The Mosaic Law stated that Israelites were forbidden to travel on the Sabbath in Exodus 16:29 “ Bear in mind that the LORD has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Everyone is to stay where they are on the seventh day; no one is to go out.” This law was given as they were traveling in the wilderness and indicated that there was to be no movement or ‘traveling’ on the Sabbath day. (i.e. they were not to ‘go out’ and search for manna, as there would be none given on the Sabbath) . It was not intended to forbid any movement as people still had to go to the tabernacle to worship, or go outside the camp to use the bathroom. The idea was to stay right in the city or encampment and do only what traveling was necessary for worshipping God and for life.
Over time, the Jewish leaders tried to find something that would let them ‘expand’ the distance they could travel and still be ‘right with God’. In early times, they fixed the distance at 2000 cubits. This arbitrary distance was justified by using Joshua 3:4, where the scripture says: “Then you will know which way to go, since you have never been this way before. But keep a distance of about two thousand cubits between you and the ark; do not go near it.” This was the distance that the people were told to stay away from the Ark of the Covenant as it was carried by the priests. This is about 3000 feet (the length of 10 football fields) or about .58 miles.
At first this distance was applied within the city boundaries, but as time went on, the rabbis interpreted the verse in Exodus to mean that one could travel that far from the boundaries of the city, and set up ‘Sabbath stones’, some of which have recently been unearthed to define the limits of their ‘rule’. This was approximately the distance from the walls of Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives outside the city (See Acts 1:12). The Pharisees doubled this distance by inserting a rule that if one had ‘food preparations’ at another location, then that place became his ‘place’ and he could travel 2000 cubits from the city and then another 2000 cubits to his ‘place’ of abode.
In later New Testament times, the Pharisees again expanded the limit by saying that if a person could travel 4000 cubits on the Sabbath, that he would also need to return and thus could legitimately travel 8000 cubits on the Sabbath. We see allusions to the limits of travel imposed by the Jewish leaders in the New Testament. Places like Matthew 24:20 – “ Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath.”
Jesus taught that these man-made rules were not what God intended at all. That the “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” and he rebuked the Pharisees for putting ‘heavy burdens’ on the people that they themselves were not willing to keep.
Scripture given by Arlington Church of Christ, Cincinnati, OH http://www.arlingtoncoc.com