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Sabbatical Year

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

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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.

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Sabbatical Year'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​s/sabbatical-year.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.
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