The real origin of the seven day week along with the cycle of work and rest is found in the Bible. In Exodus, God uses the six days of creation and seventh day of rest as a model for the Jews to follow. Because the Jewish Sabbath occurred every seven days, it became natural for the Jews to mark their calendars in this fashion. Eviatar Zerubave dubbed it "a distinctively Jewish contribution to civilization."1 While the 24 hour day, the month, and the year all have their beginnings in astrological markings of time, the seven day week doesn't seem to fit. It is roughly equivalent to the lunar cycle, (the moon will become full every 29-1/2 days or so), but its origins lie outside of astrological observance. Zerubave writes, "One of the most distinctive features of the week is the fact that it is entirely disassociated from the lunar cycle. It is defined as a precise multiple of the day, quite independently of the lunar month." 2
This concept of scheduling a regular time of rest during the week was unique in the ancient world. Most other societies thought it strange that the Jews required a day of no work. The Romans even said the Jews were simply being lazy. Augustine notes that the Roman philosopher Seneca would complain that the Jews "lose through idleness about the seventh part of their life, and also many things which demand immediate attention are damaged."3 It seems that the 21st century always-on-call mentality isn't as new as we may think!
Because the pattern of a day of rest was set by the Jews, it became customary for the Christians to gather on Sunday in remembrance of the Lord's resurrection, the day after their Sabbath observances. Sunday became the primary day of rest after Constantine issued a proclamation in 321 AD that solidified it as such for the Christian and pagan alike. Because Constantine was a politician, he avoided tying the rest day to the celebration of the resurrection. His motive to have a regular weekly day of rest and the choice of Sunday for that day were no doubt a result of his Christian conversion.4
In his article on the origin and meaning of the weekend, Witold Rybczynski writes that the word "weekend" first appeared in an 1879 issue of the English magazine Notes and Queries. Quoting the Oxford English Dictionary, he writes, "'In Staffordshire, if a person leaves home at the end of his week's work on the Saturday afternoon to spend the evening of Saturday and the following Sunday with friends at a distance,' the magazine citation goes, 'he is said to be spending his week-end at So-and-so.' This is obviously a definition, which suggests that the word had only recently come into use."5
Rybczynski goes on to report that in the U.S. "the first factory to adopt a five-day week was a New England spinning mill, in 1908, expressly to accommodate its Jewish workers. The six-day week had always made it hard for Jews to observe the Sabbath, for if they took Saturday off and worked on Sunday, they risked offending the Christian majority. Moreover, as work patterns became increasingly formalized through union agreements, many Jews did not even have a choice, a state of affairs that threatened the Sabbath tradition. The five-day week—in which both Sunday and Saturday were holidays—offered a convenient way out, and it came to be supported by Jewish workers, rabbis, and community leaders, and some Jewish employers."6 While few industries followed this lead initially, it was ultimately adopted throughout the country when the Great Depression hit, simply as a way of reducing the number of work hours (and thus reducing the amount of pay) for a company's employees.7
So our two glorious days free from work to fill with our leisure time. Or perhaps we should also take a moment and use that time to thank God for the model of work and rest that He gave us. Maybe we should really thank God it's Friday, because without the Biblical tradition, the weekend would look a whole lot less appealing.
(Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1985.) 9.