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If You Like Weekends, Give Thanks for Jews and Christians

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Many people live for the weekends.  They might love their jobs or simply tolerate them, but they look forward to the weekends like no other time.  Weekends give them the chance to sleep late, hang out with friends and family, pursue hobbies, and, for those religiously inclined, worship.  weekend

The terms “workweek” (in Britain “working week”) and “weekend” refer to the parts of the week associated with labor and rest respectively.  The five day workweek has come about primarily in the west under the influence of Christianity and Judaism.  In many countries—especially where Islam is the dominant faith–the workweek includes Saturday and/or Sunday (e.g., Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangaladesh, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Malaysia) because Friday is their day devoted to prayers and time off work.  The French Revolutionary calendar attempted to reform the way citizens lived in time by adopting a ten day week and giving them one day out of ten as a day for leisure.  Obviously, that never caught on.

The days of the workweek are popularly described in relation to the weekend.  “Rainy Days and Mondays” got Karen Carpenter down, probably because the weekend seemed so far away.  Wednesday is hump day (we’re halfway there). And of course, there is TGIF (Thank God It’s Friday) Fridays. 

The term “weekend” is actually a misnomer because Sunday has traditionally been understood  in the west as the first day of the week.  Take a look at most (non-business) calendars and you will see Sunday the first day on the left.  Perhaps in an attempt to reconfigure time and our relationship to it, modern business calendars start with Monday on the left and end with Sunday on the right.  The idea of the week beginning on the day we call Sunday and ending on Saturday is derived from Jewish sensibilities.

You see the seven day week goes back to biblical story of creation (Genesis 1:1—2:3).  In the west we operate with four main categories of time: year, month, day, week.  A year represents the time it takes the earth to orbit around the sun.  A month represents (at least initially) the lunar orbit around the earth.  A day represents the time it takes the earth to rotate on its axis.  So where did the idea of a week come from?  Essentially, from Genesis.  While a year, month, and day relate to astronomical observance, the idea of a week is related completely to religious observance.  The Jewish Sabbath set the rhythm of the cycle of work and rest not only for them but for much of the world.

According to Genesis, God created for six days, rested the seventh, and required his covenant people to do the same (Genesis 1). Here is how the directive is stated in the first account of the Ten Commandments:  

You and your family are to remember the Sabbath day; set it apart, and keep it holy.  You have six days to do all your work, but the seventh day is to be different; it is the Sabbath to the Eternal your God.  Keep it holy by no doing any work—not you, your sons, your daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, or any outsiders living among you. For the Eternal made the heavens above, the earth below, the seas, and all the creatures in them in six days.  Then, on the seventh day, He rested.  That is why He blessed the Sabbath Day and made it sacred. (Exodus 20:8-11, The Voice)

So the Jews are to remember the Sabbath Day, keep it holy by doing no work on it, why?  Because it is an imitation of God’s creative and restful activity.   The Sabbath is the seventh day or what we call Saturday. 

The first Christians were Jews so they observed the Sabbath, but it wasn’t long before they added another day of religious observance to their week.  “The Lord’s Day,” as they called it initially, was a weekly celebration of Jesus’ resurrection and the times he appeared to the disciples.  Christians met in anticipation that Jesus would be with them as two or three gathered.  They met to sing hymns, pray and commemorate his life, death, and resurrection in a sacred meal known as the Eucharist (Greek for “giving thanks).  Later the reading of Scripture and what we call today the sermon were added to their gatherings. weekend 2

Through history the relationship of Saturday and Sunday has been complicated.  Entire books are dedicated to parsing carefully how Jews and Christians lived in connection with time and each other. I have written more about this in two articles if you’re interested: “The Eighth Day” and “The Lord’s Day.”

The bottom-line is this: if you like the weekends, give thanks for Jews and Christians.  They have done more to keep alive these traditions than any others.  The idea of the weekend is not created out of nothing.  This modern blessing owes its substance to the Jewish and Christian faiths.  It has a noteworthy history that goes back to a mountain in the Sinai desert and a tomb outside Jerusalem.

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2 Comments

  1. No One Significant says:

    It probably should be mentioned that the Babylonians originated the concept of a 7-day week based on their observation of the 7 moving objects in the sky (5 visible planets, the sun, and the moon) and the days of the week were named after these objects, but treated as divine beings in the sky. And the Babylonians treated every 7th day as distinct and special, not quite like the Jewish sabbath though. I have wondered if it wasn’t for Jews & Christians if the concept of a 7-day week would have still stuck. I mean the western world uses the same system of names (in their own languages & cultures) connecting each day of the week with each object in the sky… and they didn’t get those from Jews & Christians because Jews & Christians rejected those names as an idolatrous recognition of foreign deities. Instead, Jews & Christians just numbered the days of the week and called the seventh day the Sabbath (or first Christians, the first day, the Lord’s day). So the day names in western civilization must make some connection back to the Babylonians apart from Jews & Christians.

    • Thanks for your thoughts on this. Indeed the Babylonians are influential on how we understand time particularly our 24 hour day. I think it is fair to say that Jews and Christians popularized the 7 day week along with Saturday and Sunday rest from labor. I don’t have time to discuss the names of the days of the weeks right now. You are right about how the Jewish days of the week are named in reference to the Sabbath. It’s as if the only day of the week that matters was the Sabbath; everything else took its cue from there.

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