Why Doesn’t Abraham Get to Enjoy the Weekend?

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Ezra Zuckerman Sivan

The Torah is important not only because it is the foundation book for Judaism but also because it includes the only contemporary account of the origins of a social institution that governs the rhythms of the entire world: the seven-day week in general, and the weekend in particular.

To put this claim into context, let’s quickly review what we know about the seven-day week. First, the seven-day week is completely unrelated to natural cycles, unlike (lunar) months and (solar) years. Second, the seven-day week is a relatively new institution outside the Jewish community. Until relatively recently, historians of the ancient world thought that they would find historical precedents for the seven-day week before the middle of the first millennium BCE, when the week was clearly recognized as an ancient institution in Judea (see Ezekiel 20 and Nehemiah 9). But by now, the consensus is that the week was, in the words of sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel, a “Jewish invention”—one that was adopted and maintained solely by Jews for hundreds of years before it was adapted and diffused through the rise of Christianity, Islam, and then more recently via Westernization of the world.

Put differently, if we consider the week in general and the weekend in particular to be a “blessing” for mankind—walk around your anytown in this planet and observe how much happier people are on the weekend—then its spread to every corner of the world is the clearest demonstration that God’s initial promise to Abraham—the climax of the opening statement of this week’s Torah portion—“and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you”—has been fulfilled.

This raises an interesting question: Why wasn’t Abraham told about the seven-day week? As I have noted before, the seven-day week does not appear in the book of Genesis. In the account of the seventh day of creation (Genesis 2:1-4), the root ש-ב-ת appears as a verb describing God’s rest. But the noun שבת, which means both Sabbath and week in the Hebrew Bible—does not appear in Genesis. The week is not introduced until just after Israel arrives in the raw wilderness, a month after the night of the Exodus from Egypt.

In response to complaints that they are afraid of dying of starvation, God rains manna upon them for five straight days. On the sixth day, the people are surprised to discover that they had collected a double portion even though they had previously learned that they couldn’t store the manna from one day to the next. Moses explains the mysterious double-portion as follows (Exodus 16:23):

This is what God has said: Tomorrow is a day of rest, Y-H-V-H’s holy Sabbath. Bake what you want to bake, and cook what you want to cook [today]. Whatever you have left over, put aside carefully until morning (all biblical translations rendered from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Living Torah, with names of God transliterated following traditional convention).

The following day is the first Sabbath, and thereafter the seven-day cycle continues through the duration of Israel’s 40-year sojourn in the wilderness.

But why is the week introduced here and not earlier? As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Hirsch Chumash: Shemos, 346) put it, “The whole story from Abraham to Moses is nothing but God’s creation of a nation to be the bearer of the Sabbath.” Yet, this begs the question of why there needs to be such a long build-up. Why not just get on with it and teach Abraham about the Sabbath and week?

This question is reinforced when we consider that Abraham is instructed in a different foundational commandment—circumcision. Moreover, this commandment alludes indirectly to the seven days of creation and is introduced in covenantal language that involves strong intertextual references to a key discussion of the Sabbath: the covenantal passage concerning the Sabbath in Exodus 31, the Covenant of Sabbath.

A Tale of Two Covenants
A close comparison of these covenantal passages provides important clues as to why Abraham is instructed in circumcision but the week/Sabbath is not introduced until the Exodus. Here is the text of the two covenants below.

First, Genesis 17:1-15 (Covenant of Circumcision):

Abram was 99 years old.Y-H-V-H appeared to him and said, ‘I am Kel Shakkai. Walk before Me and be perfect. I will make a covenant between Me and you, and I will increase your numbers very much.’ Abram fell on his face. Elokim spoke to him [again], saying, ‘As far as I am concerned, here is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a horde of nations. No longer shall you be called Abram. Your name shall become Abraham, for I have set you up as the father of a horde of nations. I will increase your numbers very, very much, and I will make you into nations—kings will be your descendants. I will sustain My covenant between Me and between you and your descendants after you throughout their generations, an eternal covenant; I will be an Elokim to you and to your offspring after you. To you and your offspring I will give the land where you are now living as a foreigner. The whole land of Canaan shall be [your] eternal heritage, and I will be an Elokim to [your descendants].’ Elokim[then] said to Abraham, ‘As far as you are concerned, you must keep My covenant—you and your offspring throughout their generations. This is My covenant between Me, and between you and your offspring that you must keep: You must circumcise every male. You shall be circumcised through the flesh of your foreskin. This shall be the mark of the covenant between Me and you. Throughout all generations, every male shall be circumcised when he is eight days old. [This shall include] those born in your house, as well as [slaves] bought with cash from an outsider, who is not your descendant. [All slaves,] both houseborn and purchased with your money must be circumcised. This shall be My covenant in your flesh, an eternal covenant. The uncircumcised male whose foreskin has not been circumcised, shall have his soul cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.’

Then, Exodus 31:12-17 (Covenant of Sabbath):

Y-H-V-H told Moses. Speak to the Israelites and say to them: You must still keep My sabbaths. It is a sign between Me and you for all generations, to make you realize that I, Y-H-V-H, am making you holy. [Therefore] keep the Sabbath as something sacred to you. Anyone doing work [on the Sabbath] shall be cut off spiritually from his people, and therefore, anyone violating it shall be put to death. Do your work during the six weekdays, but keep Saturday as a Sabbath of sabbaths, holy to Y-H-V-H. Whoever does any work on Saturday shall be put to death. The Israelites shall thus keep the Sabbath, making it a day of rest for all generations, as an eternal covenant. It is a sign between Me and the Israelites that during the six weekdays Y-H-V-Hmade heaven and earth, but on Saturday, He ceased working and withdrew to the spiritual.

There are six intertextual connections between the two covenantal passages:

1. An eternal covenant
2. A sign
3. Observance or safeguarding
4. A pledge to future generations
5. An explicit relationship “Between Me and you”
6. The punishment for non-observance, namely, being cut off from one’s nation.

Clearly, these covenants are playing off one another. We are meant to ponder their similarities and differences.

Of the various important differences, the most important, perhaps, concerns the way God presents Himself in each covenant and the nature of the relationship with God that is achieved via each covenant. In the Covenant of Circumcision, God speaks as “Elokim,” the name used in the seven days of creation, and introduces Himself with the enigmatic term קל שקי—which according to Hirsch and others, means the ‘Power’ [‘Kel’] who arrested creation by saying ‘די’ or ‘enough!’ Most crucially, note how in verses 7 and 8, God promises Abraham that ‘והייתי להם לאלקים,’ ‘I will be for [your descendants] an elokim.’

Is not clear what is being promised here. After all, this cannot mean Elokimas it is used in the first creation story since God is necessarily the creator of the world; one cannot promise something that is true by definition. But there is one occasion, in Exodus 4:15-16, where the Torah spells out explicitly what it means “to be an elokim.” Here, Moses is to be Aaron’s guide or teacher. This seems to be what God is promising via the Covenant of Circumcision: that He will eventually be a source of direct guidance or instruction for Abraham’s descendants.

In the case of the Covenant of Sabbath, a different relationship is emphasized. The name used throughout is the Y-H-V-H—the ineffable Tetragrammaton. In addition, the goals of the Sabbath are distinct from that of the circumcision covenant. In particular, verse 17 describes Sabbath observance as a perpetual sign of God’s creation of the world in seven days while verse 13 describes Sabbath observance as a perpetual proof sign that it is God who is responsible for sanctification of Israel.

While the former idea is an elaboration on the fourth commandment (Exodus 20:11), the latter idea is an innovation. The notion that a commandment can be a proof sign of God’s intervention in history appears nowhere else in the entire Hebrew Bible except in Ezekiel 20 when the prophet essentially quotes from this passage from the Covenant of Sabbath. Neither circumcision nor any other commandment is ever described in such terms.

Development of Relationship between God and Abraham’s Family
These key differences—in the aspect of God that is emphasized and in the distinctive goal that is sought by the commandment (for God to be a guide; knowledge of God’s benefaction)—reflects the overall arc of development of Genesis and Exodus, and it helps us understand the positioning of the two covenantal passages in the history of Abraham’s family.

Beginning in Chapter 12 of Genesis, we have the story of a unique man who somehow comes to recognize and form a relationship with God, and how his family struggles to build on this relationship. This man is remarkable. God speaks to him and somehow he doesn’t question it but simply obeys God’s command. On his own, with little social support, he goes around publicly proclaiming the name of God (Genesis 12:8, 13:4; 21:33), His role as the creator/possessor of the world (see Genesis 14:22). He knows this even without the sign of the Sabbath!

To be sure, Abraham receives signs of a sort: he meets with remarkable military and commercial success that must bolster his faith. But there are no open miracles in Genesis; he could easily have attributed these successes to himself, but he does not. Abraham is even willing to believe it when God asks of him things that seem to go against the values that he thinks God stands for. Not only is the Binding of Isaac a test of Abraham’s faith, but so is circumcision itself.

This is quite a procedure for a 99-yr old, and it is quite a test of faith for aged parents of an 8-day old son to administer on him; indeed, this is the first recorded instance of infant circumcision in world history. Meanwhile, even as Abraham’s faith is tested, the only miraculous event of his life—the birth of a child in his and his wife’s old age—is not recognized as such; it occasions ridicule—צחוק (the basis for Isaac’s name יצחק)—rather than inspiring belief!

And then the succeeding three generations run into significant problems in building on the foundation that Abraham erected. While Abraham is promised that his descendants will be a great nation—even many nations—they are a troubled [if tenuously reunited] clan in exile by the end of Genesis.

But if Genesis is the story of a family’s struggle to build on the legacy of a remarkable founder who built a relationship with God in the absence of miracles, Exodus is the story of how a relationship with God was established with a nation of regular—even downtrodden and subjugated—people, based on God’s miraculous intervention in the natural world. Note a key contrast: whereas Abraham follows God’s direction unquestionably, Moses drags his feet even though God appears in a miraculous way via a burning bush and provides him with the capacity to do wondrous tricks (Exodus 3-4:15)!

Moreover, there is a direct contrast that pertains to circumcising their sons: Abraham does it immediately while Moses dallies (Genesis 21:8; Exodus 4:24-26). And while the elders believe Moses when he and Aaron show them the miracles of the rod/snake and the leprous hand, they immediately lose faith as soon as they run into Pharaoh’s opposition—and Moses does too (Exodus 5:22-23)!

Intertextual Turning Point
At this important turning point, there is a crucial revelation that maps out the plan and purpose of the redemption process. This revelation is key because it serves as an intertextual bridge between the two covenants we discussed earlier and suggests how they build on each other:

Elokim spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Y-H-V-H. I revealed Myself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as Kel Shakkai, and did not allow them to know Me by My name Y-H-V-H. I also made My covenant with them, [promising] to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, where they lived as foreigners. I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered My covenant. ‘Therefore say to the Israelites [in My name], ‘I am Y-H-V-H. I will take you away from your forced labor in Egypt and free you from their slavery. I will liberate you with a demonstration of My power, and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to Myself as a nation, and I will be to you as an elokim. You will know that I am God your Lord, the One who is bringing you out from under the Egyptian subjugation. I will bring you to the land regarding which I raised My hand, [swearing] that I would give it to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I will give it to you as an inheritance. I am God’ (Exodus 6:2-8).

God begins by introducing himself just as in the Covenant of Circumcision—as Elokim—and He notes that He had revealed Himself to the patriarchs as Kel Shakkai. He also emphasizes that He is now redeeming Israel because he is recalling the covenant with the patriarchs. Indeed, this statement is the very first explicit invocation of the covenant between God and the patriarchs since the Covenant of Circumcision. This is also where God tells Moses that the purpose of the Exodus process is that Israel acquire knowledge of God under the Tetragrammaton. God says here that He is making himself known in this way for the first time.

This statement has long raised questions because the patriarchs and especially Abraham did seem to know God under this name, as discussed above. But note well: the use of this name becomes progressively rare as the story of Genesis unfolds, perhaps due to the family struggles. When Moses is addressed at the burning bush, it is the first time God dialogues with human beings since He reassured Jacob on his journey to Egypt that his descendants would eventually be redeemed and returned to Canaan (Genesis 46:2-4) and the first time He spoke to human beings with the Tetragrammaton since He told Jacob to leave Laban’s house (Genesis 31:3).

The intermediate period had been a very long break from God’s active involvement in helping the family of Abraham. Moreover, if one follows Nahmanides and other commentators to understand the Tetragrammaton as referring to the God who supernaturally intervenes in history to act as a parent to mankind (in contrast with the God who said “enough” to intervening), this enigmatic statement makes sense. Whereas Genesis from chapter 12 onwards is bereft of open miracles, Exodus is all about miracles.

Note how verses 7 and 8 of the above passage from Exodus 6 describes two objectives of the Exodus. The second objective is a reaffirmation of the promise from the Covenant of the Parts (Genesis 15) and elaborated upon in the Covenant of Circumcision: that God will grant Canaan to their descendants. But the first objective, which follows after an outline of the “four stages of redemption” made famous by the Passover Haggadah, is remarkable because it fuses the two ways of relating to God emphasized in the two covenantal passages we are analyzing: to be an elokim or guide and to acquire knowledge of God as Y-H-V-H.

That is, the Exodus will climax in (a) the fulfillment of the promise to be Israel’s guide or teacher [the first time that God asserts this relationship since the Covenant of Circumcision], and clearly represented by the theophany at Sinai; and (b) the addition of a new mode of relationship that is then reaffirmed in the Covenant of Sabbath—i.e., the inculcation in them of the knowledge that God intervenes in history on their behalf. God is teaching via experience. This prophecy thus forms an essential bridge between the two covenantal passages.

This method of instruction is crucial because regular people—and certainly slaves—cannot be expected Abraham-like, to come to recognize and heed God on their own. The Exodus is a story of the emergence of a large community of regular, even downtrodden people, which is forged into nationhood during a unique historical moment when they are collective witnesses to God’s intervening in history to aid them.

There is no expectation that the experience of God’s intervention will continue in the future, especially not after their sins at the golden calf and with the scouts. But the point of the Exodus is to imprint in Israel’s collective consciousness the experience of God’s supernatural intervention on their behalf, to inculcate in Israel an understanding of its unique role to play in uplifting mankind. It also represents a path, as first outlined in the Covenant of the Parts between God and Abraham by which Abraham’s initial discovery of and service to God can be institutionalized—in a people that is so numerous that kinship is no longer the direct basis for affiliation—a mini-society that is a microcosm of and model for the world.

Two related considerations reinforce the sense that it is particularly fitting to introduce the week/Sabbath in Exodus rather than Genesis.

First, the introduction of the week/Sabbath represents the climax of the process by which Israel comes to know God. If one carefully reviews the narrative of the Exodus from our intertextual bridge above through the first Sabbath in chapter 16, one finds (see 16:6 and 16:12) that the provision of the manna is the first and last time a divine action (or any other event) is described in terms of the objective that Israel should come to know God via the Tetragrammaton.

Furthermore, this is the very last time in the entire Torah that this objective is mentioned. While the children of Israel have many occasions to complain after this incident, never again is “knowledge of God (as Tetragrammaton)” mentioned as a problem or an objective for this generation.

It seems that while Israel has difficulties in its relationship with God, they have come to appreciate His role in history and in the Exodus in particular. Moreover, if one reads the story of the provision of the manna, we see that the climax of the narrative is the beautifully terse verse 30, “וישבתו העם ביום השביעי,” “And the people sabbathed on the seventh day.” This is a fitting climax to the Exodus—a process by which a community of regular people experience God’s intervention in the world on their behalf, to give them the gift of the Sabbath/week.

Note, too, why a mass circumcision ceremony—as occurred when the next generation entered Canaan (Joshua 5:2-4)—would not be a fitting climax to the Exodus process. Such an event would not have the same effect of demonstrating God’s intervening in nature to benefit Israel, and it would involve only one half of the people.

Second, just as the Exodus and the theophany at Sinai transformed Israel from a family into the “imagined community” of nationhood, the Sabbath has the effect of turning the practice of circumcision into more of a communal, even national, experience. Consider what circumcision would have been like before there was a Sabbath. Prior to the institution of the week, the command to circumcise sons when they are 8 days old would have been experienced as a private/familial experience. Once the son is born, the clock begins ticking.

But it is strictly a clock to which parents would be attuned. Just as we are hard-pressed to keep track of the ages of other people’s children, our pre-Exodus forebears could not be expected to count the days of the circumcision period for other people’s children. In this regard, consider how difficult it is to keep track of the Omer unless you go to the evening service every night or you are otherwise interacting with people and institutions that are committed to the Omer.

The Sabbath performs a similar function. Once the week is institutionalized, it is easy—both for parents and those who are less invested in the child—to track when the circumcision will take place—and indeed, to enforce the commandment. I am unaware of anyone who actually counts the 8 days, as they would have had to do before there was a seven-day week. Rather, families seem to use the convention of the week to schedule the brit. If a baby was born on a Wednesday then the brit needs to be on a Wednesday.

And if there is no brit that day, inquiring minds will want to know why not: Is the baby—heaven forbid—ill? Are the parents—shudder the thought—breaking the covenant? What reminder/enforcement actions are necessary? The upshot is what was (before the Exodus) a private/familial tradition is transformed into a communal or even national experience, one that marches to the beat of the Sabbath/week.

In short, the two signs of the covenant—circumcision and Sabbath/week—complement each other in a way that marks the maturation of Abraham’s family into a nation, rooted in institutions that are forged in the experience of God’s providence, and which contain the promise of transmitting blessing to the entire world.

Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, an economic sociologist, is the Alvin J. Siteman Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the MIT Sloan School of Management. His main current research project (from which several of his Lehrhaus essays, including this one, is drawn) is a book on the invention of the seven-day week. Ezra is teaching an online course on this topic at Drisha (, beginning March 3rd. He welcomes feedback at and he tweets at @ewzucker.