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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Sabbath Days Journey

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(σαββάτου ὁδός, Acts 1:12; in Talmudical Heb. תְּחוֹ ם הִשִּׁבָּת, techim hashshabbath) is a phrase for the prescribed distance which may lawfully be traversed on a Sabbath, and beyond which no Jew can go without violating the sanctity of the day, except he adopts the means appointed for exceeding the canonical boundary.

I. Distance of a Sabbath-way, and its Origin. From the injunction in Exodus 16:29, that every man is to "abide in his place, "and not "go out of his place" on the Sabbath, the ancient Hebrew legislators deduced that an Israelite must not go 2000 yards, or 12,000 hand breadths as the ancient Hebrew yard consisted of six hand breadths five Greek stadia, for the Greek stadium measured 2400 hand breadths beyond the temporary or permanent place of his abode. Epiphanius's definition of the Sabbath day's journey at six stadia =14,400 hand breadths, or 750 Roman geographical paces (Hoer. p. 66, 82), is most probably based upon the larger yard, which the Jews adopted at a later period. (See WEIGHTS AND MEASURES).

These 2000 yards are not to be measured from any and every spot, but according to definite and minute rules, the city having always to be reduced to a square. Thus if the Sabbath day's walk is to be fixed from a circular city, an imaginary square must be circumscribed about it, and the measurement is not to be taken from the corners a in a diagonal direction i.e. from a to e inasmuch as thereby the distance between will be less than 2000 yards, but from a to f, whereby the allowable distance is increased in the direction of a e, as will be seen from the annexed diagram.

The permitted distance seems to have been grounded on the space to be kept between the ark and the people (Joshua 3:4) in the wilderness, which tradition said was that between the ark and the tents. To repair to the ark being, of course, a duty on the Sabbath, the walking to it was no violation of the day; and it thus was taken as the measure of a lawful Sabbath day's journey. This prohibition is not repeated in the law, but the whole spirit of the Sabbath institution obviously forbade a Jew to make a proper journey on that day (Josephus, Ant. 13, 8, 4), especially as the beasts of burden and travel were to rest (comp. Matthew 24:20). Whether the earlier Hebrews did or did not regard it thus, is not easy to say. Nevertheless, the natural inference from 2 Kings 4:23 is against the supposition of such a prohibition being known to the spokesman, Elisha almost certainly living as may be seen from the whole narrative much more than a Sabbath day's journey from Shunem. Heylin infers from the incidents of David's flight from Saul, and Elijah's from Jezebel, that neither felt bound by such a limitation. Their situation, however, being one of extremity, cannot be safely argued from. Our Savior seems to refer to this law in warning the disciples to pray that their flight from Jerusalem in the time of its judgment should not be "on the Sabbath day" (Matthew 24:20). The Christians of Jerusalem would not, as in the case of Gentiles, feel free from the restrictions on journeying on that day; nor would their situation enable them to comply with the forms whereby such journeying, when necessary, was sanctified; nor would assistance from those around be procurable. The Jewish scruple to go more than 2000 paces from his city on the Sabbath is referred to by Origen (περὶ ἀρχων, 4, 2), by Jerome (Ad Algasiam, qu. 10), and by Oecumenius with some apparent difference between them as to the measurement. Jerome gives Akiba, Simeon, and Hillel as the authorities for the lawful distance.

Another reason for fixing the distance of a Sabbath day's walk or journey at 2000 yards is that the fields of the suburbs for the pasture of the flocks and herds belonging to the Levites measured 2000 cubits or yards, and that in Exodus 21:13 it is said, "I will appoint thee a place (מקו ם ) whither he shall flee" i.e. the Levitical suburbs or cities. Now, it is argued, if one who committed murder accidentally was allowed to undertake this journey of 2000 yards on a Sabbath without violating the sanctity of the day, innocent people may do the same. Besides, the place of refuge is termed מקו ם, which is the same word employed in Exodus 16:29. As the one מקו ם, place, was 2000 yards distant, it is inferred, according to the rule the analogy of ideas or words (גזרה שוה ) that the command, "Let no man go out of his place (ממקמו ) on the seventh day" (Exodus 16:29) means not to exceed the distance of the place 2000 yards off (Hillel I, rule 2, in Erubin, 51 a; Maccoth, 12 b; Zebachim, 117 a). Josephus (War, 5, 2, 3) makes the Mount of Olives to be about six stadia from Jerusalem; and it is the distance between these two places which in Acts 1, 12 is given as a Sabbath day's journey. Josephus elsewhere determines the same distance as five stadia (Ant. 20, 8, 6); but both were probably loose statements rather than measured distances; and both are below the ordinary estimate of 2000 cubits. Taking all circumstances into account, it seems likely that the ordinary Sabbath day's journey was a somewhat loosely determined distance, seldom more than the whole and seldom less than three quarters of a geographical mile. See Selden, De Jure Nat. et Gent. 3, 9; Frischmuth, Dissert. de Itin. Sabbat. (1670); Walther, Dissert. de Itin. Sabbat.; both in Thesaurus Theolog. Philog. (Amsterd. 1720).

II. Cases in which the Limits of a Sabbath day's Journey could be exceeded. Though the laws about the Sabbath day's journey are very rigorous, and he who walked beyond the 2000 yards, or moved more than four yards farther than his temporary place of abode, when the Sabbath day's journey had not been determined beforehand, received forty stripes save one; yet in cases of public or private service, when life was in danger, people were allowed to overstep the prescribed boundary (Mishna, Erubin, 4; Rosh-hashanah, 2, 5). The Pharisees, or the orthodox Jews in the days of our Savior, also contrived other means whereby the fraternity of this order could exceed the Sabbath day's walk without transgressing the law. They ordained that all those who wished to join their social gatherings on the Sabbath were to deposit on Friday afternoon some article of food in a certain place at the end of the Sabbath day's journey, that it might thereby be constituted a domicile, and thus another Sabbath day's journey could be undertaken from the first terminus. (See PHARISEE).

This mode of connecting or amalgamating the distances (עירוב תנחומין ), as it is called, is observed by the orthodox Jews to the present day. Such importance have the Jews. since their return from the Babylonian captivity, attached to the Sabbath day's journey that a whole tractate in the Mishna (Erubin) is devoted to it. Hence the phrase is mentioned in the New Test. (Acts 1:12) as expressive of a well known law, and the so called Jerusalem Targum translates Exodus 16:29, "And let no man go walking from his place beyond 2000 yards on the seventh day, "while the Chaldee paraphrase of Ruth 1:16 makes Naomi say to Ruth, "We are commanded to keep sabbaths and festivals, and not to walk beyond 2000 yards" (comp. Mishna, Erubin, c. 5; Rosh-hashanah, 2, 15; Babylon Talmud, Erubin, 56 b, 57 a; Zuckermann, in Frankel's Monatsschrift fur Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judenthums [Breslau, 1863], 12, 467 sq.).


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Sabbath Days Journey'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/s/sabbath-days-journey.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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