Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Sabbath's Day Journey: A Recent find sheds light on how far one could walk

Those who study the Bible are aware that the seventh day, the Sabbath, was to be a day of rest. No work was to be done, no fires lit and as little moving about as possible (Lev 23:3). But in practical terms some things had to happen. People still needed to eat and, at a minimum, leave their tents to relieve themselves. And in later times they also would go to synagogue.

In the New Testament we run across an interesting note in Acts 1:12 which states that, following the Ascension of Jesus, the disciples returned from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem, which was about a Sabbath's day journey. Apparently there had been a development in the interpretation of the law that helped people to know just how far they could go on a Sabbath. But how did they know?

A very recent discovery provides us an ancient connection with a modern practice. Some modern, Jewish neighborhoods install shabbat poles around the area so that people will know how far they can walk. The Jerusalem Post is reporting that just this week shabbat marker from late antiquity was discovered in Galilee. It is a stone with the Hebrew word for Sabbath. Here is what the article has to say.

An ancient rock inscription of the word “Shabbat” was uncovered near Lake Kinneret this week – the first and only discovery of a stone Shabbat boundary in Hebrew. The etching in the Lower Galilee community of Timrat appears to date from the Roman or Byzantine period.

News of the inscription, discovered by chance Sunday by a visitor strolling the community grounds, quickly reached Mordechai Aviam, head of the Institute for Galilean Archeology at Kinneret College.

“This is the first time we’ve found a Shabbat boundary inscription in Hebrew,” he said. “The letters are so clear that there is no doubt that the word is ‘Shabbat.’”

Aviam said Jews living in the area in the Roman or Byzantine era (1st-7th centuries CE) likely used the stone to denote bounds within which Jews could travel on Shabbat. The Lower Galilee of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages had a Jewish majority – many of the Talmudic sages bore toponyms indicative of Galilee communities.

The engraving uncovered in Timrat is the first and onlyShabbat boundary marker yet discovered in Hebrew – a similar inscription was found in the vicinity of the ancient Western Galilee village of Usha, but its text was written in Greek.

This is a significant find especially since it is in Hebrew. It also helps to shed some light on Acts 1:12. Perhaps there were similar markers, now lost, on the Mount of Olives and that was how the author of Acts could make such a comment. It also portrays the disciples as good Jews, obeying the Sabbath laws even as they witnessed the ascension of Jesus.


  1. Thank you for this. The middle letter looks more like a kaph to me. The horizontal bottom stroke of the bet is absent. On the whole, the letter appears to be too lunate to be a bet. It could be the defective plural spelling of the trilateral root: sin-kaph-he = spear, barb, dart, harpoon (see Job 40:31 MT).

  2. Brice,

    You are correct the bet does look unusual. But what would be the point of painting "spear" on a stone in this way?

  3. Perhaps they will discover a spear beneath the rock (smile).

    Of course you are right about the oddity of the word "spear." I was just trying to make sense of the middle letter. The bet is just very unusual, since in most Hebrew inscriptions the lower horizontal stroke extends to the left beyond the measure of the top stroke. In any case, I am glad I came across your blog, and look froward to more posts.

  4. Please note that the Shabbat/Sabbath marker was identified initially by Biblewalks.

    Details in our blog: