SABBATH DAY’s JOURNEY (σαββάτον ὁδός, sabbath journey, sabbath day’s journey). A measure of distance, somewhat similar to the Egyp. unit of 1000 double steps, which served as the limit of travel on the sabbath. The phrase became a common expression for a relatively short distance.
The distance has been generally reckoned as 2000 cubits or approximately 2/3 of a m. Acts 1:12, the only instance of its occurrence in the Bible, specifies its length as the distance from Mt. Olivet to Jerusalem. (From the Eastern gate of Jerusalem to the present site of the Church of the Ascension on Mt. Olivet is slightly over 1/2 m.)
It is assumed that the regulation had its origin in the Mosaic period in the injunction to the Israelite not to leave camp to collect manna on the sabbath (Exod 16:29). In the Jerusalem Targ. this command reads: “Let no man go walking from the place beyond 2000 cubits on the seventh day.” There are other regulations to which appeal is made in an effort to locate the origin of this practice or precept. One is the provision that the area belonging to the Levitical cities included land which extended from the wall 2000 cubits on every side (Num 35:5). Another is the supposed distance that separated the Ark and the people both on the march and at camp (Josh 3:4). As far as this specific regulation is concerned, it applied only to leaving the city, the prescribed distance being measured from the city gate. Within the city proper, no matter how large it might be, there was no such limitation.
The original intent of the provision was to insure a quiet, leisurely Sabbath and to keep it from becoming a harried and busy day (Exod 16:29). It was also designed to keep the Israelitish worshiper in the area of the center of his worship. The motive was noble but, unfortunately, it resulted in a barren legalism. As a consequence, there were casuistic schemes to circumvent it. It did, however, permit a legitimate exception. If one were caught at a distance on a journey, he might travel to the nearest shelter for safety. But there were deliberate schemes to by-pass the rule. One such scheme was to select a tree or a stone at a distance, place some food there, and declare: “Let this be my residence.”
Mishnah, tr. H. Danby, Erubin, 4 (1933); J. S. Davis, “Sabbath,” DDB (1954), 662-665; H. Porter, “Sabbath Day’s Journey,” ISBE, IV (1955), 2634; D. J. Wiseman, “Weights and Measures,” NDB (1962), 1324; T. S. Kepler, “Sabbath Day’s Journey,” IDB, IV (1962), 141; P. van Imschoot, “Sabbath Journey,” EGB (1963), 2076.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
Used only in Ac 1:12, where it designates the distance from Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives, to which Jesus led His disciples on the day of His ascension. The expression comes from rabbinical usage to indicate the distance a Jew might travel on the Sabbath without transgressing the Law, the command against working on that day being interpreted as including travel (see Ex 16:27-30). The limit set by the rabbis to the Sabbath day’s journey was 2,000 cubits from one’s house or domicile, which was derived from the statement found in Jos 3:4 that this was the distance between the ark and the people on their march, this being assumed to be the distance between the tents of the people and the tabernacle during the sojourn in the wilderness. Hence, it must have been allowable to travel thus far to attend the worship of the tabernacle. We do not know when this assumption in regard to the Sabbath day’s journey was made, but it seems to have been in force in the time of Christ. The distance of the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem is stated in Josephus (Ant., XX, viii, 6) to have been five stadia or furlongs and in BJ, V, ii, 3, six stadia, the discrepancy being explained by supposing a different point of departure. This would make the distance of the Sabbath day’s journey from 1,000 to 1,200 yards, the first agreeing very closely with the 2,000 cubits. The rabbis, however, invented a way of increasing this distance without technically infringing the Law, by depositing some food at the 2,000-cubit limit, before the Sabbath, and declaring that spot a temporary domicile. They might then proceed 2,000 cubits from this point without transgressing the Law.
And in some cases even this intricacy of preparation was unnecessary. If, for instance, the approach of the Sabbath found one on his journey, the traveler might select some tree or some stone wall at a distance of 2,000 paces and mentally declare this to be his residence for the Sabbath, in which case he was permitted to go the 2,000 paces to the selected tree or wall and also 2,000 paces beyond, but in such a case he must do the work thoroughly and must say: "Let my Sabbath residence be at the trunk of that tree," for if he merely said: "Let my Sabbath residence be under that tree," this would not be sufficient, because the, expression would be too general and indefinite (Tractate `Erubhin 4:7).
Other schemes for extending the distance have been devised, such as regarding the quarter of the town in which one dwells, or the whole town itself, as the domicile, thus allowing one to proceed from any part of the town to a point 2,000 cubits beyond its utmost limits. This was most probably the case with walled towns, at least, and boundary stones have been found in the vicinity of Gaza with inscriptions supposed to mark these limits. The 2,000-cubit limits around the Levitical cities (Nu 35:5) may have suggested the limit of the Sabbath day’s journey also. The term came to be used as a designation of distance which must have been more or less definite.