Sabbatical Year

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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible [1]

Sabbatical Year (including year of Jubilee )

1. OT references . In a consideration of the regulations connected with the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, it is of the greatest importance to keep distinct the various stages of the Jewish legislation on the subject. The various ordinances differ greatly in character and detail; and in order to comprehend this diversity it is necessary to assume as granted the main conclusions of OT criticism, and to admit at any rate that a separation in time and difference in spirit characterize the several parts of the ‘Mosaic Law.’

Exodus . In   Exodus 23:10-11 an entire cessation of all field-work is ordered to take place in every 7th year. This is said to be dictated by a regard for the poor and the beasts of the field. In effect the gift of one year’s produce to the poor is prescribed, that the landless may receive the usufruct of the soil. In   Exodus 21:2-6 it is laid down that a Hebrew slave can be kept in bondage only for six years. After this period he was automatically emancipated, though his wife and children must remain in servitude, if he had married after his term of service began. But provision was made for cases where a slave might desire to remain in this condition. A public ceremony took place which signified his acceptance of the position in perpetuity. Nothing is here said which leads us to suppose that there was one simultaneous period of emancipation all over the country, and no reference is made to redemption of land or remission of debts.

Deuteronomy . In   Deuteronomy 15:1-3 the 7th year is assigned as the period at which all the liabilities of a Jew were suspended (or possibly, as Josephus supposes, entirely cancelled); this provision was to be of universal operation.   Deuteronomy 15:12-18 repeats the ordinances of   Exodus 21:1-36 with regard to the emancipation of slaves; here again no simultaneity of redemption can be inferred.   Deuteronomy 31:10-13 prescribes that the Law is to be read every 7th year (the ‘year of release’) at the Feast of Tabernacles (cf.   Nehemiah 8:13-18 ). Nothing is said in Deuteronomy about a possible redemption of land.

Leviticus . In   Leviticus 25:1-55 provision is made for a seventh-year fallow; but there is no mention of the poor. The reason assigned is that the land, being Jehovah’s land, must keep Sabbath, i.e. the Sabbath principle is extended to cover nature as well as man. We also find here the jubilee ordinances. After 49 years had elapsed, every 50th year was to be inaugurated as a jubilee by the blowing of the trumpet on the Day of Atonement. All slaves were to be emancipated (this may be a modified substitute for the earlier provisions with regard to emancipation after 7 years); no mention is made of the possibility of perpetual slavery, but it is ordained that the Hebrew slave of a foreigner may be redeemed by a relative, all Jews being essentially Jehovah’s servants. The land was to lie fallow, and providential aid is promised to ensure sufficiency of produce during the period of three years when no harvest could be gathered, viz. the 49th year, which would be a sabbatical fallow, the year of jubilee, and the following year, when tillage would be resumed. Here also we find elaborate directions for the redemption of land in the jubilee year. They may be thus summarized: (1) No landed property may be sold, but only the usufruct of its produce up to the next jubilee, and the price must be calculated by the distance from that period. (2) A kinsman may redeem land thus mortgaged, or (the meaning may possibly be) exercise a right of pre-emption upon it. (3) The mortgager may redeem at the selling price, less the yearly proportion for the time elapsed since the sale. (4) House property in walled towns (not in villages) may be sold outright, and is redeemable only during one year. Such property was presumably regarded as human and artificial, whilst all land was essentially the property of Jehovah. (5) The Levitical possessions were redeemable at any time, and did not come under the jubilee provisions. (6) Nothing is said in Lev. as to the remission of debts, but there is a general prohibition of usury. (7) In   Leviticus 27:16-25 a field devoted to Jehovah must be valued at once at a fixed rate, and might be redeemed at this price, plus a fine of 20 per cent., up to the year of jubilee. If not redeemed by then it became sacred property: no redemption of it was thereafter possible.

2. Purposes of the Sabbatical rules . The purposes underlying the ordinances above catalogued may be classified under 4 heads: but it is practically impossible to assign any certain priority of time to any one of the classes. ( a ) The periodical fallow . This is a very common provision in agriculture, and the seven years’ period is still observed in Syria. Since the fallow year was not at first everywhere simultaneous, the earlier historical books are silent about it: and indeed it cannot have been generally observed. For the 70 years’ captivity and desolation of the land was regarded as making up for the unobserved Sabbaths of the land (  2 Chronicles 36:21 , cf.   Leviticus 26:34;   Leviticus 26:43 ). The reference in   Nehemiah 10:31 may be to the periodical fallow or to the remission of debts. But 1Ma 6:49; 1Ma 6:63 shows that the fallow year was observed later. ( b ) The emancipation of slaves (cf.   Jeremiah 34:8-9 ). Such a provision must have been very difficult to enforce, and we find no other possible reference to it. ( c ) The remission or suspension of debts . The only reference is the dubious one in   Nehemiah 10:31 . ( d ) The redemption of real property . The kind of tenure here implied is not uncommonly found in other countries, and   Jeremiah 32:6 ff.,   Ruth 4:1-22 ,   Ezekiel 7:13 show that something akin to it did exist in Palestine (cf. also   Ezekiel 46:17 ). But that it was in no sense universal may be inferred from Isaiah’s and Micah’s denunciations of land-grabbing; on the other hand,   1 Kings 21:3-4 furnishes an instance of the inalienability of land. Cf. Leviticus, p. 543 b .

In general we have no sign that the sabbatical and jubilee provisions were ever strictly observed in Biblical times. Their principles of rest and redemption, though never practised as a piece of social politics, were preached as ideals, and may have had some effect in discouraging slave-owning, land-grabbing, and usury, and in encouraging a more merciful view of the relations between Jew and Jew. Thus  Isaiah 61:1-3 is steeped in the jubilee phraseology, and Christ adopted this passage to explain His own mission (  Luke 4:18 ff.).

A. W. F. Blunt.

Bridgeway Bible Dictionary [2]

A sabbatical year was a year when all farming land was given rest from agricultural activity. It was supposed to occur every seventh year throughout Israel’s history. There was also to be release for debtors and a public reading of the Mosaic law every seventh year. Although these latter two functions were not specifically connected with the year of rest for the land, they were probably arranged to coincide with it.

Rest for the land

Just as people and their working animals rested one day in seven, so the land was to be rested one year in seven. By ceasing agricultural activity during this year, the Israelites had the opportunity to recognize in a special way that God was the rightful owner of the land. They were merely tenants, and could not treat God’s land as they wished. Also, the rest from farming gave the land the opportunity to clear itself of pests and restore its natural powers of production ( Exodus 23:10-11;  Leviticus 25:1-7;  Leviticus 25:23).

The people had no reason to fear a shortage of food during the sabbatical year. God would bless every sixth year with double the normal produce, so that people could store up food for use the next year. In addition there would be enough natural growth during the sabbatical year for people such as the poor who could not store up in advance. There would also be enough for the flocks and herds ( Leviticus 25:6-7;  Leviticus 25:12;  Leviticus 25:18-22). If the people disobeyed God’s laws and did not rest the land one year in seven, God would force them to rest it by driving them from it ( Leviticus 26:34-43; cf.  2 Chronicles 36:20-21;  Jeremiah 34:13-22).

Release for debtors

At the end of every seven years, Israelites were to forgive any debts owed them by fellow Israelites. They were to consider themselves one big family, where those who had money helped those who were in need. They were not to refuse anyone a loan, even if the year of release was approaching. However, in the case of foreigners who owed Israelites debts, normal business procedures applied ( Deuteronomy 15:1-11). Israelites who were slaves of their fellow Israelites were also released in the seventh year. Foreigners who were slaves of Israelites apparently did not enjoy this privilege ( Deuteronomy 15:12-18;  Leviticus 25:44-46; see Slave ).

Reading of the law

One duty of the priests in the year of release was to gather the people together for a public reading of the law, to remind them of their responsibilities as God’s people. This reading was to take place at the central place of worship when the people assembled to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles ( Deuteronomy 31:9-13).

Fausset's Bible Dictionary [3]

(See Jubilee .)  Exodus 23:10-11. Part of the same general law as the Sabbath day. The land must rest fallow each seventh year. In  Leviticus 25:2-7 and Deuteronomy 15 God ordains also the release of debtors every seventh year. The parts of the harvest crop ungathered and ungleaned in some degree sowed themselves for a spontaneous growth in the idle seventh year ( Leviticus 19:9;  Leviticus 23:22). The owners laid up grain in the previous years for it  Leviticus 25:20-22). As the Sabbath is God's assertion of His claim on time, so the sabbatical year on the land.

The sabbatical year began in the seventh month, and the whole law was then read during the feast of tabernacles; so that holy occupation, not apathetic rest, characterized it, as in the case of the Sabbath day. At the completion of the week of sabbatical years, the Jubilee crowned the whole. Canaan's conquest took seven years, the allotment of land seven more; then began the law of the sabbatical year. These "years" were observed under the New Testament; and Judaizers even sought to force their observance on Gentile Christians ( Galatians 4:10). In  Luke 6:1 explain "the first Sabbath of a year that stood second in a sabbatical cycle." Josephus (Ant. 14:10, section 6) implies that at that time years were reckoned by their place in a sabbatical cycle. (See Ellicott, Life of Christ, p. 173-174, and note.)

Smith's Bible Dictionary [4]

Sabbatical Year. Each seventh year, by the Mosaic code, was to be kept holy.  Exodus 23:10-11. The commandment is to sow and reap for six years, and to let the land rest on the seventh, "that the poor of thy people may eat; and what they leave, the beasts of the field shall eat". It is added in  Deuteronomy 15:1, that the seventh Year should also be one of release to debtors.  Deuteronomy 15:1-11. Neither tillage nor cultivation of any sort was to be practiced.

The Sabbatical Year opened in the Sabbatical Month , and the whole law was to be read every such year, during the Feast of Tabernacles , to the assembled people. At the completion of a week of Sabbatical Years , the sabbatical scale received its completion in the Year of Jubilee . See Jubilee, The Year of . The constant neglect of this law, from the very first, was one of the national sins, that were punished by the Babylonian captivity. Of the observance of the Sabbatical Year , after the captivity, we have a proof in  1 Maccabees 6:49.

American Tract Society Bible Dictionary [5]

Was to be celebrated among the Jews once every seven years; the land was to rest, and be left without culture,  Exodus 23:10,11   Leviticus 25:17 . God appointed the observance of the Sabbatical year, to preserve the remembrance of the creation of the world; to enforce the acknowledgment of his sovereign authority over all things, particularly over the land of Canaan, which he had given to the Hebrews; and to inculcate humanity on his people, by commanding that they should resign to servants, to the poor, to strangers and to brutes, the produce of the fields, of their vineyards, and of their gardens. Josephus and Tacitus both mention the Sabbatical year as existing in their day. See Jubilee .

Morrish Bible Dictionary [6]

The Sabbath being the sign of God's covenant with Israel (See SABBATH), and that He purposed that they should enjoy His rest, even the land must keep its Sabbath every seventh year. God promised that the produce of the sixth year should be enough for three years, so that the land resting a full year should cause no scarcity.  Exodus 23:10,11;  Leviticus 25:2-7 . Apparently the Sabbatical years were not observed.  Leviticus 26:33-35 . See JUBILEE.

Holman Bible Dictionary [7]

 Exodus 23:10-11 Leviticus 25:1-7 Exodus 21:2 Deuteronomy 15:1-3 Jeremiah 34:13-14 Leviticus 26:35 Nehemiah 10:31 1 Maccabees 6:49

David Maltsberger

Easton's Bible Dictionary [8]

 Leviticus 25:2-7 Exodus 23:10,11,12 Leviticus 26:34,35 Deuteronomy 15:1-11 2 Chronicles 36:20,21

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [9]

the septennial rest for the land from all tillage and cultivation enjoined in the Mosaic law ( Exodus 23:10-11;  Leviticus 25:2-7;  Deuteronomy 15:1-11;  Deuteronomy 31:10-13; comp. Josephus, Ant. 3, 12, 3). The regulation appears to have been greatly neglected during the Hebrew occupancy of Palestine ( 2 Chronicles 36:21).

I. Names And Their Signification . In the Mosaic legislation this festival is called by four names, each of which expresses some feature connected with the observance thereof. Thus it is called

(1) שְׁבִת שִׁבָּתוֹן , Rest Of Entire Rest , or Sabbath Of Sabbatism ( Leviticus 25:4; A.V. "Sabbath of rest"), because the land is to have a complete rest from all tillage and cultivation;

(2) שִׁבָּתוֹן שְׁנִת , The Year Of Sabbatism or Rest ( Leviticus 25:5, "year of rest'), because the rest is to extend through the year;

(3) שְׁמַטָּה , or more fully שְׁנִת הִשְּׁמַטָּה , "Release ," Remission , or " The Year Of Release " ( Deuteronomy 15:1-2;  Deuteronomy 15:9), because on it all debts were remitted; and

(4) שְׁנִת הִשֵּׁבִע , " The Seventh Year " ( Deuteronomy 15:9), because it is to be celebrated every seventh year, for which reason it is called in the Hebrew canons Κατ᾿ Ἐξοξήν , שַׁבַיעַית , The Seventh (i.e. שָׁנָה , Year ), as is also the name of the tractate in the Mishna ( Shebiith ) treating on the sabbatical year. Josephus styles it the Ἑβδοματικὸς or Σαββατικὸς Ἐνιαυτός ( Ant. 14, 10, 6; 16, 2; 15, 1, 2); once Ἀργὸν Ἔτος (War , 1, 2, 4).

II. The Laws Connected With This Festival . Like the year of jubilee, the laws respecting the sabbatical year embrace three main enactments

(1) Rest for the soil; (2) care for the poor and for animals; and (3) remission of debts.

The first enactment, which is comprised in  Exodus 23:10-11;  Leviticus 25:2-5, enjoins that the soil, the vineyards, and the olive yards are to have perfect rest; there is to be no tillage or cultivation of any sort, at least in Palestine (comp. Tacit. Hist. 5, 4, 3). What constitutes tillage and cultivation, and how much of labor was regarded as transgressing the law, may be seen from the following definitions of the Hebrew canons: "The planting even of trees which bear no fruit is not allowed on the sabbatical year; nor may one cut off withered or dried up boughs of trees, nor break off the withered leaves and branches, nor cover the tops with (lust, nor smoke under them to kill the insects, nor besmear the plants with any kind of soil to protect them from being eaten by the birds when they are tender, nor besmear the unripe fruit, etc., etc. And whoso does one of these things in the sabbatical year is to receive the stripes of a transgressor" (Maimonides, Jad Ha-Chezaka Hilkoth Shemita Ve-Jobel, 1, 5). Anything planted wittingly or unwittingly had to be plucked up by its roots (Mishna, Terum. 2, 3). Thus it was a regulation requiring all the land periodically to lie fallow (Philo, Opp. 2, 207, 277, 631), and as a year of rest corresponded with the Sabbath or day of rest (ibid. 2, 631; Josephus, l.c.; War, 1, 2, 4; Tacit. l.c.); in fact, a Sabbath year, just as the Essenes, besides the seventh day, observed a sabbath of weeks each seventh week (Philo, Opp. 2, 481).

The second enactment, which is contained in  Exodus 23:11;  Leviticus 25:5-7, enjoins that the spontaneous growth ( סָפַיחִ ) of the fields or of trees (comp.  Isaiah 37:30) is to be for the free use of the poor, hirelings, strangers, servants, and cattle ( Exodus 23:11;  Leviticus 25:5-7; comp. Mishna, Edayoth , 5, 1). This law is thus defined by the Jewish canons: "He who locks up his vineyard, or hedges in his field, or gathers all the fruit into his house in the sabbatical year, breaks this positive commandment. Everything is to be left common, and every man has a right to everything in every place, as it is written that the poor of thy people may eat' ( Exodus 23:11). One may only bring into his house a little at a time, according to the manner of taking things that are in common" (Maimonides, Ibid. 4, 24). "The fruit of the seventh year, however, may only be eaten by man as long as the same kind is found in the field; for it is written and for the cattle and for the beast that are in thy land shall all the increase thereof be meat' ( Leviticus 25:7). Therefore, as long as the animals eat the same kind in the field thou mayest eat of what there is of it in the house; and if the animal has consumed it all in the field, thou art bound to remove this kind from the house into the field" (Maimonides, ibid. 7, 1). The people, who are enjoined to live upon the harvest of the preceding year, and the spontaneous growth of the sabbatical year, are promised an especially fruitful harvest to precede the fallow year as a reward for obeying the injunction ( Leviticus 25:20-22). That the fields yielded a crop in the sabbatical year, and even in the second fallow year i.e. in the year of jubilee has been shown in the art. Jubilee Year

The third enactment, which is contained in  Deuteronomy 15:1-3, enjoins the remission of debts in the sabbatical year. The exceptions laid down are in the case of a foreigner, and that of there being no poor in the land. This latter, however, it is straightway said, is what will never happen. But though debts might not be claimed, it is not said that they might not be voluntarily paid; and it has been questioned whether the release of the seventh year was final or merely lasted through the year. This law is defined by the ancient Hebrew canons as follows: The sabbatical year cancels every debt, whether lent on a bill or not. It does not cancel accounts for goods; daily wages for labor which may be performed in the sabbatical year, unless they have been converted into a loan; or the legal fines imposed upon one who committed a rape, or was guilty of seduction ( Exodus 22:15-16), or slander, or any judicial penalties; nor does it set aside a debt contracted on a pledge, or on a פְּרוֹסְבּוּל = Πρὸς Βουλῇ (or Βουλήν ) i.e. declaration made before the court of justice at the time of lending not to remit the debt in the sabbatical year. The formula of this legal declaration was as follows: "I, A B, deliver to you, the judges of the district C, the declaration that I may call in at any time I like all debts due to me," and it was signed either by the judges or witnesses. If this Prosbul was antedated, it was legal, but it was invalid if postdated. If one borrowed money from five different persons, a Prosbul was necessary from each individual; but if, on the contrary, one lent money to five different persons, one Prosbul was sufficient for all. This Prosbul was first introduced by Hillel (q.v.) the Great (born about B.C. 75), because he found that the warning contained in  Deuteronomy 15:9 was disregarded: the rich would not lend to the poor for fear of the sabbatical year, which seriously impeded commercial and social intercourse (Mishna, Shebiith , 10, 1-5; Gittin , 4, 3). This shows beyond the shadow of a doubt that the release of the seventh year did not simply last through the seventh year, as some will have it, but was final. The doctors before and in the time of Christ virtually did away with this law of remitting debts by regarding it as a meritorious act on the part of the debtor not to avail himself of the Mosaic enactment, and pay his debts irrespective of the sabbatical year. But not glaringly to counteract the law, these doctors enacted that the creditor should say, "In accordance with the sabbatical year, I remit thee the debt;" whereunto the debtor had to reply, "I nevertheless wish to pay it," and the creditor then accepted the payment (Mishna, Shebiith, 10, 8). As the Mosaic law excludes the foreigner from the privilege of claiming the remission of his debts in the sabbatical year ( Deuteronomy 15:3), the ancient Jewish canons enacted that even if any Israelite borrows money from a proselyte whose children were converted to Judaism with him, he need not legally repay the debt to his children in case the proselyte dies, because the proselyte, in consequence of his conversion, is regarded as having severed all his family ties, and this dissolution of the ties of nature sets aside mutual inheritance, even if the children professed Judaism with the father. Still the sages regarded it as a meritorious act if the debts were paid to the children (Mishna, Shebiith, 10, 9). It is often said, too, that in the sabbatical year all slaves of Hebrew birth were freed; but the words in  Exodus 21:2 (comp.  Jeremiah 34:14 sq.) require only that they be freed in the seventh year of their servitude (Josephus, Ant. 16, 1, 1).  Deuteronomy 15:12 no more relates to the law of the sabbatical year than  Deuteronomy 15:19 sq. (comp. Ranke, Pentat. 2, 362), and where the sabbatical year is expressly treated of as in Leviticus 25 nothing is said of such manumission. Nor does Josephus ( Ant. 3, 12, 3) mention it. Leviticus 34:8 does not refer at all to this institution (yet see Hitzig, Ad Loc. ), and Leviticus 34:14 refers only to the law in  Exodus 21:2. (See Release).

III. Time , Observance , And Limit Of The Sabbatical Year . The sabbatical year, like the year of jubilee, began on the first day of the civil new year =the first of the month Tisri (Maimonides, L.C. 4, 9). (See New Year). But though this was the time fixed for the celebration of the sabbatical year during the period of the second Temple, yet the tillage and cultivation of certain fields and gardens had already to be left off in the sixth year. Thus it was ordained that fields upon which trees were planted were not to be cultivated after the feast of Pentecost of the sixth year (Mishna, Shebiith , 1, 1-8), while the cultivation of corn fields was to cease from the feast of Passover (ibid. 2, 1). Since the destruction of the Temple, however, the sabbatical year, or, more properly, cessation from tillage and cultivation of all kinds, does not begin till the feast of New Year. According to the Mosaic legislation, the laws of the sabbatical year were to come into operation when the children of Israel had possession of the promised land; and the Talmud, Maimonides, etc., tell us that the first sabbatical year was celebrated in the twenty-first year after they entered Canaan, as the conquest of it recorded in  Joshua 14:10 occupied seven years, and the division thereof between the different tribes mentioned in Joshua 18, etc., occupied seven years more, whereupon they had to cultivate it six years, and on the seventh year the twenty-first after entering therein the first sabbatical year was celebrated (Babylon Talmud, Erachan , 12 b; Maimonides, L.C. 10, 2). On the feast of Tabernacles of the sabbatical year, certain portions of the law were read in the Temple before the whole congregation ( Deuteronomy 31:10-13). As the Pentateuchal enactment assigns the prelection of the law to the priests and college of presbyters (ibid.) viz. the spiritual and civil heads of the congregation (hence the singular תַּקְרָא , " Thou Shalt Read this law before all Israel") the Hebrew canons ordained that the high priest, and after the return from Babylon the king, should perform this duty. The manner in which it was read by the monarch is thus described in the Mishna: "At the close of the first day of the feast of Tabernacles in the eighth year i.e. at the termination of the seventh fallow year a wooden platform was erected in the outer court, whereon he sat, as it is written, at the end of the seventh year on the festival' ( Deuteronomy 31:10). Thereupon the superintendent of the synagogue took the book of the law and gave it to the head of the synagogue; the head of the synagogue then gave it to the head of the priests, the head of the priests again gave it to the high priest, and the high priest finally handed it to the king; the king stood up to receive it, but read it sitting. He read

(1)  Deuteronomy 1:1-6;  Deuteronomy 1:3 ( אלה הדברי ם עד שמע );

(2)  Deuteronomy 6:4-8 ( שמע );

(3)  Deuteronomy 11:13-22 ( והיה אי ם שמוע );

(4)  Deuteronomy 14:22;  Deuteronomy 15:23 ( עשד תעשר );

(5)  Deuteronomy 26:12-19 ( כי תכלה לעשר );

(6)  Deuteronomy 17:14-20 ( המלפִרשת ); and

(7)  Deuteronomy 27:23 ( עד שגומר כל הפרשה כרכות וקללות ).

The king then concluded with the same benediction which the high priest pronounced, except that he substituted the blessing of the festivals for the absolution of sins" (Mishna, Sota, 7, 8). This benediction forms to the present day a part of the blessing pronounced by the maphtir, or the one who is called to the reading of the lesson from the prophets after the reading of the lesson from the law, and is given in an English translation in the art. HAPHTAARH of this Cyclopoedia, beginning with the words "For the law, for the divine service," etc. The sabbatical year, however, was only binding upon the inhabitants of Palestine (Kiddushin, 1, 9; Orlah, 3, 9), the limits of which were determined on the east by the desert of Arabia, on the west by the sea, on the north by Amana, while on the south the boundary was doubtful (comp. Geiger, Lehr-und Lesebuch zur Sprache der Mishna, [Breslau, 1845], 2, 75, etc.).

As to the obedience to this law, ancient Jewish tradition tells us that it was never kept before the exile, and that it is for this reason that the Jews were seventy years in the Babylonian captivity, to give to the land the seventy years of which it was deprived during the seventy sabbatical years, or the 430 years between the entrance into Canaan and the captivity, as it is written ( 2 Chronicles 36:20-21), "Until the land had enjoyed her Sabbaths [i.e. sabbatical years], for as long as she lay desolate she kept Sabbath to fulfill threescore and ten years [i.e. sabbatical years]" (comp. Shabbath , 13, a; Seder Odom , c. 26; Rashi on  2 Chronicles 36:20). After the captivity, however, when all the neglected laws were more rigidly observed (see  Nehemiah 10:31), the sabbatical year was duly kept, as is evident from the declaration in  1 Maccabees 6:49 that "they came out of the city, because they had no victuals there to endure the siege, it being a year of rest for the land," from the fact that both Alexander the Great and Caius Caesar exempted the Jews from tribute on the seventh year, because it was unlawful for them to sow seed or reap the harvest (Josephus, Ant. 14, 10, 6), and from the sneers of Tacitus about the origin of this festival (Hist. 5, 2, 4), as well as from the undoubted records and the post-exilian minute regulations about the sabbatical year contained in the ancient Jewish writings. According to  1 Maccabees 6:53, the one hundred and fiftieth year of the Seleucid eras was a sabbatical year (Josephus, Ant. 13, 8, 1, 16, 12; 15, 1, 2; War, 1, 2, 4; comp. Hitzig, Isaiah p. 433; Von Bohlen, Genesis p. 138 sq., Einleit.). The Samaritans observed it (Josephus, Ant. 11, 8, 6). St. Paul, in reproaching the Galatians with their Jewish tendencies, taxes them with observing years as well as days and months and times ( Galatians 4:10), from which we must infer that the teachers who communicated to them those tendencies did more or less the like themselves. Another allusion in the New Test. to the sabbatical year is perhaps to be found in the phrase Ἐν Σαββάτῳ Δευτερομρώτῳ ( Luke 6:1). Various explanations have been given of the term, one of them being that it denotes the first Sabbath of the second year in the cycle (Wieseler, quoted by Alford, vol. 1). (See Second First Sabbath)

IV. Design Of The Regulation . The spirit of this law is the same as that of the weekly Sabbath. Both have a beneficent tendency, limiting the rights and checking the sense of property; the one puts in God's claims on time, the other on the land. The land shall "keep a Sabbath unto the Lord." "The land is mine." The sabbatical year opened in the sabbatical month. It was thus, like the weekly Sabbath, no mere negative rest, but was to be marked by high and holy occupation, and connected with sacred reflection and sentiment. At the completion of a week of sabbatical years, the sabbatical scale received its completion in the year of jubilee. This singular institution has the aspect, at first sight, of total impracticability. This, however, wears off when we consider that in no year was the owner allowed to reap the whole harvest ( Leviticus 19:9;  Leviticus 23:22). Unless, therefore, the remainder was gleaned very carefully, there may easily have been enough left to insure such spontaneous deposit of seed as in the fertile soil of Syria would produce some amount of crop in the succeeding year, while the vines and olives would of course yield their fruit of themselves. Moreover, it is clear that the owners of land were to lay by corn in previous years for their own and their families' wants. This is the unavoidable inference from  Leviticus 25:20-22. Though the right of property was in abeyance during the sabbatical year, it has been suggested that this only applied to the fields, and not to the gardens attached to houses. The great physical advantage aimed at in the sabbatical year was doubtless that the land lay fallow, thus increasing the fruitfulness of the six years of cultivation, especially in that ancient period when the artificial use of fertilizers was unknown. But this rest was experienced likewise by men and cattle. Other advantages of more or less importance have been suggested: the encouragement of the chase (comp.  Leviticus 25:7); the securing of the land against famine (Michaelis in the Comment. Soc. Gotting. Oblat. [Brem. 1763], 5, 9; Mos. Recht , 2, 39 sq.); the prevention of exportation and foreign trade (Hug, Zeitschr. Fur Das Erzbisth. Freiburg, 1, 10 sq.). On the other hand, scarcity did sometimes occur during the sabbatical year ( 1 Maccabees 6:49;  1 Maccabees 6:53; Josephus, Ant. 14, 16, 2), and it is certain that the institution had various inconveniences incident to it (comp. Grever, Comment. Mis. Syntagma [Olden. 1794]. p. 27 sq.; Von Raumer, Vorles. uber alte Gesch. 1, 138 sq.), which, however, are certainly exaggerated by Von Raumer. Hullmann, too, has been carried too far by his zeal against this institution (Staatsveofass. der Israelit. p. 163 sq.).

V. Literature. Mishna , Shebiith ; the Talmud on this Mishna; Maimonides, Jad Ha-Chezaka Hilkoth Shemita Ve-Jobel ; Michaelis, Commentaries On The Laws Of Moses , arts. 74-77 (English transl. [Lond. 1814], 1, 387-419); Baihr, Symbolik des mosaischen Cultus (Heidelb. 1839), 2, 569 sq., 601 sq.; Maimonides, Tr. de Jurib. Anni Sept. Vertit Notisque illustr. J. H. Maius (Frankf.-on-the-Main, 1708); Carpzov, Appar. p. 442 sq.; Winer, Realworterb. 2, 349.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [10]

sa - bat´ik - al שׁבּתון שנת , shenath shabbāthōn  ; ἐνιαυτός ἀναπαύσεως , eniautós anapaúseōs , "a year of solemn rest"; or שׁבּתון שׁבּת , shabbath shabbāthōn  ; σάββατα ἀνάπαυσις , sábbata anápausis , "a sabbath of solemn rest" (  Leviticus 25:4 ); or השּמטּה שׁנת , shehath ha - shemiṭṭāh  ; ἔτος τῆς ἀφέσεως , étos tḗs aphéseōs , "the year of release" ( Deuteronomy 15:9;  Deuteronomy 31:10 )):

1. Primary Intention:

We find the first rudiments of this institution in the so-called Covenant Book ( Exodus 21-23 ). Its connection with the day of rest (Sabbath) is obvious, although it strikes us as somewhat remarkable that in  Exodus 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   Exodus 23:9 , "Ye were sojourners in the land of Egypt," the Covenant Book should put in a good word for the poor in Israel ( Exodus 23:11 : "Let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of thy people may eat"). Even the beasts of the field are remembered (compare   Jonah 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  Exodus 21:1 ).

2. Mosaic Legislation Humane:

Another evidence of the humane spirit pervading the Mosaic Law may be found in  Exodus 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   Deuteronomy 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  Deuteronomy 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   Deuteronomy 15:2 : "because Yahweh's release hath been proclaimed").

According to  Deuteronomy 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  Deuteronomy 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  Deuteronomy 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  Leviticus 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  Leviticus 26:34 f, 43; also to   2 Chronicles 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 ( Nehemiah 9:38;  Nehemiah 10:32 ff). In   Nehemiah 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 Maccabees 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 , I, 5, (3), (4); Jubilee Year .