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The Sabbatical Year
Though not strictly connected with the Temple services, it may be desirable briefly to refer to the observance of the Sabbatical year, as it was strictly enforced at the time of Christ. It was otherwise with the year of Jubilee. Strangely, there are traces of the latter during the period before the return from Babylon (1 Kings 21:3; Isa 5:8; 37:30; 61:1-3, Eze 1:1; 7:12; Micah 2:2), while the Sabbatical year seems to have been systematically neglected. Hence Jewish tradition explains, in accordance with 2 Chronicles 36:21, that the seventy years' captivity were intended to make up the neglected Sabbatical years--commencing the calculation, if it be taken literally, from about the accession of King Solomon. But while, after the return from Babylon, the year of Jubilee was no longer kept, at least, as a religious ordinance, the Sabbatical year was most strictly observed, not only by the Jews (Neh 10:31; 1 Macc vi. 49, 53; Jos. Antiq. xiii. 8, 1; xiv. 10, 6; xv. 1, 2; Jew. Wars,, i. 2-4), but also by the Samaritans (Antiq xi. 8, 6). Jewish tradition has it, that as it took seven years for the first conquest, and other seven for the proper division of the Holy Land, 'tithes' were for the first time paid fourteen years after the entrance of Israel into Canaan; and the first Sabbatical year fell seven years later, or in the twenty-first year of their possession of Palestine. The Sabbatical law extended only to the soil of Palestine itself, which, however, included certain surrounding districts. The Rabbis add this curious proviso, that it was lawful to use (though not to store or sell) the spontaneous produce of the land throughout the extent originally possessed by Israel, but that even the use of these products was prohibited in such districts as having originally belonged to, were again occupied by Israel after their return from Babylon. But this, as other rules laid down by the Rabbis, had many exceptions (Mish. Shev. vi. 1).
Scripture References To It/The 'Prosbul'
As Divinely enjoined, the soil was to be left uncultivated at the end of every period of six years, beginning, as the Jews argue, after the Passover for the barley, after Pentecost for the wheat, and after the Feast of Tabernacles for all fruit-trees. The Sabbatical year itself commenced, as most of them hold, on New Year's Day, which fell on the new moon of the tenth month, or Tishri. *
* The year of Jubilee began on the 10th of Tishri, being the Day of Atonement.
Whatever grew of itself during the year was to belong to the poor (Exo 23:10,11), which, however, as Leviticus 25:6 shows, did not exclude its use as 'meat' only its storage and sale, by the family to which the land belonged. Yet a third Scriptural notice constitutes the Sabbatical year that of 'the Lord's release,' when no debt might be claimed from an Israelite (Deut 15:1-6); while a fourth enjoins, that 'in the solemnity of the year of release, in the Feast of Tabernacles,' the law was to be read 'before all Israel in their hearing' (Deut 31:10,11). It has been strangely overlooked that these four ordinances, instead of being separate and distinct, are in reality closely connected. As the assignment of what grew of itself did not exclude the usufruct by the owners, so it also followed of necessity that, in a year when all agricultural labor ceased, debts should not be claimed from an agricultural population. Similarly, it was quite in accordance with the idea of the Sabbath and the Sabbatical year that the law should be publicly read, to indicate that 'the rest' was not to be one of idleness, but of meditation on the Word of God. *
* The manumission of Jewish slaves took place in the seventh year of their bondage, whenever that might be, and bears no reference to the Sabbatical year, with which, indeed, some of its provisions could not easily have been compatible (Deut 15:14).
Jewish tradition, indeed, holds the opposite; but, by its ordinances, it rendered the law itself void. For, as explained by the Rabbis, the release from debt did not include debts for things purchased in a shop, nor judicial fines, nor yet money lent on a pledge. But, as the great Rabbi Hillel found that even these exceptions were not sufficient to insure the loan of money in view of the Sabbatical year, he devised a formula called 'Prosbul' (probably 'addition,' from a Greek word to the same effect), by which the rights of a creditor were fully secured. The 'Prosbul' ran thus: 'I, A.B., hand to you, the judges of C.D. (a declaration), to the effect that I may claim any debt due to me at whatever time I please.'
The Effect Of It
This 'Prosbul,' signed by the judges or by witnesses, enabled a creditor to claim money lent even in the Sabbatical year; and though professedly applying only to debts on real property, was so worded as to cover every case (Mish. Shev., sec x). But even this was not all, and the following legal fiction was suggested as highly meritorious to all concerned. The debtor was to offer payment, and the creditor to reply, 'I remit'; upon which the debtor was to insist that 'nevertheless' the creditor was to accept the repayment. In general, money owing to Jewish convert was to be repaid to them, but not to their heirs, even though they also had turned Jews, as by becoming a proselyte a man had separated himself from his kin, who therefore were no longer, strictly speaking, his natural heirs. Still, to make payment in such a case was deemed specially meritorious. The Rabbinical evasions of the law, which forbade the use of that which had grown spontaneously on the soil, are not so numerous nor so irrational. It was ruled that part of such products might be laid by in the house, provided sufficient of the same kind were left in the field for cattle and beasts to feed upon. Again, as much land might be tilled as was necessary to make payment of tributes or taxes. The omer (or 'wave-sheaf') at the Passover, and the two wave-loaves at Pentecost, were also to be made from the barley and wheat grown that year in the field. Lastly, Rabbinical ordinance fixed the following portions as being 'the law' which was to be publicly read in the Temple by the king or the high-priest at the Feast of Tabernacles in the Sabbatical year, viz., Deuteronomy 1:1-6; 6:4- 8; 11:13-22; 14:22; 15:23; 17:14; 26:12-19; 27; 28 (Mish. Sotah, vii. 8). This service concluded with a benediction, which resembled that of the high-priest on the Day of Atonement, except that it referred not to the remission of sins.
Rabbinical Perversion of the Sabbatical Year
The account just given proves that there was scarcely any Divine ordinance, which the Rabbis, by their traditions, rendered more fully void, and converted into 'a yoke which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear,' than the Sabbath law. On the other hand, the Gospels bring before us Christ more frequently on the Sabbath than on any other festive occasion. It seemed to be His special day for working the work of His Father. On the Sabbath He preached in the synagogues; He taught in the Temple; He healed the sick; He came to the joyous meal with which the Jews were wont to close the day (Luke 14:1). Yet their opposition broke out most fiercely in proportion as He exhibited the true meaning and object of the Sabbath. Never did the antagonism between the spirit and the letter more clearly appear. And if in their worship of the letter they crushed out the spirit of the Sabbath law, we can scarcely wonder that they so overlaid with their ordinances the appointment of the Sabbatical year as well- nigh to extinguish its meaning. That evidently was, that the earth, and all that is upon it, belongeth to the Lord; that the eyes of all wait upon Him, that He may 'give them their meat in due season' (Psa 104:27; 145:16); that the land of Israel was His special possession; that man liveth not by bread alone, but by every word which proceedeth from the mouth of the Lord; and that He giveth us our daily bread, so that it is vain to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows (Psa 127:2). Beyond it all, it pointed to the fact of sin and redemption: the whole creation which 'groaneth and travaileth in pain together unto now,' waiting for and expecting that blessed Sabbath, when 'creation itself shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God' (Rom 8:21,22). Thus, as the Sabbath itself, so the Sabbatical year pointed forward to the 'rest which remaineth to the people of God,' when, contest and labor completed, they sing, 'on the other side of the flood,' the song of Moses and of the Lamb (Rev 15:3,4): 'Great and marvellous are Thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are Thy ways, Thou King of saints. Who shall not fear Thee, O Lord, and glorify Thy name? for Thou only are holy: for all nations shall come and worship before Thee; for Thy judgments are made manifest.'