Sabbath of Sabbaths

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I. A Double Sabbath

Only two (types of) days of the year are called Shabbas Shabbason–Yom Kippur and the weekly Shabbos. Their status, as described by this unique title, is clearly special in contrast to the mere Shabbason used for other holidays. However, the precise meaning of this double term requires explanation.

The phrase “Shabbas Shabbason” appears in relation to Shabbos in Ex. 31:15, 35:2; Lev. 23:2 (cf. Ex. 16:23) and regarding Yom Kippur in Lev. 16:31, 23:32 (and regarding the Sabbatical year in Lev. 25:4). Two questions surround this term: 1) Shabbason on its own is a noun (see Ramban, Lev. 23:24), but when used in this phrase is it still a noun or an adjective modifying Shabbos? 2) Does the word Shabbason intensify, maintain or diminish the Shabbos it modifies? The answers to these question are disputed in a way that I believe is partially linked. As we look at the Medieval and Modern commentaries, as well as English translations, we will see different understandings of the term “Shabbos Shabbason.”

II. Noun or Verb

Ibn Ezra (Lev. 16:31) states that both words are nouns whose placement is interchangeable. “Shabbas Shabbason” is the same as “Shabbason Shabbos.” Elsewhere (Ex. 16:23, peirush katzar), Ibn Ezra explains that the suffix “on” is possessive. Shabbason means “your Shabbos.” However, I believe that others understand Shabbason to be an adjective.

There are three ways to understand this unique term:

  1. The Bible uses double words as a form of emphasis. As we saw in last week’s Torah portion, “Hasteir astir” (Deut. 31:18) is often translated as “I will surely conceal.” The second appearance of the word, even in a slightly different form, serves to emphasize the word. That is how Ibn Ezra understands Shabbason in our context, it repeats and thereby emphasizes the rest as if to say “You must surely rest.” More recently, Shadal (Ex. 31:15) adopts this approach.
  2. A halakhic reading of the phrase is slightly different. On other holidays, work related to cooking is permitted. “Shabbas Shabbason” teaches us that the rest on Shabbos and Yom Kippur is complete, without exception. Rashi (Ex. 31:15) calls “Shabbas Shabbason” a “restful rest (margo’a),” which R. Menachem Kasher (Torah Shelemah, Ex. ch. 31 n. 81) points out echoes the wording or R. Menachem Ben Saruk (Machberes Menachem, sv. nefesh). Rather than emhpasizing the rest, the doubling maintains it. It is a rest without exception. In this reading, “Shabbason” may be an adjective, describing the rest as restful. “You will have a restful rest,” as opposed to the more active rest on other holidays.
  3. R. Sa’adia Gaon, as quoted by Ibn Ezra (Ex. 16:23, peirush katzar), takes the opposite approach. He explains that “Shabbason” comes to limit Shabbos, a lesser term that somehow diminishes the requirement of Shabbos. I do not know where R. Sa’adia Gaon says this but Radak (Ps. 17:8) also adopts this approach, as does the Netziv (cf. Chavos Yair 1 #12). In his Ha’amek Davar (Ex. 31:15; Lev. 23:32), the Netziv explains that the extra word Shabbason teaches some limiting aspect about the day. It is less than a complete Shabbos because of the Shabbason modifier.

I suggest that if you understand Shabbason as a noun, you must take the first approach. The phrase takes the common form of the double term, which implies strengthening. However, if you see it as an adjective, you can take any of the three approaches. Therefore, those who adopt approaches 2 and 3, and possibly some of those who adopt the first, understand Shabbason as an adjective.

III. Translations

Here is how some major Jewish and Christian translations render the term:

  1. JPS, RSV, NKJV – “a sabbath of solemn rest”
  2. KJV, NIV – “a sabbath of rest”
  3. Net Bible, NJPS – “a sabbath of complete rest”
  4. Living Torah – “a sabbath of sabbaths”

The Living Torah, like Onkelos, chooses to render the term literally, essentially without explanatory translation. The first translation is difficult because there is no indication that Shabbason means “solemn.”

The second and the third take the second approach above, that Shabbason maintains the rest. The third seems to particularly follow Rashi, as explained above.

Interestingly, Victor P. Hamilton (Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary, pp. 337, 523-524, 595) reads Shabbason as an adjective but still takes the first approach, translating the phrase, “a most restful rest.”

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. A useful site for Christian verse translation comparisons is:

    Adding two more, Fox renders “Sabbath of Sabbath-Ceasing” with a note explaining “A kind of super-Sabbath…”. Alter has “sabbath of sabbaths” just like Living Torah.

    But, perhaps of most interest, the translation in the New English Translation of the Septuagint is “Sabbata of sabbaths” (ref: I leave it to the scholars to help us understand that rendering.

  2. IH,

    I recently experienced a “Sabbato Sabbath.” I just sat on my couch most of the day reading Mevakshei Panecha.

  3. Why not simply interpret the ‘shabbat shabbaton’ according to its halachic implications? Yomim tovim are called ‘shabatton’, i.e., days of cessation from work unrelated to the Yom Tov. Shabbat and Yom Kippur are called ‘shabbat shabbaton’ to indicate that all work must cease, i.e., including work involved in food preparation for the day. The translation of ‘shabbat shabbaton’ would then be a ‘shabbat cessation’, i.e., a cessation of work like on shabbat.

  4. The first translation is difficult because there is no indication that Shabbason means “solemn.”

    Solemn means that you take the sabbath-nature seriously, not that you walk around all day with a frowney face.

    The translation of ‘shabbat shabbaton’ would then be a ‘shabbat cessation’, i.e., a cessation of work like on shabbat.

    So why is the phrase used regarding shabbat? To teach you that shabbat is like shabbat? That’s a tautology.

  5. Shlomo, ‘shabbat’ means a total cessation of work activities – without exception, save for that which supercedes shabbat, i.e., saving a life. The translation of ‘shabbat shabbaton’ as ‘shabbat cessation’ is then one way of implying a total cessation and pointing to the contrast with Yom Tov which is called a ‘shabbaton’. Alternatively, it could be translated as ‘a total cessation’, with the double shabbat phrasing used to strengthen the word – as was cited. This would be the more appropriate translation of ‘shabbat shabbaton’ for shabbat itself.

  6. Interesting and consistent: “Shabbaton”: in Modern Hebrew is a “sabbatical” taken by professors, etc.

  7. In Sichot HaRav Tzvi Yehudah-Moadei Tishrei p59.,Rav Tzvi Yehudah describes shabbat shabbaton as the “ultimate cessation” The cessation not only of melachot shabbat but also the five innuim of eating drinking anointment,wearing shoes and sexual relations. He points out that this shabbat shabbaton unlike shabbat bereishit is determinrd by the beit din. In Lev.23:32 it says ’tishbitu shabatchem. Davka the ultimate shabbat, shabbat shabbaton(yom kippur) is determined by Israel-“mekadesh Yisrael vehazmanim.”

  8. “He points out that this shabbat shabbaton unlike shabbat bereishit is determinrd by the beit din.”

    Very Ironic!
    I was just reading Yoma today, and it talks about a comparison between the Parah Aduma and the Yom Kippur service. (Mainly regarding sequestering the Kohen Gadol).

    It then says (paraphrasin), “Since Yom Kippur we don’t decide when it will be, we sequester him on any day of the week, but with the parah aduma since we do decide when it will be, we only sequester him on Wednesday.”

  9. R Gil-I think that you could have elaborated on Ramban’s understanding of Shabbos Shabason.

  10. Have you considered the possibility of the “on” suffix as being a diminutive as in the following examples?

    סֵפֶר sefer (book) → סִפְרוֹן sifron (booklet)
    מַחְשֵׁב machshev (computer) → מַחְשֵׁבוֹן machshevon (calculator)
    מִטְבָּח mitbach (kitchen) → מִטְבָּחוֹן mitbachon (kitchenette)

    When “shabbaton” appears alone it would refer to a lesser Shabbat, but when used in conjunction with Shabbat it would magnify the necessity of total cessation from work.

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