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Sabbatical Year

SABBATICAL YEAR (שַׁבָּת, H8701, sabbath, sabbath year). The sabbatical year was the final year in a cycle of seven years within the Heb. calendar, set aside as a year of rest for the soil, care for the poor and for animals, remission of debts, and manumission of Israelite slaves. The year following seven such sabbatical years was known as the year of Jubilee, during which the soil was given another year of rest, and during which there was also the manumission of Israelite slaves and the reversion of landed property to the original owner or his heirs.

The Book of the Covenant refers to the sabbatical year merely as “the seventh year” (Exod 21:2; 23:11; cf. Neh 10:31). It provided for the automatic release of Heb. slaves in the seventh year (Exod 21:2). It should be pointed out, however, that this may simply mean that an Israelite could serve as a slave to a fellow Israelite only for six years, and was freed after that time, whether or not the seventh year fell on a sabbatical year. The Book of the Covenant did provide for the land to remain uncultivated during the sabbatical year, so that the poor people and the wild animals might eat from it (Exod 23:10, 11).

In the Holiness or Priestly Code, the seventh year is designated as “a sabbath of solemn rest for the land” (Lev 25:4). During that year, the Israelite was not to sow his field or prune his vineyard (25:4). Moreover, he was not to reap any harvest that grew of itself, nor gather any grapes from the undressed vine, but such spontaneous fruitage was to be for the poor people and the animals, both domestic and wild (25:5-7). A close parallel should be noted between the regulations with regard to the sabbatical year and those with regard to the weekly sabbath (25:2-7; Exod 20:8-11; Deut 5:12-15).

The Holiness Code also provided special observance of the seventh year in a series of seven sabbatical years (Lev 25:8, 9) and the observance of the fiftieth year as the year of Jubilee, during which the land was also to remain untilled and the vines undressed, and during which everyone should return to his family estate and all Heb. slaves serving other Hebrews should be set free (25:10-55). The only properties exempt from this law were houses within walled cities which were not redeemed within one year (25:29-31), and the houses of the Levites (25:32-34).

In the Deuteronomic Code, the sabbatical year is called “the year of release” or the year of “dropping” or “cancellation” (Deut 15:9). This code provided for the cancellation of all debts owed by one Israelite to another at the end of the sabbatical year (15:1-3), adding a warning against unwillingness to lend to a poor neighbor in view of the nearness of the sabbatical year (15:7-11). This code also provided for the manumission of Israelite slaves held by fellow Israelites during the sabbatical year (15:12-15). A further provision was made in the Deuteronomic covenant for the reading of the law at the Feast of Booths during the sabbatical year (31:10-13).

It is not known how well the Israelites observed the sabbatical years, but 2 Chronicles 36:21 implies that they failed to do so, hence were taken into captivity “until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths” (cf. also Lev 26:34). The gathering of the returned exiles to hear Ezra read the law was undoubtedly in fulfillment of the Deuteronomic covenant (Neh 8:1-8) and must, therefore, have been in the sabbatical year. One of the reforms instituted by Nehemiah was the enforcement of the observance of the sabbatical year (Neh 10:31).

There is evidence from extra-Biblical lit. that the Jews observed the sabbatical year after the Exile. Both the Book of Maccabees and Josephus recount that Bethzur fell to Antiochus IV because the food supply of the garrison was quickly exhausted, since it was during a sabbatical year (1 Macc 6:49-54; Antiquities, XIII. 8:1; War I. 2:4). He relates that during the reign of John Hyrcanus the Jewish nation refrained from aggressive warfare during the sabbatical year (Antiquities. XIII. 8:1; War. I. 2:4). He also relates that Julius Caesar remitted the annual tribute from the Jewish people in the sabbatical year, since in it the people did not till their fields or gather their fruit (Antiquities, XIV. 10:6). In the Book of Jubilees, Enoch is said to have “recounted the sabbaths of the years” (4:18).

The Qumran community seems to have observed the sabbatical year by non-cultivation of the soil and cancellation of debts. Rabbinical writers refer to a similar observance, but the absence of detailed discussion of such observance in the Talmud bears witness to its gradual discontinuance. There is no evidence that it was ever observed outside of Pal. Even in Pal., it became meaningless, impractical, and eventually obsolete.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

sa-bat’-ik-al, shenath shabbathon; eniautos anapauseos, "a year of solemn rest"; or shabbath shabbathon; sabbata anapausis, "a sabbath of solemn rest" (Le 25:4); or shehath ha-shemittah; etos tes apheseos, "the year of release" (De 15:9; 31:10)):

1. Primary Intention:

We find the first rudiments of this institution in the so-called Covenant Book (Ex 21-23). Its connection with the day of rest (Sabbath) is obvious, although it strikes us as somewhat remarkable that in Ex 23:10-12 the regulation regarding the 7th year should precede the statute respecting the 7th day. Still it seems natural that after the allusion in verse 9, "Ye were sojourners in the land of Egypt," the Covenant Book should put in a good word for the poor in Israel (verse 11: "Let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of thy people may eat"). Even the beasts of the field are remembered (compare Jon 4:11).

We must, therefore, conclude that in this early period of the history of Israel the regulation regarding the 7th year was primarily intended for the relief of the poor and for the awakening of a sense of responsibility in the hearts of those better provided with the means of subsistence. It would be wrong, however, to deny its Sabbatic character, for the text says expressly, "But in the 7th year thou shalt let it rest" (literally, "thou shalt release it"), implying that the land was entitled to a rest because it needed it; it must be released for a time in order to gain fresh strength and insure its future fertility. Two motives, then, present themselves most clearly, one of a social, the other of an economic character, and both are rooted in God’s dealings with Israel (compare Ex 21:1).

2. Mosaic Legislation Humane:

Another evidence of the humane spirit pervading the Mosaic Law may be found in Ex 21:2-6 where, in the case of a Hebrew slave, the length of his servitude is limited to six years. The connection with the idea of the Sabbath is evident, but we fail to detect here any reference to the Sabbatical year. It is clear that the 7th year in which a slave might be set free need not necessarily coincide with the Sabbatical year, though it might, of course, The same is true of De 15:12-18; it has nothing to do with the Sabbatical year. On the other hand it is reasonable to assume that the "release" mentioned in De 15:1-3 took place in the Sabbatical year; in other words, its scope had been enlarged in later years so as to include the release from pecuniary obligation, i.e. the remission of debts or, at least, their temporary suspension. This means that the children of Israel were now developing from a purely agricultural people to a commercial nation. Still the same spirit of compassion for the poor and those struggling for a living asserts itself as in the earlier period, and it goes without saying that the old regulation concerning the release of the land in the 7th year was still in force (compare 15:2: "because Yahweh’s release hath been proclaimed").

According to De 15:1, this proclamation occurred at the end of every 7 years, or, rather, during the 7th year; for we must be careful not to strain the expression "at the end" (compare 15:9, where the 7th year is called "the year of release"; it is quite natural to identify this 7th year with the Sabbatical year).

Moreover, we are now almost compelled to assert the Sabbatical year by this time had become an institution observed simultaneously all over the country. From the wording of the regulation regarding the 7th year in the Covenant Book we are not certain about this in those early times. But now it is different. "Yahweh’s release hath been proclaimed."

3. General Observance:

It was a solemn and general proclamation, the date of which was very likely the day of atonement in the 7th month (the Sabbatical month). The celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles (booths) began five days later and it lasted from the 15th day to the 21st of the 7th month (Tisri). In the Sabbatical year, at that time, the Law was read "before all Israel in their hearing," a fact which tends to prove that the Sabbatical year had become a matter of general and simultaneous observance (compare De 31:10-13). Another lesson may be deduced from this passage: it gives us a hint respecting the use to which the people may have put their leisure time during the 12 months of Sabbatical rest; it may have been a period of religious and probably other instruction.

In Le 25:1-7 the central idea of the Sabbatical year is unfolded. Although it has been said we should be careful not to look for too much of the ideal and dogmatic in the institutions of the children of Israel, yet we must never lose sight of the religious and educational character even of their ancient legislation.

4. Central Idea:

One central thought is brought home to them, namely, God is the owner of the soil, and through His grace only the chosen people have come into its possession. Their time, i.e. they themselves, belong to Him: this is the deepest meaning of the day of rest; their land, i.e. their means of subsistence, belong to Him: this reveals to us the innermost significance of the year of rest. It was Yahweh’s pleasure to call the children of Israel into life, and if they live and work and prosper, they are indebted to His unmerited loving-kindness. They should, therefore, put their absolute trust in Him, never doubt His word or His power, always obey Him and so always receive His unbounded blessings.

If we thus put all the emphasis on the religious character of the Sabbatical year, we are in keeping with the idea permeating the Old Testament, namely that the children of Israel are the chosen people of Yahweh. All their agricultural, social, commercial and political relations were to be built upon their divine calling and shaped according to God’s sovereign will.

But did they live up to it? Or, to limit the question to our subject: Did they really observe the Sabbatical year? There are those who hold that the law regarding the Sabbatical year was not observed before the captivity. In order to prove this assertion they point to Le 26:34 f,43; also to 2Ch 36:21. But all we can gather from these passages is the palpable conclusion that the law regarding the Sabbatical year had not been strictly obeyed, a deficiency which may mar the effect of any law.

The possibility of observing the precept respecting the Sabbatical year is demonstrated by the post-exilic history of the Jewish people. Nehemiah registers the solemn fact that the reestablished nation entered into a covenant to keep the law and to maintain the temple worship (Ne 9:38; 10:32 ). In 10:31 of the last-named chapter he alludes to the 7th year, "that we would forego the 7th year, and the exaction of every debt." We are not sure of the exact meaning of this short allusion; it may refer to the Sabbatical rest of the land and the suspension of debts.

For a certainty we know that the Sabbatical year was observed by the Jews at the time of Alexander the Great. When he was petitioned by the Samaritans "that he would remit the tribute of the 7th year to them, because they did not sow therein, he asked who they were that made such a petition"; he was told they were Hebrews, etc. (Josephus, Ant, XI, viii, 6).

During Maccabean and Asmonean times the law regarding the Sabbatical year was strictly observed, although it frequently weakened the cause of the Jews (1 Macc 6:49,53; Josephus, Ant, XIII, viii, 1; compare Josephus, Jewish Wars, I, ii, 4; Ant, XIV, x, 6; XV, i, 2). Again we may find references to the Sabbatical year in Josephus, Ant, XIV, xvi, 2, etc.; Tac. Hist. v.4, etc., all of which testifies to the observance of the Sabbatical year in the Herodian era. The words of Tacitus show the proud Roman’s estimate of the Jewish character and customs: "For the 7th day they are said to have prescribed rest because this day ended their labors; then, in addition, being allured by their lack of energy, they also spend the 7th year in laziness."

See also ASTRONOMY, sec. I, 5, (3), (4); JUBILEE YEAR.

See also

  • Feasts