Are there any differences in the way the weekly Sabbath 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 that there is little difference between them. However, there are many distinct and profound differences that 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 day. For that Sabbath 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 a weekly Sabbath, not an annual festival day.

In all four gospels, the word 'Sabbath' 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 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 section concerning fasting 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 that 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),  there  is  no  preparation  of food permitted or needed. Therefore, no work is 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 that 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.





Weekly Sabbath

Shabbat, & Shabbat-Shabbaton

All Work

1st Day of Unleavened Bread

Shabbaton. Inferred by content of text

All Work of Labor

7th Day of Unleavened Bread

Shabbaton. Inferred by content of text

All Work of Labor

First-fruits (Pentecost)

Shabbaton. Inferred by content of text

All Work of Labor



All Work of Labor

Day of Atonement


All Work

1st Day of Shelters/ Ingathering


All Work of Labor

The Eighth Day


All Work of Labor


By B. L. Cocherell, file b5w12