The older theories of the origin of the Jewish Sabbath (connecting it with Egypt, with the day of Saturn, or in general with the seven planets) have now been almost entirely abandoned.
The disposition at present, is to regard the day as originally a lunar festival, similar to a Bablonian custom, as the cuneiform documents appear to contain a term šabattu or šabattum, of identical in form and meaning with the Hebrew word šabbāthōn.
The šabattum is said to be equivalent to ǔm nǔh̬ libbi, the natural translation of which seemed to be “day of rest of the heart.”
Schrader, Sayce and others so understood the phrase, and naturally looked upon šabattum as equivalent to the Hebrew Sabbath.
But Jensen and others have shown that the phrase should be rendered “day of the appeasement of the mind” (of an offended deity). The reference is to a day of atonement or pacification rather than a day of rest (like as with the Israelites), a day in which one must be careful not to arouse the anger of the god who was supposed to preside over that particular day.
The term šabattum has been found only 5 or 6 times in the Babylonian inscriptions, and in none of them it is connected with the 7th day of a week.
There was, however, a sort of institution among the superstitious Babylonians that has been compared with the Hebrew Sabbath.
In certain months of the year (Elul, Marcheshvan) the 7th, 14th, 19th, 21st and 28th days were set down as favorable days, or unfavorable days, that is, as days in which the king, the priest and the physician must be careful not to stir up the anger of the deity.
On these days the king was not to eat food prepared by fire, not to put on royal dress, not to ride in his chariot, etc.
As to the 19th day, it is thought that it was included among the unlucky days because it was the 49th (7 times 7) from the 1st of the preceding month.
As there were 30 days in the month, it is evident that we are not dealing with a recurring 7th day in the week, as is the case with the Hebrew Sabbath.
Moreover, no proof has been adduced that the term šabattum was ever applied to these dies nefasti or unlucky days.
Hence, the assertions of some Assyriologists with regard to the Babylonian origin of the Sabbath must be taken with several grams of salt.
In an ingenious and able paper, by Professor M. Jastrow, which was read before the Eleventh International Congress of Orientalists in Paris in 1897, in which the learned author attempts to show that the Hebrew Sabbath was originally a day of propitiation, like the Babylonian šabattum.
He argues that the restrictive measures in the Hebrew laws for the observance of the Sabbath arose from the original conception of the Sabbath as an unfavorable day, a day in which the anger of Yahweh might flash forth against men.
Although Jastrow has supported his thesis with many arguments that are clear, logical and convincing, yet the reverent student of the Scriptures will find it difficult to resist the impression that the Old Testament writers, without exception, thought of the Sabbath not as an unfavorable or unlucky day, but rather as a day set apart for the benefit of man.
Whatever may have been the attitude of the early Hebrews toward the day which was to become a characteristic institution of Judaism in all ages, and in all lands, the organs of revelation throughout the Old Testament enforce the observance of the Sabbath, by arguments which lay emphasis upon its beneficent and humanitarian aspects.
We must call attention to Meinhold’s ingenious hypothesis as to the origin of the Sabbath.
In 1894 Theophilus G. Pinches discovered a tablet in which the term shapattu is applied to the 15th day of the month. Meinhold argues that shabattu in Babylonian denotes the day of the full moon.
Dr. Skinner thus describes Meinhold’s theory: “He points to the close association of new-moon and Sabbath in nearly all the pre-exilic references ( Amos 8:5; Hosea 2:11; Isaiah 1:13; 2 Kings 4:23 etc); and concludes that in early Israel, as in Babylonia, the Sabbath was the full-moon festival and nothing else.
The institution of the weekly Sabbath, he traces to a desire to compensate for the loss of the old lunar festivals, when these were abrogated by the Deuteronomic reformation.
This innovation he attributes to Ezekiel; but steps toward it are found in the introduction of a weekly day of rest during harvest only (on the ground of Deuteronomy 16:8; compare Exodus 34:21), and in the establishment of the sabbatical year (Lev 25), which he considers to be older than the weekly Sabbath”.
Dr. Skinner well says that Meinhold’s theory involves great improbabilities. It is not certain that the Babylonians applied the term sabattu to the 15th day of the month because it was the day of the full moon; and it is by no means certain that the early prophets in Israel identified Sabbath with the festival of the full moon.
The wealth of learning and ingenuity expended in the search for the origin of the Sabbath has up to the present yielded small returns.