When Does the Sabbath Begin and End?

Many people wonder when the Sabbath (Shabbat) officially begins and ends according to God. Most Sabbath observers believe that it begins at sunset on Friday and ends at sunset on Saturday. They refer to chapter one of the Book of Genesis as proof for this belief. But, is this true? Can proof be found in the Bible to support the assumption that a day begins and ends at sunset?

It is important to examine the origin of the Sabbath to determine how God has shown when a day begins and ends. In Gen.1:5,8,13,19,23,31, God defines the first six creation days in the following way:

"And the evening and the morning were the first day" (Gen.1:5 KJV).

In this verse, the Hebrew word for evening is erev, which comes from a root with the suggested original meaning of enter or go in (it has the same meaning in Assyrian). It does not refer to sunset; it refers to the period before sunset (possibly even beginning at noon according to the context of some scriptures).

It is clear from the context of Genesis, chapter one that God intended a day to begin and end close to sunset; however, the word erev does not specifically denote the precise time when a day begins and ends. The following references clearly show that erev begins at some indefinite time near sunset:

"And the Philistine approached morning and evening [erev]; and he stationed himself forty days" (1.Sam.17:16 KJV).

Here, Goliath the giant challenges the Israelites, which was probably not done at sunset, because there would not have been adequate light for a battle if an Israelite had accepted the challenge:

"So Joshua burned Ai and made it a permanent heap of ruins, a desolate place to this day. He hung the king of Ai on a tree and left him there until evening [erev]. At sunset [Hebrew: 'bo'=go, in, entering of the sun] Joshua ordered them to take his body from the tree and throw it down at the entrance of the city gate. . . " (Josh. 8:28-29 NIV).

Here, evening and sunset are defined as two different events. 

"But someone drew a bow at random and hit the king of Israel between the sections of his armor. The king told the chariot driver, "Wheel around and get me out of the fighting. I've been wounded. All the day long the battle raged, and the king of Israel propped himself up in his chariot facing the Arameans until evening [erev]. . . Then at sunset [bo= going of the sun; ibid. Josh. 8:28-29] he died" (I Kings 22:34-37, NIV).

This shows that erev comes before the actual setting of the sun. There are also other scriptural examples of the word erev which show it primarily denotes the time in the late afternoon up to the time of sunset. Contextually, no exact length of time is indicated by the usage of erev in its various forms. Contextually, erev is a very general word referring to the part of the day from noon to sunset.

"And the evening and the morning were the first day" (Gen.1:5).

There is no doubt that the word erev refers to the half of the day in which the sun is descending (evening) rather than ascending (morning). Because the exact meaning of erev is determined by the context in which it is used, we should be able to determine the beginning and ending of the Sabbath by reviewing its creation and its revelation to ancient Israel.


"And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And the evening and morning were the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made" (Gen.1: 31; 2:1-3 KJV).

Notice the Sabbath day is mentioned in context with the other six days of creation as ending and beginning in 'the evening' (erev), which is very near sunset in this context.


Although the ten commandments, which include the commanded observance of the Sabbath, were written on tables of stone at Mount Sinai, there is clear evidence that all of the ten commandments, the statutes, and the laws were in effect long before the time of Moses:

"In your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws" (Gen.26:4-5 KJV).

This same promise that was made to Abraham was later conferred upon his grandson Jacob (Israel), the father of twelve sons from whom the twelve tribes of Israel came (see Gen.28:1-14). Notice that Judah, the father of the tribe of Judah (the Jews), whose birth is recorded in Gen.29:35, was only one of the twelve sons. God's commandments, including the Sabbath day, were for all the tribes of Israel (and mankind), not just the Jews.

The commandments, including the Sabbath, were given for the benefit of mankind long before the tribes of Israel came into existence; thus, it is incorrect to refer to the Sabbath as belonging to the Jews.

After Israel (including the tribe of Judah) fell into slavery and the paganism of Egypt, they lost all sense of the Sabbath day and its observance. As God began to educate the people about the way they should worship him, he showed them when to begin and end his festival days:

"In the first month, on the 14th day of the month at even [Hebrew. ba-erev, meaning near the end of the day as sunset is approaching], you shall eat unleavened bread, until the 21st day of the month at even" (Ex.12:18 KJV).


God tested the tribes of Israel (which included Judah) to see if they would obey his law concerning the day of cessation from labor. In Exodus 16:4-30, God uses tremendous miracles involving food to show the Israelites which day to observe the Sabbath, when the Sabbath day begins and ends, and how to prepare for it. In this chapter, it becomes very clear that the Sabbath day begins 'at even' (ba-erev) as sunset is approaching, and it continues until the next day as sunset is approaching.

"Then said the Lord to Moses, Behold, I will rain bread from Heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a certain rate every day, that I may prove them, whether they will walk in my law or not. And it shall come to pass, that on the sixth day they shall prepare that which they bring in; and it shall be twice as much as they gather daily. . . At even [ba-erev], then you shall know that the Lord has brought you out from the land of Egypt" (Ex.16:4-6).

God begins his revelation by telling the Israelites to prepare for the coming day that will begin at even (ba-erev), which means as the sun is descending in mid-afternoon toward sunset.

When reading Exodus 16:8-15, it is important to remember that the context of Exodus 16:5 is the preparation on the sixth day for the seventh day: "The Lord shall give you in the evening [ba-erev = mid-afternoon towards sunset] flesh to eat [quail] and in the morning bread [manna] to the full" (v8 KJV).

Again, in verse 12, God commands Moses to tell the Israelites: "At even [Hebrew, beyn ha ar ba'yim] you shall eat flesh [quail] " Verse 13 clarifies this: "At even [ba-erev] the quails came up and covered the camp. . .." 

Two different Hebrew words are used for 'at even' in verses 12 and 13. Verse 13 uses ba erev, which means 'late afternoon approaching sunset'. However, verse 12 uses beyn ha ar ba'yim, which literally means 'between the two evenings'. This is a dual form for the word erev; therefore, one of the 'two evenings' of the phrase is the evening that begins in the afternoon, and the other evening is most likely very close to sunset. This period 'between the two evenings' can refer to a maximum of about six hours (noon to sunset), or the traditional length of about three hours (about 3 p.m. to sunset).

Beyn ha-arbayim is an older term for erev. As already shown, erev means a descent. One descent point begins at high noon when the sun starts to descend. Another descent begins when the sun descends behind the horizon (actual moment of sunset). These are the 'two evenings'.

Contextually, erev is shown to be synonymous with both beyn ha-arbayim ('between the two evenings') and k’vo ha-shemesh ('as the sun is coming or while the sun is coming'). In this way erev has come to mean the 'descent' of the sun as a whole, not just a point of its path (see the chart below). 

Beyn ha-arbayim and erev are synonyms (See Ex.16 usage). Ba-erev means 'in the erev' or 'in the afternoon'. Erev is synonymous with k 'vo ha-shemesh ('as the sun descends'). Moreover, erev, ba-erev and beyn ha-arbyim are synonymous: erev is the same as ba-erev and beyn ha-arbayim is the same as erev. All of these words are defined as k 'vo hashemesh ('as the coming of the sun' or 'the descent of the sun') and they are all general terms for 'afternoon' for which there is no other specific word.

The Quail and the Manna

Thus, when God said he would give the Israelites quail to eat at even (beyn ha ar ba'yim), he meant the afternoon portion of the day. He actually sent the quail 'at even' (ba-erev), sometime in mid to late afternoon. The use of these two meanings harmonize, because there was enough time in the late afternoon for the Israelites to gather, dress, and cook the quail. Therefore, there is no difference between the two phrases. This passage only shows that by context the two phrases are synonymous. Any distinction into a more specific time division cannot be supported by this text. 

The manna came with the dew in the morning and the quail came in the evening, but on the Sabbath nothing came in order to show that this day was a day of cessation from labor.

Exodus 16:16-26 contains the details concerning the daily gathering of the manna. The Israelites were told to take only what was needed for each day, because it would spoil by the next day. But in verse 22, the Israelites are told to gather twice as much in preparation for the Sabbath day. The context shows that God was very clearly revealing when the Sabbath begins and ends.

God sums up the matter in Exodus 16:27-30 by recording how the Israelites disobeyed him through attempting to gather manna on the Sabbath; then, in verse 29, God reiterates that he had given the Sabbath for the people to cease from work.

The creation account in the Book of Genesis clearly indicates that days begin and end at evening. Much later in history, the Israelites, including the tribe of Judah (Jews), knew which day was the Sabbath and that it began 'at even' as the preparation day (sixth day) was ending and the seventh day was about to begin.

The knowledge of the Sabbath and all of the commandments was lost when the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. When God delivered them out of Egypt, he revealed the preparation day and the Sabbath day to them by a tremendous miracle which clearly established that the Sabbath began very close to sunset as the sixth day was ending and the seventh day was about to begin.

In Leviticus 23:2-3 the seventh-day Sabbath is grouped with the other festivals. Moreover, Leviticus 23:32 verifies that all of God's festivals, including the Sabbath, begin 'at even' (ba-erev), which is in the late afternoon very close to sunset as the next day is about to begin.

How and When?

How and when did the Sabbath come to be defined in common practice as beginning at the exact moment of sunset as the sixth day ends? The answer is not yet known. However, as seen previously, probably the oldest meaning of erev is the actual point of sunset; each sunset was counted as part of the old day, but was also the beginning point of the new day.

In order for uniform Sabbath observance to be defined, a decision was made by someone (probably the Priesthood) to arbitrarily define the beginning of a day as the exact moment of sunset.

This logical concept is also supported by the practice of ancient Israel of determining the beginning of each month by observing the new crescent of the moon shortly after sunset. Because historical evidence indicates that God, through Moses, authorized the Levitical priesthood to establish a calendar court, which was responsible for the Sacred Calendar, including the determination of the New Moon, it logically follows that the priesthood also established the tradition of beginning each day, including the Sabbath day, at the exact moment of sunset.


It is impossible to determine from the scriptures the exact moment in time when a day begins and ends. Furthermore, God only recorded guidelines for the beginning and ending of a day; therefore, it seems obvious that he intends to allow each person to individually make this determination.

Each individual must evaluate their own personal relationship and attitude toward God and the Sabbath observance once a week. It should also be apparent that God does not intend the beginning and ending of the Sabbath to be observed in the strict letter of the law, but he intends it to be observed in the spirit of the law. Our Savior summed up the a great principle of the Sabbath when he said, "The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath."

By B.L. Cocherell and Charles E. Barrett     b5w11