The Difference Between the Weekly Sabbath and a Festival Day

Are there any differences in the way the weekly Sabbath (Shabbat) and the annual festivals are observed? Are both to be observed in the same way? Some people who observe the Sabbath and the annual festivals may feel there is little difference between them. However, there are many distinct and profound differences which can be noted for each observance.

The apostle John notes, "Because it was the preparation day the Jews did not want the bodies to remain upon the cross on the Sabbath [Greek, Sabbaton] day. For that Sabbath [Greek, Sabbaton] day was a high day [Greek, mega: large or great]; therefore, they appealed to Pilate to have their legs broken, so that the bodies could be taken away" (Jn.19:31 Para.).

John's statement about the Sabbath being a high day has been misunderstood by many people to mean that the day indicated by the word 'Sabbath' was an annual festival day (i.e., the first day of unleavened bread), but not a weekly Sabbath. However, John was speaking of both a weekly Sabbath and an annual festival day as the context of the text clearly reveals.

In all four gospels, the word 'Sabbath' [Greek, Sabbaton] is translated from the Hebrew word shabbat, which always means a weekly Sabbath and never denotes an annual festival day.

The confusion over John's statement comes from misunderstanding the differences between a Sabbath (shabbat) and an annual festival day (shabbaton) under the first covenant with national Israel.

The following are seven major differences between a weekly Sabbath and an annual festival day:



The weekly Sabbath is a created thing and a division of time—the seventh day of a seven-day cycle of time (Gen.2:1-3; Deut.5:12-14; Mk.2:27).


The annual festivals were not created nor are they divisions of time; they were given by decree for special assemblies before God (Gen.1:14; Ex.35:23; Lev.23:38; Deut.16:16; Num.28:25-26). 



The weekly Sabbath was revealed to humanity by God and could not be discovered by astronomical calculation (Gen.1:1-3; Ex.16:4-26).


Each Festival must be calculated by using the moon and sometimes the Sabbath (Gen.1:14; Ex.12:1-2; Lev.23:15-16).



No work is to be performed on the Sabbath with the exceptions of ministerial duties, taking care of life threatening emergencies or doing deeds of kindness (Ex.20:8-11; Num.28:9; Lev.23:1-3; Lk.13:11-16; 14:1-5).


No work is to be performed on a festival day, except for food preparation, ministerial duties, deeds of kindness, and a few other exceptions (Ex.12:15-16; Ex.20:8-11; Num.28:9; Lev.23:1-3; Lk.13: 11-16; 14:1-5).

The only exception to the festival work rule under the first covenant with national Israel was the preparation of food on the Day of Atonement, which was a day of fasting. Under the first covenant with national Israel, no work or food preparation was allowed on this day. For those called to salvation during the gospel age, the Day of Atonement is still a festival day, but not a day of fasting; therefore, it is now permissible to prepare food on this day. See The Commanded Observances and Holy Convocations Past, Present, and Future Vol. II Chapter 18, Should Christians Fast on the Day of Atonement.



The weekly Sabbath can be observed anywhere in the world, and there are no restrictions as to who can observe it.


The annual festivals can only be observed in the place where God chooses to place his name and presence, and only by those who have made a covenant with him (Deut.16:1-7, Ex.12:47-49). During the life of Christ, the place chosen for these annual observances was Jerusalem. During the gospel age, the place God chooses to place his name is within each of his children. 



The death penalty is required for those who break the Sabbath (Ex.31:13-15; 35:2-3; Num.15:32-36), which is one of the Ten Commandments.


Under the first agreement with national Israel, no death penalty was imposed on those who did not observe the festivals; however, anyone who refused to observe the Passover, the Days of Unleavened Bread, or the day of Atonement was to be excommunicated from the nation of Israel (Ex.12:15; Num.9:1-13). Under the New Covenant, any of the elect (Spiritual Israelites) who refuse to observe the Sabbath, the Passover, or the annual festivals will suffer the second death.



The Sabbath pictures eternal rest and is a special sign between God and his people. Additionally, God gives special blessings for proper observance of the Sabbath (Ex.32:13,17; Isa.58:13-14; Ezk.20:12; Heb.4:1-11).


The festivals are also a sign between God and his people, and he gives special blessings for their proper observance. Additionally, each festival pictures a different aspect of God's plan for the redemption of humanity.



Under the first agreement with national Israel, all weekly Sabbaths had the same sacrifices offered with the same symbolism and meaning (Lev.16; Num.28).


Under the first agreement with national Israel, each festival had its own distinct sacrifices, symbolism, and meaning (Lev.16; Num.28).


A further difference between the weekly Sabbath and the annual festivals can be found in specific Hebrew terms, which clearly distinguish the weekly Sabbaths from the annual festivals. Not only are the words that refer to these days different but also there is a difference in the types of work prohibited on the Sabbath and the annual festivals. 

In Leviticus 23, the weekly Sabbath and the annual festivals are listed along with certain instructions for the proper observance of each. The instructions for the weekly Sabbath are: "You will not do any work" (Lev.23:3).

In contrast, all of the annual festivals, except for the Day of Atonement, have a ban on 'any work of labor' (Lev.23:7-8,21,25, 35-36). An example of the difference between 'work' and 'work of labor' is found in Exodus 12:16, which shows food preparation qualifies as 'work', but not as 'work of labor'. Therefore, food preparation was not allowed on the Sabbath but it was allowed on all the annual festivals, except the Day of Atonement. Because no food was to be eaten on the Day of Atonement (Lev.23:27&32), no preparation of food was permitted or needed. Therefore, no work was to be done.

Besides the other major differences between the Sabbath and the annual festivals, there is a difference in the Hebrew vocabulary used to describe them.


The words used to denote the weekly Sabbath and the annual festivals come from the same root word SH.B.T, which means 'to cease', not 'to rest' as is commonly thought.

The word for the weekly Sabbath is shabbat. This word appears to be constructed out of the Piel (Intensive/causative) verb stem usage of the root SH.B.T. Therefore, the meaning of shabbat is 'an utter cessation'.

One of the words associated with the annual festivals is shabbaton, which is also built from the root SH.B.T. However, the '-on' ending may indicate that this noun is built from the Qal/Pa'al verb stem usage of the root, which denotes normal action. The verb means 'to cease' in this stem; therefore, shabbaton means a cessation.

There is also the combination of these two words shabbat-shabbaton, which literally means 'an utter cessation-cessation'. This phrase is connected only with the weekly Sabbath and the Day of Atonement. On these days, no kind of professional act is permitted.

On the Sabbath and the Day of Atonement, even food preparation was not permitted, which is indicated by Exodus 12:16. This verse shows food preparation is considered melakhah ('a professional act'), but not melekhet avodah ('a laborious professional act'). Avodah means 'labor' in the sense that it is strenuous activity.

The weekly Sabbath and the Day of Atonement are the only days on which all work is forbidden. Both are called a 'Shabbat-Shabbaton' (Lev.23:3;32) a word that consists of the words 'Shabbat' and 'Shabbaton', which both come from the same Hebrew root, which means 'to cease', not 'to rest'. The words 'Shabbat' and 'Shabbat-Shabbaton' refer to the weekly Sabbath. The word 'Shabbaton' alone is the only word used in reference to the annual festivals: the Festival of Trumpets, the First day of the Feast of Shelters/Ingathering, and the Feast of the Eighth Day (Lev.23:24,39).

The word Shabbaton appears to convey approximately the same meaning as the English words holiday or festival. The literal meaning of Shabbaton seems to be a cessation.

The kind of work prohibited on the Sabbath and the annual festivals has been defined in the Bible. The weekly Sabbath is a day when all work is prohibited (Lev.23:3). The annual festivals, except for the Day of Atonement, are days when 'professional work' (the means by which one makes a living) is prohibited (Lev.23:7-8, 21, 25, 35-36).

The term used for 'work' is melekhet avodah. Avodah is the generic word for labor. Melekhet comes from the same root as mal'akh (the word for 'angel') and it means approximately 'service under someone and in his name'.

Further distinction in these words can be made when studying them in context. The Hebrew word for 'work' mentioned above is melakhah. It is a word used to describe the construction of the Tent of Meeting (Ex.35;

36)  and Nehemiah's repair of the wall of Jerusalem (Neh.4:16; 5:13; etc.). Additionally, it describes what a potter does (Jer.18:3) and the occupation of traders on the sea (Psa.107:23). Also it refers to the money-making ventures of the King of Persia (Est.3:9; 9:3).

All of these examples of the use of melakhah contain the element of organized activity in a professional sense. The builders of the Tent of Meeting were craftsmen by trade (Ex.31:1-11). The rebuilding of Jerusalem's wall under Nehemiah involved much organization and was, in essence, the occupation of all those involved for all the time that it was going on.

The rest of the examples given above involved activities that provided financial support. For this reason, it appears that melakhah should be translated as 'a professional act.' This word refers to a singular professional act as opposed to one's profession as a whole, which is shown by the Hebrew syntax in the prohibitions of Leviticus 23 and Numbers 28 and 29.

A clear definition of melakhah is found in Leviticus 23:3, which shows that the activity which one ceases on the weekly Sabbath is called melakhah.

The only distinction made in the Bible between work prohibitions is that food preparation is not included in the prohibition of professional activity, which is why the Day of Atonement was classified as a shabbat-shabbaton and 'all work' was prohibited. This day was a commanded fast and no food was to be prepared or eaten on it (Lev.16: 37; 23:28-31). 

There are many other significant points that could be researched to show that the weekly Sabbath and an annual festival day are significantly different in purpose and meaning.

The following chart shows the type of work that is prohibited on a weekly Sabbath and an annual festival day under the first covenant with national Israel. All of these work prohibitions apply today, except for the prohibition of food preparation on the Day of Atonement. Because there is no temple in Israel at this time for God to dwell in, the reason for the fast does not exist.

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By B.L. Cocherell         b5w12