Historical Sabbatical (Shmita) years

The question of whether 700 BCE (i.e. the year starting in Tishre of 700 BCE) could have been a Shmita can be examined by looking at references to possible Sabbatical years in Scripture and elsewhere. In this endeavor, the time of the First Temple should be considered separately from the time of the Second Temple and later, due to evidence that the counting of the Sabbatical years was interrupted during the exile (see below). The Second Temple period will be considered first. This is the more easily dealt with, since there are explicit mentions of a Sabbatical year found in Josephus, 1 Maccabees, and in various legal contracts from the time of Simon Bar Kosiba. In contrast, no direct statements that a certain year was a Sabbatical year have survived from First Temple times, so that for this period, whether a certain year was a Sabbatical year must be inferred from statements about activities normally associated with a Shmita. An example of this is the 2 Kings passage mentioned above, where a year of no sowing or reaping is the most distinctive attribute indicating a Sabbatical year.

Sabbatical years (shemitot) in the Second Temple period

The first modern treatise devoted to the Sabbatical (and Jubilee) cycles was that of Benedict Zuckermann.[1] Zuckermann insisted that for Sabbatical years after the exile "it is necessary to assume the commencement of a new starting-point, since the laws of Sabbatical years and Jubilees fell into disuse during the Babylonian captivity, when a foreign nation held possession of the land of Canaan…We therefore cannot agree with chronologists who assume an unbroken continuity of septennial Sabbaths and Jubilees."[2] The first instance of a Sabbatical year treated by Zuckermann was Herod the Great's siege of Jerusalem, as described by Josephus.[3] Zuckermann assigned this to 38/37 BCE, i.e. he considered that a Sabbatical year started in Tishri of 38 BCE. Next, he considered John Hyrcanus's siege of Ptolemy in the fortress of Dagon, which is described both in Josephus (Ant. 13.8.1; Wars of the Jews 1.2.4) and 1 Maccabees (16:14-16), and during which a Sabbatical year started; from the chronological information provided in these texts, Zuckermann concluded that 136/135 BCE was a Sabbatical year. The next event to be treated was Antiochus Eupator's siege of the fortress Beth-zur (Ant. 12.9.6, 1 Maccabees 6:53), dated by Zuckermann to 163/162 BCE. However, he also remarked on the difficulties presented to this figure by the text in 1 Maccabees, which would seem to date the siege one year later, and so he decided to leave it out of consideration.[4] The final text considered by Zuckermann was a passage in the Seder Olam that relates the destruction of the Second Temple to a Sabbatical year, an event that is known from secular history to have happened in the summer of 70 CE. Zuckermann interpreted the Seder Olam text as stating that this happened in a year after a Sabbatical year, thus placing a Sabbatical in 68/69 CE.

All these dates as calculated by Zuckermann are separated by an integral multiple of seven years, except for the date associated with the siege of Beth-zur. Furthermore, his chronology is consistent with that accepted by the geonim (medieval Jewish scholars) and the calendar of Sabbatical years used in present-day Israel. All of this would seem to be strong evidence in favor of Zuckermann's scheme. Nevertheless, some problems have been recognized, beyond just the question of the siege of Beth-zur, which was one year too late for Zuckermann's calendar. A consistent problem has been the ambiguity implied in some of the passages, notably of Josephus, where it is not clear, for example, when Josephus started the regnal years of Herod. Therefore many modern scholars have adopted a Sabbatical-year calendar for the Second Temple period that is one year later. Among those who have advocated this adjustment, the most extensive studies in its favor have been those of Ben Zion Wacholder.[5] Wacholder had access to legal documents from the time of the Bar Kosiba revolt that were not available to Zuckermann. The arguments of Wacholder and others to support the calendar one year later than that of Zuckermann are rather technical and will not be presented here, except for one item to which Zuckermann, Wacholder, and other scholars have given great weight: the testimony of the Seder Olam relating the destruction of the Second Temple to a Sabbatical year.

Seder Olam and the Sabbaticals associated with the destructions of the Temples

The principal author of the Seder Olam, Rabbi Jose, was a pupil of the famous Rabbi Akiba. Akiba was a young man when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and burned the Temple. On such an important issue as the year in which the Temple was destroyed, it would be logical that Jose's ideas were taken from his mentor and his mentor's contemporaries.

Chapter 30 of the Seder Olam gives the year that both Temples were destroyed as ve-motsae sheviit (ומוצאי שבעית). Guggenheimer's recent translation[6] renders this phrase as "at the end of a Sabbatical year," thus unambiguously supporting the Wacholder calendar that starts a Sabbatical year in the fall of 69 CE. The problem, however, is that many translations of the Seder Olam render the phrase as "in the year after a Sabbatical year" or its equivalent. This was the sense adopted by Zuckermann when citing the Seder Olam as supportive of his calendar of Sabbatical years. The same Hebrew phrase is used in the Babylonian Talmud when citing this passage from the Seder Olam (the Talmuds are written in the similar Aramaic language), and some modern translations of the Talmud into English translate the phrase in the sense given by Guggenheimer, while others translate it in the sense of "the year after." The Seder Olam uses the same phrase regarding a Sabbatical year for the destruction of both Temples, so that its testimony in this regard is important for dating the shemitot in both pre-exilic and post-exilic times. Therefore it would seem necessary to closely examine the phrase in the original Hebrew when making chronological decisions. Unfortunately, this was not done, either by Zuckermann or Wacholder, when citing the Seder Olam's testimony as decisive for their particular calendars of Sabbatical years. Most interpreters have simply relied on an existing translation, and that translation may have been unduly influenced by an attempt to make the translation consistent with the chronology of the geonim that placed the end of the Second Temple in a post-Sabbatical year.

At least one study has addressed this problem, arguing from both a linguistic standpoint and from a study of related texts in the Seder Olam that the phrase ve-motsae sheviit should be translated as something close to "and in the latter part of a Sabbatical year," consistent with Guggenheimer's translation and Wacholder's calendar.[7] This recent study argues that a comparative study of the word motsae (literally, "goings-out") does not support any sense of "after" ("after a Sabbatical year"). Further, the reference of the Seder Olam to a Sabbatical year associated with Jehoiachin is in keeping with a Sabbatical year when the First Temple was burned a few years later, but the Seder Olam would be in conflict with itself if the phrase in chapter 30 was interpreted as saying that the burning was in a post-Sabbatical year. It would be hoped that studies which interpret the Seder Olam passage as supporting "the year after a Sabbatical year" will do a similar analysis to see if linguistic and contextual arguments can construe the Seder Olam passage to support the "year-after" position.

Sabbaticals in the First Temple period

A convenient starting place for the study of Sabbatical years in the time of the First Temple is the Jubilee that the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Arakin 12a), and also the Seder Olam (chapter 11), say began at the time that Ezekiel saw the vision the occupies the last nine chapters of his book. Although many of the chronological statements of the two Talmuds, as well as in the Seder Olam that preceded them, have been shown to be unhistorical, this particular statement has considerable evidence to support its historicity. One of these evidences is the consistency of this reference with the other Jubilee mentioned in the Talmud, which is placed in the 18th year of Josiah (Megillah 14b). Ezekiel's vision occurred in the 25th year of the captivity of Jehoiachin (Ezekiel 40:1). Babylonian records state that Amel-Marduk (the Biblical Evil-Merodach) began to reign in October of 562 BCE,[8], and 2 Kings 25:27 says that it was in the twelfth month of this accession year (Adar, 561 BCE) and in Jehoiachin's 37th year of captivity that Jehoiachin was released from prison. By Judean reckoning, Jehoiachin's 37th year would then be 562/561 BCE. His 25th year, the year in which Ezekiel saw his vision, is therefore determined as 574/573 BCE, i.e. the year that began in Tishri of 574. Josiah's 18th year, at which time the Talmud says there was another Jubilee, began in 623 BCE, as can be determined from Babylonian records dating the Battle of Carchemish, which occurred shortly after Josiah was slain in his 31st year (2 Kings 22:3, 23:29). This is 49 years before Ezekiel's Jubilee, providing evidence that the Jubilee cycle was 49 years, not 50 years as is accepted by many interpreters, but which has been challenged by recent work such as the study of Jean-François Lefebvre.[9] A fuller discussion of the reasons that the Jubilee cycle was 49 years can be found in the Jubilee article, where it is pointed out that the known chronological methods of the Talmuds and the Seder Olam were incapable of correctly calculating the time between Josiah's 18th year and the 25th year of the captivity of Jehoiachin, indicating that these remembrances of Jubilees were historical, not contrived.

That Ezekiel saw his vision at the beginning of a Jubilee year is also shown by his statement that it was "in the twenty-fifth year of our captivity, on Rosh Hashanah, on the tenth day of the month…" (Ezekiel 40:1). It was only in a Jubilee year that Rosh Hashanah (New Year's Day) came on the tenth of Tishri (Deuteronomy 25:9), the Day of Atonement. The Seder Olam, in relating that Ezekiel's vision was at the beginning of a Jubilee, does not cite the part of Ezekiel 40:1 that says it was Rosh Hashanah and the tenth of the month, indicating that the fact that a Jubilee was commencing was based on historical remembrance, not on just the textual argument regarding Rosh Hashanah being on the tenth of the month. Ezekiel also says it was 14 years after thte city fell; 14 years before 574/573 BCE was 588/587 BCE, in agreement with "the 25th year of our captivity."

The Sabbatical year 700/699 BCE

If 574/573 marked a Jubilee, and if the Sabbatical cycles were in phase with the Jubilees, then 700/699 BCE, the year mentioned above as a possible Sabbatical year because of the land lying fallow during that year, was also a Sabbatical, 126 years or 18 Sabbatical cycles before Ezekiel's Jubilee. Assuming a 49-year cycle, the nearest Jubilee would have been in 721 BC, inconsistent with attempts to place a Jubilee after the Sabbatical year at this time. If a 50-year Jubilee cycle is assumed, the nearest Jubilee would be 724/723, and then assuming that a Sabbatical cycle began in the year following a Jubilee, neither 701/700 nor 700/699 would be a Sabbatical year.

The Sabbatical year 588/587 BCE

Various scholars have conjectured that Zedekiah's release of slaves, described in Jeremiah 34:8-10, would likely have been done at the start of a Sabbatical year.[10][11][12] Although the original Mosaic legislation stated that an indentured servant's term of service was to end six years after the service started (Deuteronomy 15:12), later practice was to associate the Sabbatical year, called a year of release (shemitah) in Deuteronomy 15:9, with the release of slaves. Based on a chronological study of Ezekiel 30:20-21, Nahum Sarna dated Zedekiah's emancipation proclamation to the year beginning in Tishri of 588 BCE.[13] Although Zedekiah's release of slaves could have occurred at any time, the occurrence of a Sabbatical year at just this time provides some insight into the background that probably influenced Zedekiah's thinking, even though the release was later rescinded.

The year 588/587 BCE was also the year that Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, consistent with the Babylonian records for the reign of Amel-Marduk and the Scriptural data regarding Jehoiachin and Zedekiah. This is in keeping with the statement in Seder Olam chapter 30, properly translated as discussed above, that put the burning of the First Temple, as well as the Second, in the "latter part" of a Sabbatical year. The statement of the Seder Olam in this regard is repeated in the Tosefta (Taanit 3:9), the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta'anit 4:5), and three times in the Babylonian Talmud (Arakin 11b, Arakin 12a, Ta'anit 29a). An example of the caution that must be exercised when consulting English translations is shown by the Soncino translation in Arakin 11b, that the Temple was destroyed "at the end of the seventh [Sabbatical] year",[14] compared to Jacob Neusner's translation of the corresponding passage in the Jerusalem Talmud, that it was "the year after the Sabbatical year."[15]

The Sabbatical year 623/622 BCE

It has already been mentioned that the Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 14b) mentioned a Jubilee in Josiah's 18th year, 623/622 BCE. With the proper assumption of a 49-year cycle for the Jubilee, the Jubilee would be identical to the seventh Sabbatical year, so that the Jubilee and Sabbatical cycles would never be out of synchronization. 623/622 BCE would therefore also have been a Sabbatical year. In Sabbatical years, the Mosaic code specified that the Law was to be read to all the people (Deuteronomy 31:10-11). Although this commandment, like so many others, was probably neglected throughout most of Israel's history, it was observed in Josiah's 18th year (2 Kings 23:1,2). This has led various interpreters to conjecture that Josiah's 18th year was a Sabbatical year, independently of any consideration of the statement in the Talmud (and Seder Olam, chapter 24) that it was a Jubilee year.

The Sabbatical year 868/867 BCE

Another public reading of the Law, suggesting a Sabbatical year, took place in the third year of Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 17:7-9). According to the widely-accepted Biblical chronology of Edwin Thiele, Jehoshaphat began a coregency with his father Asa in 872/871 BCE, and his sole reign began in 870/869.[16] The passage about the reading of the law in Jehoshaphat's third year does not specify whether this is measured from the beginning of the coregency or the beginning of the sole reign, but since the two synchronisms to Jehoshaphat's reign for the kings of Israel (1 Kings 22:51, 2 Kings 3:1) are measured from the start of the sole reign, it would be reasonable to determine Jehoshaphat's third year in the same way. In Thiele's system, this would be 867/866. However, Thiele's years for the first few kings of Judah has come under criticism as being one year too late, because of problems that appear in the reign of Ahaziah and Athaliah that Thiele never solved. Therefore in 2008 Leslie McFall, who is recognized in Finegan's Handbook of Biblical Chronology as the foremost living interpreter of Thiele's work,[17] adjusted the dates for Jehoshaphat and the preceding kings of Judah up one year,[18] so that the year in which Jehoshaphat had the Law read to the people was 868/867. This is 294 years, or 42 Sabbatical cycles, before Ezekiel's Jubilee. The 42 Sabbatical cycles would make six Jubilee cycles, so it was also a Jubilee year. It is of some passing interest that in 1869, long before the breakthroughs of Coucke and Thiele that solved the basic problems of how the Biblical authors were measuring the years, Ferdinand Hitzig stated that the occasion for Jehoshaphat’s proclamation was because it was a Jubilee year.[19]

Jubilee and Sabbatical years as a long-term calendar for Israel

As in all societies of the ancient Near East, it was the duty of the priests to keep track of the calendar so that agricultural activities and religious festivals could be conducted at the proper time. In the case of Israel, there was the extra responsibility of keeping track of the years so that it would be known when Sabbatical and Jubilee years were due. The seven-year Sabbatical cycle was short enough that there should have been no question about which year it was in a Sabbatical cycle, and the fact that at the end of seven Sabbatical cycles the Jubilee was due provided a more extended means of measuring the years. The Jubilee and Sabbatical year legislation therefore provided a long-term means for dating events, a fact that must have become obvious soon after the legislation was put into effect. It is of some interest, then, that the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Sanhedrin 40a,b) records that in the time of the judges, legal events such as contracts or criminal cases were dated according to the Jubilee cycle, the Sabbatical cycle within the Jubilee cycle, and the year within the Sabbatical cycle. Keeping track of the years of these cycles would therefore have served a societal purpose in addition to their importance as specified in the Mosaic legislation. The Samaritan community apparently used this method of dating as late as the 14th century AD, when an editor of one of the writings of the Samaritans wrote that he finished his work in the sixty-first Jubilee cycle since the entry into Canaan, in the fourth year of the fifth Sabbatical of that cycle.[20] These cases of usage of the Jubilee/Sabbatical cycles make no provision for the possibility of the Sabbatical cycles being out of phase with the Jubilee cycles, which is additional evidence that the Jubilee was contemporaneous with the seventh Sabbatical year.

Some of the events described for Sabbatical years in the period of the First Temple, such as Zedekiah's release of slaves or the public reading of the Law, could have occurred at some other time than a Sabbatical year. There is a certain cumulative weight, however, that comes from their combined testimony that they all occurred an integral number of Sabbatical cycles before Ezekiel's Jubilee. Also, it is difficult to imagine why the year after the Assyrians were defeated there would be no sowing or reaping, as indicated in 2 Kings 19:29 and Isaiah 37:30, unless that year was a Sabbatical year, and the year of 700/699 that most historians would accept for this "second year" of the verse fits into the pre-exilic Jubilee/Sabbatical-year calendar. The evidence then is that this calendar was known at least as early as the reign of Jehoshaphat, and even though the stipulations of the Sabbatical year and Jubilee may not have been carried out faithfully, at least the priests, one of whom was Ezekiel, were keeping track of the years faithfully all during this time.


  1. Benedict Zuckermann, Treatise on the Sabbatical Cycle and the Jubilee, trans. A Löwy; (New York: Hermon, 1974); originally published as "Ueber Sabbatjahrcyclus und Jobelperiode," in Jarhesbericht des jüdisch-theologischen Seminars "Fraenckelscher Stiftung" (Breslau, 1857).
  2. Ibid., 31.
  3. Ant.14.16.2, 15.1.2.
  4. Zuckermann, Treatise 47-48.
  5. Ben Zion Wacholder, "The Calendar of Sabbatical Cycles During the Second Temple and the Early Rabbinic Period," Hebrew Union College Annual (HUCA) 44 (1973) 53-196; "Chronomessianism: The Timing of Messianic Movements and the Calendar of Sabbatical Cycles," HUCA 46 (1975) 201-218; "The Calendar of Sabbath Years during the Second Temple Era: A Response," HUCA 54 (1983) 123-133.
  6. Heinrich Guggenheimer, Seder Olam - The Rabbinic View of Biblical Chronology (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005) 264.
  7. Rodger C. Young, "Seder Olam and the Sabbaticals Associated With the Two Destructions of Jerusalem: Part I," Jewish Bible Quarterly 34 (2006) 173-179;[1] Part II, JBQ 34 252-259.[2]
  8. Richard A. Parker and Waldo H. Dubberstein, Babylonian Chronology 626 B.C. – A.D. 75 (Providence: Brown University, 1956) 12.
  9. Jean-François Lefebvre, Le Jubilé Biblique: Lv 25 — Exégèse et Théologie (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2003) 154-166.
  10. William Whiston, "Dissertation V, Upon the Chronology of Josephus," Josephus: Complete Works (trans. Wm. Whiston; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1964), 703. Originally published in 1737.
  11. Cyrus Gordon, "Sabbatical Cycle or Seasonal Pattern?" Orientalia 22 (1953): 81.
  12. Nahum Sarna, "Zedekiah's Emancipation of Slaves and the Sabbatical Year," Orient and Occident: Essays presented to Cyrus H. Gordon on the Occasion of his Sixty-fifth Birthday (ed. Harry Hoffner, Jr.; Neukirchen: Butzon & Bercker Kevelaer, 1973), 143-149.
  13. Ibid. 144-145.
  14. The Babylonian Talmud (London: Soncino Press, 1938).
  15. Taanit 4:5 in The Talmud of the Land of Israel, tr. Jacob Neusner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).
  16. Edwin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings (3rd. ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan/Kregel, 1983) 85, 217.
  17. Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology (rev. ed.; Peabody MA: Hendrickson, 1998) 246.
  18. McFall's revised chart of Hebrew kings, with a brief explanation, is available here.
  19. Ferdinand Hitzig, Geschichte des Volkes Israel (Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1869) 1.9 and 198–99.
  20. Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter, 1972), 14, col. 751.

See also

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