Sabbatical Year


sa-bat'-ik-al, shenath shabbathon; eniautos anapauseos, "a year of solemn rest"; or shabbath shabbathon; sabbata anapausis, "a sabbath of solemn rest" (Leviticus 25:4); or shehath ha-shemittah; etos tes apheseos, "the year of release" (Deuteronomy 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 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 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 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 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 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 26:34,43; 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; 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.

William Baur

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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'SABBATICAL YEAR'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.