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Sabbatical Years in the Second-Temple Period

There are two possible sets of dates for sabbatical years in the Second-Temple Period, one advanced by Benedict Zuckerman in 1857 and the other by Ben Zion Wacholder in 1973. Zuckerman translated a line Seder ‘Olam Rabbah 30, ומוצאי שבעית (we-motsa’e shebi’it; see also b. Arakin 11b, t. Taanit 3:9), to mean that the two destructions of Jerusalem, first in biblical times and then again in the summer of AD 70, was “after a seventh [year],” i.e., a sabbatical year. Thus, the year beginning in the fall of AD 68 was a sabbatical year; the year beginning fall 69 and continuing through the following summer, was a post-sabbatical year. From AD 68, therefore, one can count backwards or forwards in multiples of seven years to find other sabbatical years.

A hundred years later, Wacholder took this phrase to mean instead that Jerusalem fell to the Romans “at the end” of a sabbatical year. Thus, Wacholder came up with dates one year later than Zuckerman’s, based on the year beginning in the fall of AD 69 as a sabbatical year. The Zuckerman dates are considered conventional or “orthodox”—they are the basis for the sabbatical year count in use in Israel today. Wacholder’s dates, however, enjoy broad acceptance among scholars.

Wacholder’s theory has recently been subjected to linguistic and mathematical scrutiny by Rodger C. Young (“Seder Olam and the Sabbaticals Associated with the Two Destructions of Jerusalem: Part I,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 34/3 [Jul–Sep 2006] 173–179, “Part II,” JBQ 34/4 [Oct–Dec 2006] 252–259). Young concluded that Wacholder’s interpretation of מוצאי (motsa’e) is preferable; there is no linguistic basis, either in the Bible or the Talmud, for translating this word (from a root meaning “go out”) as “after” something. Furthermore, Young appeals to a formula given in the Talmud for calculating the occurrence of a sabbatical year that assumes the temple was destroyed in the seventh year of a sabbatical cycle. According to Huna ben Joshua, cited in b. Aboda Zara 9b, one can determine the place in the sabbatical cycle of any year by counting the number of years since the fall of Jerusalem, adding one, and then dividing this number by seven. The remainder gives the year in the sabbatical cycle. This formula works on the assumption that the first year after the fall of Jerusalem was also the first year of a new sabbatical cycle, and thus reveals how at least one early scholar interpreted ומוצאי שבעית.

Assuming, therefore, that Wacholder’s dates are to be preferred, some interesting connections can be made involving the book of Daniel, the Maccabean Revolt, and the chronology of the New Testament. Stay tuned…

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