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The Hebrew word Shabbat comes from the Hebrew verb shavat, which literally means "to cease", or shev which means "sit". Although Shabbat (or its Anglicized version, "Sabbath") is almost universally translated as "rest" or a "period of rest", a more literal translation would be "ceasing", with the implication of "ceasing from work". Thus, Shabbat is the day of ceasing from work; while resting is implied.

Incidentally, this clarifies the often-asked theological question of why God needed to "rest" on the seventh day of Creation according to Genesis. When it is understood that God "ceased" from his labour rather than "rested" from his labour, the usage is more consistent with the Biblical view of an omnipotent God who does not "rest".

Observance of Shabbat is mentioned a number of times in the Torah, most notably as the fourth of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15). Other instances are Exodus 31:12-17 and 35:2-3, Leviticus 19:3 and 30, 23:3 and Numbers 28:9-10 (the sacrifices). It is referred to directly by the prophets Isaiah (56:4,6) and Ezekiel (chapters 20, 22, 23) and Nehemiah 9:14, apart from numerous other allusions in the Jewish Bible.

Jewish law's definition defines a day as ending at dusk and nightfall, which is when the next day then begins. Thus, Shabbat begins before sundown Friday night and ends at after nightfall Saturday night (traditionally, after three stars can be seen in the sky).

On occasions the word Shabbat can refer to the law of Shemittah (Sabbatical year) or to the Jewish holidays, or to a week of days, dependent on the context.