Genesis records that God created the world in six consecutive days, then rested from his work on the seventh. Thus the Sabbath (meaning “cease”) became a Jewish day of rest and worship every seventh day. Keeping or observing the Sabbath became law for all Israel when Moses delivered the Ten Commandments shortly after they left captivity in Egypt:
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You’ll work and do all your business in six days, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it, not you, your son or daughter, your slave or maid, your animals, nor any foreigner living in your towns. Because the Lord made the skies, the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days, but he rested on the seventh day. So the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy .”
– Exodus 20:8-11
Failing to observe the Sabbath, or even speaking against it, was punishable by death according to Hebrew Law. Jeremiah, a prophet before and during Israel’s exile to Babylon, taught that God would bless or destroy Israel for simply keeping or disregarding the Sabbath.
Jewish tradition held various criteria for the definition of work, which was divided into 39 general activities. It included: farming (planting, plowing, reaping, threshing), sorting, food preparation (kneading, baking, killing animals), making clothes (spinning wool, dyeing, weaving more than two threads, sewing more than two stitches, washing), tying and untying, writing and erasing, building and destroying, lighting and extinguishing a fire, and finishing anything. All preparations for the Sabbath were done the day before and all work stopped from sundown on Friday until the appearance of three stars on Saturday night. The only way the Sabbath could be broken was if a human life was in danger, in which case a Jew was not only free from the Sabbath restrictions, but required to act.
The Sabbath was also every seventh year, where any farmed field was to remain fallow until the next year. Furthermore, every seventh Sabbath year (every fiftieth year) was to be a year of jubilee, where everyone was to return to their own land and all debts were to be forgiven.