An Israelite religious-social institution whereby every seven years Hebrew slaves were set free, debts were canceled, farm-work was forbidden and spontaneous growth reserved to the poor.
The Book of the covenant (Ex 20.22–23.19), an ancient body of Israelite laws, contains legislation that, although not concerned with a regularly recurring period of seven years for the whole nation, shows the origin of the later legislation on such universally fixed periods. According to Ex 21.2–6, a Hebrew slave must be given his liberty in the seventh year of his service, unless he prefers to remain with his master for life. Since the text says that the slave must serve for six years, it is obvious that the seven-year period begins whenever he becomes a slave, and no fixed period for the whole nation is involved here.
According to Ex 23.10–11, every seven years a field, vineyard, or olive grove shall be "released and left alone" tišm eṭṭennâ ûn etaštāh, (usually translated from the context as "let lie untilled and unharvested"), "that the poor among you may eat of it"; the primary purpose of this š emiṭṭâ law (see below) is social justice for the poor and not a matter of taking a year off from work; moreover, it is not stated that the same seven-year period is fixed for all the people, although some exegetes see this implied here by the immediately following law (Ex 23.12) on the regularly recurring Sabbath day.
"Fallow" is the name commonly given to this aspect of the seventh year, which undoubtedly is described in terms akin to the needed agricultural practice. But Hopkins' recent research shows that farming need would require an interval closer to two than seven years. He admits that this need, not envisioned in the Bible, may have coexisted with a seven-year purely ritual "fallow"; such could more understandably have developed into the simultaneously universal cycle of the Jubilee law (Lv 25.1–7).
In Deuteronomy essentially the same law is given regarding the freeing of Hebrew slaves in their seventh year of servitude (Dt 15.12–18, quoted in Jer 34.14), and again obviously not on the basis of a fixed period for the whole nation, even though a general nonobservance of the law occasionally could call for a general emancipation (Heb. d erôr; cf. Is 51.1) of all Hebrew slaves (Jer 34.8–11). However, in Dt 15.1–11 a period of seven years fixed for all the nation is prescribed for the š emiṭṭâ that is here described as a relaxation of debts: at the end of every seven-year period Israelites must remit the debts that their fellow Israelites (but not gērîm, resident aliens) owe them. There may have been an older, unpreserved law canceling any debt seven years after it was incurred, but the law as it now stands in its seventh-century b.c. codification clearly prescribes a common š emiṭṭâ year for all Israel. The same is true for the precept in Dt 31.9–13 prescribing the reading of the Mosaic Law at a general assembly of all Israel on the Feast of Booths "in the š emiṭṭâ year that comes at the end of every seven-year period."
In Leviticus the term Sabbath year (Heb. š enat šabbātôn, great Sabbath year) is first used and applied to every seventh year, fixed for all and reckoned as beginning with the seventh year after Israel's first occupation of the land of Canaan (Lv 25.1–7). Although this law, which at least in its present form is postexilic, still repeats the original ideal of letting the poor share in the growth of the seventh year. Essentially it is an extension to the seventh year of the law making the seventh day of the week, the Sabbath, a day of complete rest from farm labor: "during the seventh year the land shall have a complete rest [šabbat šabbātôn ], a Sabbath for Yahweh, when you shall neither sow your field nor prune your vineyard" (25.4). To forestall the objection that a whole year without farm work would result in famine, it is stated in Lv 25.18–22 that God will miraculously double the crops of every sixth year. Nothing is said in Lv 25.1–7 about manumission of slaves or remission of debts in the Sabbath year; in Leviticus these obligations are postponed to every seventh Sabbath year, the jubilee year (Lv 25.8–17, 23–55).
Actual observance of the idealistic legislation on the Sabbath year is not evidenced until the end of the OT period. In fact, it is expressly stated in 2 Chr 36.21; Lv 26.34 to 35, 43, that before the Exile the Israelites did not let their land have its Sabbath years.
The earliest evidence for the observance of the Sabbath year is in Greco-Roman times, where it is generally mentioned with the great religious fervor caused by some national crisis. A reference is made in 1 Mc 6.49, 53, to the lack of food in Judea on one occasion because it was the seventh year (exact date unknown). Some of the Murabba’āt documents (see dead sea scrolls) written at the time of bar kokhba's revolt imply a š emiṭṭâ year for a.d. 133. Josephus refers to six Sabbath years at wide intervals, though open to queries detailed in Biblica 4 (1953) 501 to 515. According to the Talmud the year (a.d. 69) before the fall of Jerusalem was a Sabbath year. From such data, not always consistent, it is calculated that the year 1958 to 1959 would have been a Sabbath year. The matter is further complicated by the question whether the Sabbath year began with the spring or the fall equinox.
Jewish moralists have never agreed on the nature of the š emiṭṭâ (whether a full remission or only a moratorium of debts) or on the legality of Hillel's prôsbûl (from the Greek πρὸς βουλ[symbol omitted] βουλευτ[symbol omitted]ν at the council of the councillors), whereby a borrower could voluntarily renounce his š emiṭṭâ rights. But they have always insisted on the Sabbath year as a realistic cultic obligation, legitimately bypassed by a theoretic sale of all lands to a non-Jew for the duration. The seven-year requirements of Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus show that what they have most in common is the rehabilitation of the bankrupt (Neh 5.1–13), or generically, an assertion of social justice, which is more valid for the present day than calendaric enigmas.
Bibliography: e. lohse, g. kittel, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart 1935–) 7:18–20. r. north, The Biblical Jubilee: After Fifty Years (Rome 2000) 21–31; "Maccabean Sabbath Years," Biblica 34 (1953) 501–15; "Yâd in the Shemittah-Law," Vetus Testamentum 4 (1954) 196–99. c. wright, "What Happened Every Seven Years in Israel?," Evangelical Quarterly 56 (1984) 129–38, 193–201. n. lemche, "The Manumission of Slaves The Fallow Year The Sabbatical Year The Jubilee Year," Vetus Testamentum 26 (1976) 38–59. d. hopkins, The Highlands of Canaan; Agricultural Life in the Early Iron Age (Sheffield 1985). l. newman, The Sanctity of the Seventh Year, Brown Judaic Studies 44 (Chico, Calif. 1983).