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Sabbatical Year

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( Shenath shabbathon , "Year of rest"; Septuagint eniautos anapauseos ; Vulgate annus requietionis ).

The seventh year, devoted to cessation of agriculture, and holding in the period of seven years a place analogous to that of the Sabbath in the week; also called "Year of Remission".

Three prescriptions were to be observed during the year ( Exodus 23:10-11 ; Leviticus 25:1-7 ; Deuteronomy 15:1-11 , 31:10-13 ):

  • The land was to lie fallow and all agricultural labor was to be suspended. There was to be neither plowing nor sowing, nor were the vines and olives to be attended to. The spontaneous yield was not to be garnered, but was to be left in the fields for common use, and what was not used was to be abandoned to the cattle and wild animals ( Exodus 23:10-11 ; Leviticus 25:1-7 ). Of the fruit trees the olive is alone mentioned, because its oil was one of the three great agricultural products; but the law probably applied also to other trees. The prescribed rest was for the land, not for man. Hence work other than agricultural was not forbidden, nor even work in the fields which had no direct connection with raising crops, such as building walls of enclosure, digging wells, etc.
  • No crops being reaped during the sabbatical year, the payment of debts would have been a great hardship, if not an impossibility, for many. Hence the creditor was commanded "to withhold his hand" and not to exact a debt from an Israelite, though he might demand it of strangers, who were not bound to abstain from agricultural pursuits ( Deuteronomy 15:1-3 , Hebrew text). The Talmudists and many after them understand the law to mean the remission of the debt ; but modern commentators generally hold that it merely suspended the obligation to pay and deferred the creditor from extracting the debt during the year. The Douay translation "He to whom anything is owing from his friend or neighbour or brother cannot demand it again" is incorrect.
  • During the sabbatical year the Law was to be read on the Feast of Tabernacles to all Israel -- men, women, and children -- as well as to the strangers within the gates, that they might know and fear the Lord, and fulfill all the words of the Law ( Deuteronomy 31:10-13 ).
The law concerning the release of Hebrew slaves in the seventh year ( Exodus 21:2 sqq. ; Deuteronomy 15:12 sqq. ) is wrongly connected by some writers with the sabbatical year. That there was no special connection between the two is sufficiently shown by the requirement of six years of servitude, the beginning of which was not affixed to any particular year, and by the law prescribing the liberation of Hebrew slaves in the year of jubilee, which immediately followed the seventh sabbatical year ( Leviticus 25:39 sqq. ).

Since the sabbatical year was preceded by six sowings and six harvests ( Exodus 23:10 ), it began with autumn, the time of sowing, and probably coincided with the civil year, which began with the month of Tishri (September-October); some commentators, however, think that like the year of jubilee it began on the tenth of the month.

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The year was not well observed before the Captivity (cf. 2 Chronicles 36:21 and Leviticus 26:34, 35, 43 ). After the return, the people covenanted to let the land lie fallow and to exact no debt in the seventh year ( Nehemiah 10:31 ), and thereafter it was regularly kept. The occurrence of a sabbatical year is mentioned in I Machabees 6:49 and 6:53, and its observance is several times referred to by Josephus ( Jewish Wars I:2:4; Antiquities XI:8:5-6; XIII:8:1; XIV:16:2).

The absence of any allusion to the celebration of the sabbatical year in pre-exilic times has led modern critics to assert that it was instituted at the time of the Restoration, or that at least the custom of allowing all fields to lie fallow simultaneously was then introduced. But it is hardly credible that the struggling community would have adopted a custom calculated to have a seriously disturbing effect on economic conditions, and without example among other nations, unless it had the sanction of venerable antiquity.

The main object for which the sabbatical year was instituted was to bring home to the people that the land was the Lord's, and that they were merely His tenants at will ( Leviticus 25:23 ). In that year He exercised His right of sovereign dominion. Secondarily it was to excite their faith and reliance on God ( Leviticus 25:20-22 ), and to stimulate their faithfulness to His Law ( Deuteronomy 31:10-13 ).

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