Most Christians know about the Sabbath day, but some have never heard of the sabbath year. That's right, a whole year of rest! When I came to the commandments regarding the sabbath year, I was filled with questions. There was so much that I, even as a life-long Christian, did not know! Read on to discover fourteen intriguing facts about the sabbath year!
1. Rest from toil is the heart of the Sabbath
What is a sabbath? The Hebrew word Shabbat means to rest from labor or a day of rest. It comes from a root word that means “to set apart as holy”. This wasn't just a day to kick back if you were tired out. It was, and is, an intentional day of rest and reconnection with God.
The history of the Sabbath goes back to the dawn of the world. In the creation story in Genesis, God created the earth in six days, and on the seventh day, He rested. One of the Ten Commandments is to keep the Sabbath, which included rest for servants and animals. (Exodus 20:8-11) Sabbath happens from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday.
In the era leading up to Jesus, rabbis and scribes created careful guides for what was considered work, even up to how far you could walk. The rules probably seemed odd and oppressive to those who didn't believe in the God of Israel.
So could you imagine, if the Sabbath day threw people off, how hard it was for Gentiles to wrap their head around a sabbath year? Even for believers, this was a challenging commandment from the Lord.
2. The sabbath year was an agricultural rest every seventh year for the land and its workers
The sabbath year, called Shemittah in Hebrew, happens every seventh year. Within the land of Israel, the agricultural cycle rested for a whole year.
“...but on the seventh year you shall let it [the land] rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat.” - Exodus 23:11
Farming is a livin'-on-faith job to begin with. I couldn't imagine the anxiety that would rise as you approached the seventh year in ancient Israel!
I can the people of ancient Israel whispering to each other and jabbing their thumb at Moses. “Is he serious? How will that work?”
3. During the sabbath year, farmers could not plant or harvest crops
According to the Bible, Jewish farmers were told not to plant or harvest for storage for an entire year, beginning on Rosh Hashanah, which falls in September.
“Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, 'When you come into the land which I shall give you, then the land shall have a sabbath to the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its crop, but during the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard. Your harvest's aftergrowth you shall not reap, and your grapes of untrimmed vines you shall not gather; the land shall have a sabbatical year.
“All of you shall have the sabbath products of the land for food; yourself, and your male and female slaves, and your hired men and your foreign resident, those who live as aliens with you. Even your cattle and the animals that are in your land shall have all its crops to eat.” - Leviticus 25:2-7
4. God promised to provide enough food to carry them through—but they had to trust Him
If you're wondering about them running out of food, you're not alone! God anticipated their question, as we see here:
“But if you say, 'What are we going to eat the seventh year if we do not sow or gather in our crops?' then I will so order My blessing for you in the sixth year that it will bring forth the crop for three years. When you are sowing the eighth year, you can still eat old things from the crop, eating until the ninth year when its crop comes in.” - Leviticus 25:20
Bread was the staple food of the people of Israel. Grain can be stored for several years if it is kept cool and dry. In biblical times, grain was usually kept in large pottery jars. This kept rodents and water from getting in and contaminating the grain. In an excavation in Old Jericho, archaeologists found burnt grain in jars amid the rubble.
According to the verses above, anyone was allowed to eat whatever produce grew on its own that year, but without planting, weeding, trimming, or gathering it up for storage. So you could gather fresh fruit from the vines of grapes and olives, or cut an armful of grain to make that day's bread. There doesn't seem to be any rules against harvesting from fig or date trees, so those were fair game as well.
It seems as if landowners relinquished ownership of the produce that grew that year, so anyone, poor or rich, could eat of it. What doesn't get eaten can be grazed by animals.
5. The Sabbath year was an especial benefit to the poor
If anyone can go out and gather what grows, in any field or vineyard, this might be a great relief for the poor, who can harvest what they need to eat for free and turn their focus to more than just putting food in their bellies. Perhaps this allowed them to build up a business, or save up their wages for other needs.
6. The sabbath year included the forgiveness of debts
This would have been a huge relief to those who were struggling to get out of debt! Please note, this only applied to the children of Israel, not to foreigners, as we see here:
“At the end of every seven years you shall grant a remission of debts. This is the manner of remission: every creditor shall release what he has loaned his neighbor; he shall not exact it of his neighbor and his brother, because the Lord's remission has been proclaimed. From a foreigner you may exact it, but you shall release whatever of yours is with your brother.” - Deuteronomy 15:1-3
7. The sabbath year debt forgiveness caused a lot of problems down the road
The release of debts should be done with kindness and compassion, as we see here:
“If there is a poor man with you . . . you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother: but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks. Beware that there is no base thought in your heart, saying 'The seventh year, the remission, is near,' and your heart is hostile toward your poor brother, and you give him nothing; then he may cry to the Lord against you, and it will be a sin in you.” - Deuteronomy 15:7-9
The trouble was that if someone came to a rich man just before the seventh year and asked for a loan, the rich man would know that he would likely lose that money and refuse to lend it out.
This problem of the poor being denied loans became such a problem that in the years leading up to Jesus, Hillel the Elder instigated the pruzbul system. This system allows Jewish people to transfer personal debt to public debt, passing it to the court, allowing the collection of payment through the court.
While this system kept the rich from hoarding their money while the poor starved, Jesus didn't seem to approve of this method of financial management. Instead, he says in Luke 6:35,
“ . . . lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men.”
8. The Year of Jubilee was a huge blessing to the poor
After seven sabbath year cycles, that is, 49 years, the 50th year was declared the year of jubilee. On that year, not only were the people to rest the land and forgive debts, but people went home and slaves were freed. Land was restored to its previous owner, keeping it in the family.
With the rules recorded for calculating sales based on the time until the year of jubilee, we see that the sale of land, or even selling yourself into slavery because you were poor, was more like a lease system, rather than an outright purchase.
Land was the foundation of the people's economy when Israel was established. The year of Jubilee kept the rich from steadily soaking up the ancestral lands of their neighbors and controlling the wealth. (Leviticus 25:8-55)
9. The sabbath years weren't always observed
Though the rules are clear, we don't hear a lot about the people observing the sabbath years in the Bible. We can assume that they did—at least for a while—but it seems that at some point, they stopped.
In 2 Chronicles, we see the land receive the sabbath rest it was denied:
“Those who escaped from the sword he [the king of the Chaldeans] carried away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and to his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it kept sabbath until seventy years were complete.” - 2 Chronicles 36:20-21
The people couldn't say they weren't warned, either. In Leviticus 26 we see severe punishments promised for those who refused to keep God's commandments. There are some harsh punishments in this chapter, but here are the ones related to refusing to keep the Sabbath:
“I will make your land desolate so that your enemies who settle in it will be appalled over it. You, however, I will scatter among the nations and will draw out a sword after you, as your land becomes desolate and your cities become waste. Then the land will enjoy its sabbaths all the days of the desolation, while you are in your enemies' land ... All the days of its desolation it will observe the rest which you did not observe on your sabbaths, while you were living on it.” - Leviticus 26:32-35
10. The sabbath year was a time to reflect on what matters
It's hard work to be a farmer, you work sunrise to sundown, with little time to sit and study from the scriptures. The sabbath year gave farmers much needed time to focus on spiritual matters.
It's easy to think the sabbath year only affected the farmers. We can assume that the shepherds, fishermen, shopkeepers, and potters didn't feel the pinch. As we see in the world around us right now, you don't need to be the point of contact to feel the ripple effect of economic uncertainty.
We've seen in North American how an uncertain future affects everyone, and maybe the ancient Israelites dealt with the same fallout we've been experiencing. What was available to buy in the market could change drastically, or rise in cost. (Read my post on a laborer's wages and basic food prices in the first century!) Perhaps they also had empty shelves caused by panic buyers who succumbed to anxiety or hoarders who refused to sell. The farm laborers might be seeking other areas of employment, causing job shortages. Plus the lack of wages means there was less money to be spread around.
It would be easy to feel a sense of dread as you neared the sabbatical year, but that was not the intention. It was a time to take the focus off yourself, and care for your neighbor and, most importantly, reconnect with God. This was the year you reaffirmed your belief that it is God who cares for you, and spent special time in study and prayer.
11. The sabbath year came with required reading
At the end of every seven-year cycle, they would all hear the Law read aloud—men, women, and children.
“Then Moses commanded them, saying, 'At the end of every seven years, at the time of the remission of debts, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place which He will choose, you shall read this law in front of all Israel in their hearing.'” - Deuteronomy 31:10-13
You couldn't miss that this sabbatical was to strengthen your faith in God and to remind you of your place and responsibilities as one of God's children!
12. Refusing to keep the sabbath year was selfish
The very first time we see the sabbath year mentioned, we see that the heart of the sabbath year observances was to care for the needy. The needy could be those who were physically hungry, but I think we can expand on that definition. The needy might include those trapped in debt, or burnt-out from years of labor, workaholics, or those who had begun to believe that their well-being rested solely on their own shoulders.
Rejecting the sabbath year was an act of turning away from those in need. It was turning away from God and denying His blessing on their lives.
More than a test of obedience, or a religious rite, this was supposed to be a way of righteous living that benefited all of God's people, with blessings promised for those who obeyed. It was the seemingly ridiculous claim that success came through resting!
But the people resisted the risk of trusting in God.
13. The hesitation with observing the sabbath year continued into Jesus' day
We aren't entirely sure what the sabbatical year looked like in Jesus' day. Considering the careful rule-following of the scribes and Pharisees, we would assume they kept it, but they had devised all sorts of spiritual workarounds for other issues. They might have done the same with the year of rest. After all, they may have reasoned, this law was designed for a small farming community. The system is hardly workable in a bustling, trade-filled, modern world. And we might agree with them.
Rabbi R Yannai ordered Jews in his day to plant and harvest to have enough money to pay their taxes to Roman rulers, who had no concept of a year of rest. We can guess he did this to save his community from brutal punishment.
The sabbath year might have worked its way into Jesus' teachings. The seven-year cycle began one year after the fall of the temple. The temple fell in 70 AD, and that was a sabbatical year. That means there would have been a sabbatical year in 28 AD and 35 AD. Jesus' ministry might have fallen during, or soon after one.
Would Jesus' experiences with a casually observed year of rest, with people wiggling to get out of caring for the needy played into his parables? Do we see the echo of God's heart in creating a sabbath year when Jesus tells people to give to the poor, to build up treasure in heaven rather than on earth, and to not worry about tomorrow? I think we do.
14. The sabbath year observances are still kept by some Jews today
It seems as if the Year of Jubilee ceased after the ten tribes of Israel were taken in captivity by Assyria several hundred years before Christ. Without the possibility of everyone returning to their home as commanded, that observance will not happen again until the twelve tribes are restored to Israel.
The law of rest for the land is contained with Israel, most Jewish scholars agree. Observant Jews do not buy produce in the sabbatical year that is grown within Israel's borders.
Some modern farmers who keep the Sabbath year plant wheat and hay crops just before the Sabbath year begins, to keep the land from filling with weeds. They do not touch it after that. It is a challenge for farmers to trust in God to see them through each sabbatical year, but they believe God blesses them for it. You can read a personal account of a modern, Jewish farmer in Israel here.
The practice of pruzbul for collecting debts from fellow Jews continues to this day.
The sabbath year doesn't technically apply to gentile Christians, but I believe there is a lesson in it for us
Perhaps, reading this post, you've thought about the past few months.
We, in work-orientated North America, could learn a thing or two about rest for spiritual and emotional health. Many of us live at the edge of our financial limits (me included) to the point that not being able to work for a few months sends us into a panic. The shut down has highlighted our emotional struggle with an uncertain economy.
These past few months were awful. The loss of life is staggering and it hurts my heart. For those of us who weren't touched with the virus itself, we still had to deal with loneliness, uncertainty, cancellation of weddings and graduation parties, unpaid bills, and closures of businesses.
I want to be clear that our house arrests are different than the sabbath year observances. Our forced rest was brought on by a worldwide pandemic, and we didn't have time to emotionally or financially prepare. It is different. It was, perhaps, a wake-up call for us to remember that there is no guarantee for tomorrow.
While we don't live out the law of the Sabbath year, I think we of faith would do well to live out its heart in these uncertain times.
We need to purposefully slow down and reconnect with our faith. This isn't a pretty notion, this is a necessity. (I need to take my own advice here!) Even as things go back to normal, we need to make time for deep soul care. Maybe you can attend a retreat, a family Bible camp, or just schedule a portion of time where you disconnect with worldly worries and reconnect with God.
We need to hold our possessions loosely, ready to help out those in need, not worrying about getting rich in this world.
When possible, we need to keep from bogging ourselves down in debt and bills to the point that we can't take a break if we need it.
We need to remember that every good thing we have comes from God. He provides us opportunities to work for what we have, but ultimately every good thing comes from Him.
What do you think? Would you be able to handle a sabbatical every seven years? What would be the hardest part? What part of a Sabbath year would you enjoy the most? Let me know in the comments!
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