The attested sabbatical years in the Second-Temple Period don’t line up with scholars’ best guesses of when sabbatical and Jubilee years fell in the pre-exilic period. The second-century Seder Olam Rabbah explains why this is so: since the Jews were not able to observe the sabbatical cycles during the Babylonian exile, they had to start over gain during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah’s reform (Neh 8–10) (Rodger C. Young, “Seder Olam and the Two Destructions of Jerusalem: Part Two” Jewish Bible Quarterly 34/4 [Oct–Dec 2006] 255). According to Seder Olam Rabbah 30:
Just as in the time of Joshua they became obligated for tithes, Sabbatical and Jubilee years and they sanctified walled cities and were happy before the Omnipresent, [similarly at their coming in the time of Ezra] as it is said (Neh. 8:17): “The joy was exceedingly great.” And so it says (Deut. 30:5): “The Eternal, your God, will bring you to the land that your father had inherited and you shall inherit it.” He brackets your inheritance with that of your forefathers. Just as the inheritance of your forefathers implies the renewal of all these things so also your inheritance implies the renewal of all these things. (see also b. Arakin 32b)
This notice might suggest that Ezra and Nehemiah’s reform effected a reset of the calculation of the sabbatical cycle. At first this was what I suspected based on Daniel’s prophecy of “seventy weeks” (i.e., seventy sabbatical cycles) in Daniel 9:20-27. Jews in the Late Second-Temple Period found in this passage fertile ground for various (mutually contradictory) end-times scenarios, but there seems to have at least been an awareness that Daniel 9 had something to do with sabbatical years. Testament of Levi 11 divides Daniel’s “seventy weeks” into ten 49-year Jubilee periods. (The oldest texts unanimously hold that a Jubilee was every 49 years, concurrent with every seventh sabbatical cycle; only later interpreters asserted that the Jubilee was a 50th year that interrupted the flow of the sabbatical cycle.) This text goes on to place the re-dedication of the temple in 164 BC in the fifth year of the seventh Jubilee period.
More generally, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, 4Q390 also places the persecution under Antiochus IV in the seventh Jubilee period, without indicating where in that period Antiochus is to be placed. If the capture of Jerusalem in 168/167 BC were near the beginning of the seventh Jubilee, the count would have begun not too far from 458 BC, the year Ezra first arrived in Jerusalem (Ezr 7:1-8).
Alas, the math doesn’t add up for either TestLevi or 4Q390, which both place the start of the year-count before Ezra, but nowhere near any suitable alternative. So while the ministry of Ezra and Nehemiah marks an important benchmark in the returning exiles’ commitment to observing the sabbatical years, it cannot be the era from which to count them.
There is, however, a compelling alternative: the arrival of the first wave of returning exiles with Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel during the reign of Cyrus (Ezr 3:7). Remarkably, in a book otherwise littered with precise chronological references, Ezra doesn’t record the actual date the exiles arrived in Jerusalem. We can assume it was shortly after Cyrus’ edict, but when was it, precisely? Andrew Steinmann suggests that the Jews didn’t just scramble to the promised land the minute Cyrus’ edict of 538 BC opened the door (“A Chronological Note: The Return of the Exiles under Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel [Ezra 1–2], JETS 51/3 [Sep 2008] 513–22). Rather, the operation took time to coordinate. Steinmann thinks five years sounds about right:
While five years may seem like a long time between Cyrus’s decree and the return to Jerusalem, the details in Ezra 1–2 would seem to indicate that an immediate return would have been unlikely. First of all, there was a time of preparation to make the return. Ezra 1:6 indicates a concerted effort by those who remained in Babylon to help equip and finance the return. This was probably not a quick process given all that was donated.
Second, it is unlikely that the returnees simply dropped everything in order to return. There was property to sell, accounts to settle, travel arrangements to be made. Third, Ezra 2:64-65 and Neh 7:66 indicate that about 50,000 people made the trip to Jerusalem. Organizing such a large group would not happen quickly. Finally, it would have been unlikely that Cyrus’s treasurer Mithredath would have turned over the temple vessels to any Judean who presented himself as leader of the returning Judeans, no matter how prominent he may have been (Ezra 1:8). Instead, it is more reasonable to assume that the exiles first organized themselves and their leaders requested that one of them be named governor of Yehud and entrusted with the vessels. (521–522)
Steinmann argues, in keeping with Wacholder’s identification of sabbatical years in the Second-Temple Period, that the exiles arrived in 533 BC and that Tishri of that year was designated the first year of a new sabbatical cycle. Seven years later, the year beginning in Tishri 527 would have been observed as a sabbatical year.
Note, however, that I said it would have been. In fact, we no little or nothing about observance of sabbatical years in this period, and it seems that the exiles were at best spotty in their observance until the time of Nehemiah. At that time, the people make a formal pledge concerning certain covenant obligations:
We will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons; and if the peoples of the land bring in merchandise or any grain on the sabbath day to sell, we will not buy it from them on the sabbath or on a holy day; and we will forego the crops of the seventh year and the exaction of every debt. (Neh 10:30-31)
From this point Jews once again observed the sabbatical years, although they apparently did not continue to observe the Jubilee (if, in fact, it had ever been observed even in pre-exilic times!). The rabbis argued that the provisions for a year of Jubilee no longer applied after the exile on the basis of mention of “all the inhabitants” of the land in Leviticus 25:10. Since all the tribes had not returned, the Jubilees were discontinued. Shmuel Safrai explains,
The Talmuds…in discussing the various problems relating to the observance of the precepts of the Sabbatical Year in the Second Temple period (such as the laws of walled cities and of the Hebrew slave), assume it as a fact that the Jubilee did not apply at that time…. It is difficult to determine when this conception had its origin, since a number of precepts which according to tradition depend on the observance of the Jubilee (such as the laws appertaining to the Sabbatical Year, the canceling of debts…, or walled cities), continued to apply throughout the Second Temple period (Ar. 291). (“Sabbatical Year and Jubilee,” Encyclopedia Judaica, 2nd ed., vol. 17 [Thomson-Gale, 2007] 627)
Although there is evidence that other precepts were observed (e.g., the remission of debts and the redemption of houses), and even various regulations established to modify their severity, “there is no evidence throughout the whole Temple period of the actual observance of the Jubilee, reflecting the difficulties involved in observing it” (Safrai, ibid.)
Note, however, the connection between sabbatical cycles and the themes of renewal, freedom, and rest. The seventh year calls Israel to look back in gratitude at what God has done in bringing them into the land. It also looks forward, as Daniel 9 attests (along with Testament of Levi and 4Q390—despite their flawed chronology), to a time of ultimate Jubilee when God once again acts at the end of the age to bring peace and liberty to his people.
Israel’s observance of the sabbatical cycle was imperfect, but there is evidence that they at least tried to take it seriously in century or two prior to the destruction of the Second Temple.
Next time I’ll look at some of the ways the sabbatical year and Jubilee became a metaphor for Israel’s hopes for future redemption at a couple of key points in late Second-Temple Period history. In the meantime, read Rabbi Seth M. Oppenheimer’s post on Sabbatical and Jubilee Year…in America? over at The FaithLab.