people of the New Testament (see Acts 1:12). The law itself was derived from Exodus 16:29, while the specific figure of 2000 cubits was linked to Numbers 35:5.

(e)  Laws on animal husbandry

The Mishna goes into some detail about the care and treatment of animals on the Sabbath day. In it, we find laws relating to the type of equipment that can be used (Shabbat 5); moving and handling (Shabbat 18:2); hygiene (Shabbat 20:4); feeding (Shabbat 24:2–4); assistance during birthing (Shabbat 18:3). In general, the laws allow people a fair amount of leeway to tend to the needs of their livestock.

The Talmud later articulated a principle which was familiar in the time of Jesus, which was that a person could go to the aid of an animal on the Sabbath if it was in danger (see Lk 14:5, cf. Talmud Tractate Shabbat 128b).

7.4         Jewish teachers responsible for the oral traditions

The teachers who taught and elaborated on the body of oral traditions included the following:

     The Sopherim (Scribes) who were active from 450–180 BC.

     The Hasidim (“Pious Ones”) in the period of the Maccabees.

     The Zugot (“Pairs”): five pairs of teachers who developed the mishna method of teaching from about 200 BCAD 30.

     The Tannaim (“One who studies or teaches”), whose work in the first and second centuries AD entailed teaching by the mishna method and consolidating the midrashic and mishnaic materials. The Tannaim included Judah haNasi who compiled the Mishna in AD 200.

     The Amoraim (“Interpreters”) who analyzed and commented on the Mishna in AD 200–500, giving rise to the development of a supporting commentary, the
Gemara,[8] which, together with the Mishna, formed
the Talmud.

     The Savoraim (“Explainers”), whose work from AD 500–540 included the teaching and editing of the Talmud.The Geonim, heads of the Jewish academies in Sura and Pumbedita, Babylon from the sixth to the eleventh centuries AD. They produced a body of question and answer literature known as the Responsa.

7.5         Writings of the period

Evidence of the legalistic culture in the inter-testamental period can be found in the religious writings of that time.

7.5.1      The Book of Jubilees

The Book of Jubilees[9] (part of the Pseudepigrapha[10]), written around 100 BC, reveals a very strict attitude to Sabbath-keeping. In chapter 50, the writer begins by citing the Fourth Commandment (Ex 20:9–10): 

Six days shalt thou labour, but on the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it ye shall do no manner of work, ye and your sons, and your men-servants and your maid-servants, and all your cattle and the sojourner also who is with you.

             Book of Jubilees 50:7

He then proceeds to detail a number of prohibitions that are punishable by death which are not found in the Mosaic Law:

And the man that does any work on it shall die: whoever desecrates that day, whoever lies with (his) wife, or whoever says he will do something on it, that he will set out on a journey thereon in regard to any buying or selling: and whoever draws water thereon which he had not prepared for himself on the sixth day, and whoever takes up any burden to carry it out of his tent or out of his house shall die.           

            Book of Jubilees 50:8

And every man who does any work thereon, or goes a journey, or tills (his) farm, whether in his house or any other place, and whoever lights a fire, or rides on any beast, or travels by ship on the sea, and whoever strikes or kills anything, or slaughters a beast or a bird, or whoever catches an animal or a bird or a fish, or whoever fasts or makes war on the Sabbaths: The man who does any of these things on the Sabbath shall die, so that the children of Israel shall observe the Sabbaths according to the commandments regarding the Sabbaths of the land, as it is written in the tablets, which He gave into my hands that I should write out for thee the laws of the seasons, and the seasons according to the division of their days.

            Book of Jubilees 50:12–13

This is the first set of oral laws to appear in written form. Interestingly, they are even more stringent than those in the Talmud.[11] The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia notes:

In the compiling of the Halakoth [i.e. oral laws] the author of Jubilees was a forerunner of the Pharisees; the strictness of the regulations and the failure to mention exceptions also suggest, however, that the author was a spiritual ancestor of the conservative Jewish group that withdrew to Qumran. Fragments of Jubilees have been found at Qumran, and the Damascus Document apparently quotes Jubilees (CD 16:2–4). The Damsacus Document also calls for strict observance of the Sabbath. Like Jubilees, it prohibits food preparation (CD 10:22) and the carrying of objects into or out of one’s house (11:7–9). It also provides several regulations not found in Jubilees
and allows for the saving of human life in emergencies (11:16f). The penalty for profaning the Sabbath is not prescribed; rather, a seven-year period of probation is required (12:4–6).

             “Sabbath”, ISBE, vol 4, p 250

7.5.2      1 and 2 Maccabees

In the fourth century BC, the Jews began experiencing great political upheaval once more. In 332 BC, Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) gained control of Judea, and when he died in 323 BC, Ptolemic and Seleucid forces fought over the land. In time, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Greek king of the Seleucid empire, came into power.

When news of a Jewish uprising reached Antiochus in 168 BC, he responded by sacking Jerusalem and killing a large number of Jews, and then proceeded to stamp out the Jewish faith by outlawing Sabbath observance and circumcision, making pagan sacrifices mandatory, bringing in temple prostitution, and ordering copies of the Torah to be burnt. Some Jews complied with the king’s tyrannical demands; others resisted to the point of death.

Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that each should give up his customs. All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath.

And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the cities of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and feasts, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they should forget the law and change all the ordinances.

“And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.” In such words he wrote to his whole kingdom. And he appointed inspectors over all the people and commanded the cities of Judah to offer sacrifice, city by city. Many of the people, every one who forsook the law, joined them, and they did evil in the land; they drove Israel into hiding in every place of refuge they had.

            1 Maccabees 1:42–53

Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred and forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege upon the altar of burnt offering…The books of the law which they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. Where the book of the covenant was found in the possession of any one, or if any one adhered to the law, the decree of the king condemned him to death. They kept using violence against Israel, against those found month after month in the cities. And on the twenty-fifth day of the month they offered sacrifice on the altar which was upon the altar of burnt offering.

            1 Maccabees 1:54, 56–59

It was at this point that a priestly family, the Maccabees, came forward to lead a Jewish revolt. It was led by Mattathias and his five sons—the most famous being Judas Maccabees. 1 and 2 Maccabees, two books of the Apocrypha, record their fight for independence.

1 Maccabees, which details the start of the struggle in 168 BC, describes the extreme piety of some Jews. We learn that a thousand of their number were willing to be killed by enemy forces rather than take up arms on the Sabbath. 

And Mattathias cried throughout the city with a loud voice, saying, Whosoever is zealous of the law, and maintaineth the covenant, let him follow me. So he and his sons fled into the mountains, and left all that ever they had in the city. Then many that sought after justice and judgment went down into the wilderness, to dwell there: Both they, and their children, and their wives; and their cattle; because afflictions increased sore upon them. Now when it was told the king’s servants, and the host that was at Jerusalem, in the city of David, that certain men, who had broken the king’s commandment, were gone down into the secret places in the wilderness, they pursued after them a great number, and having overtaken them, they camped against them, and made war against them on the sabbath day. And they said unto them, Let that which ye have done hitherto suffice; come forth, and do according to the commandment of the king, and ye shall live. But they said, We will not come forth, neither will we do the king’s commandment, to profane the sabbath day. So then they gave them the battle with all speed. Howbeit they answered them not, neither cast they a stone at them, nor stopped the places where they lay hid; But said, Let us die all in our innocency: heaven and earth will testify for us, that ye put us to death wrongfully. So they rose up against them in battle on the sabbath, and they slew them, with their wives and children and their cattle, to the number of a thousand people.

             1 Maccabees 2:27–38 

However, Mattathias soon realized that the continuation of such a stance would lead to annihilation and decreed self-defence to be lawful: 

Now when Mattathias and his friends understood hereof, they mourned for them right sore. And one of them said to another, If we all do as our brethren have done, and fight not for our lives and laws against the heathen, they will now quickly root us out of the earth. At that time therefore they decreed, saying, Whosoever shall come to make battle with us on the sabbath day, we will fight against him; neither will we die all, as our brethren that were murdered in the secret places.

            1 Maccabees 2:39–41

Nevertheless, 2 Maccabees indicates that fighting only took place on the Sabbath when it was deemed absolutely necessary. For example, when the Maccabean forces won a particular battle on the Day of Preparation (i.e. Friday), they did not pursue their enemies the next day:

And by the help of the Almighty they slew above nine thousand of their enemies, and wounded and maimed the most part of Nicanor’s host, and so put all to flight; And took their money that came to buy them, and pursued them far: but lacking time they returned: For it was the day before the sabbath, and therefore they would no longer pursue them. So when they had gathered their armour together, and spoiled their enemies, they occupied themselves about the sabbath, yielding exceeding praise and thanks to the Lord, who had preserved them unto that day, which was the beginning of mercy distilling upon them. And after the sabbath, when they had given part of the spoils to the maimed, and the widows, and orphans, the residue they divided among themselves and their servants.

            2 Maccabees 8:24–28

After a long series of wars, the Maccabees finally regained control of Jerusalem. Their priority was to ritually cleanse the temple and to rededicate it—matters which duly took place in 164 BC. At last, the king rescinded the edict prohibiting Judaism, and the Jews were once again free to observe the Sabbath.

The Maccabees, however, were far from content with these minor victories and continued their fight for freedom. A long and protracted war ensued that resulted in definitive victory and the establishment of the independent Hasmonian kingdom. The latter lasted until 63 BC, at which point the Romans took control of Judea. The freedom of the Jews to practise their faith thereafter was dependent upon the goodwill of their rulers.

7.6         Conclusion

After the Jews returned from exile, there was a far greater challenge facing the religious leaders than just the physical rebuilding of the temple and city walls; they had to rebuild the faith of the nation. To this end, they developed various techniques to explain and teach the Scriptures. They also developed a body of oral laws whose purpose was to promote absolute compliance with the written Law. This led to an increasingly strict and legalistic stance towards Sabbath-keeping which is evident in the literature of the time.


© January 2012 True Jesus Church.

[1]      The scribes.

[2]      “Talmud”, Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, eds. Charles F. Pfeiffer, Howard F. Vos and John Rea (Chicago: Moody     Press, 1983).

[3]      The term Midrash (“exposition” or “investigation”; plural, Midrashim) is used in two senses. On the one hand, it refers to a mode of biblical interpretation prominent in the Talmudic literature; on the other, it refers to a separate body of commentaries on Scripture using this interpretative mode. Source: “Talmud and Midrash”, Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved September 01, 2009, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.

[4]      Hebrew, halak, meaning “to walk”.

[5]      Hebrew, agada, meaning “narration”.

[6]      Also spelt Aggadah.

[7]      Hebrew, meaning “repeated study”. Also transliterated as Mishnah. Plural, Mishnayot.

[8]      Aramaic, gemara, meaning “completion”.

[9]      Also known as “Little Genesis” because it is considered to be a reproduction of the canonical Genesis. It was probably written before or around 100 BC.

[10]    A work falsely attributed to a historical biblical figure.

[11]    The Talmud contains the Mishna (oral law) and the Gemara (the commentary to the Mishna). There are two versions: the Jerusalem version which was completed in AD 425, and the Babylonian version which was completed in AD 500. 

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