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Second-Temple Sabbatical Years: Beginning Again (in Fits and Starts)

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.



  1. BIFF BARR says:

    You post some interesting facts but apparently do not consider that the Sabbatical years were fixed in time simply by counting by sevens. That is, once an initial Sabbatical year was fixed then all other Sabbatical years which followed were fixed thereby. Thus in the case of Daniel 9:24-27 the “sevens” were already established Sabbatical cycles which were fixed in time because they followed from the occurrence of a fixed Sabbatical year. So once the “word issued forth” to rebuild Jerusalem (not the Temple) the first Sabbatical cycle (not the first Sabbatical year which occurred every seventh year) was identified and the count of the seventy proceded from that first seven-year Sabbatical cycle. If you count by “sevens” (the first of which including the year 445 B.C.E. , the twentieth year of Artaxerxes I “Longimanus”) the sixth-ninth “seven” during which time the Messiah was “cut off” falls in the Sabbatical cycle between 1 Tishri 27 C.E. and 29 Elul 34 C.E. (using the occurrence of Sabbatical cycles as determined by Benedict Zuckermann). The seventieth “seven” (when Biblical Judaism ended and the New Covenant began; Jeremiah 31: 31-34) therefore concluded in 41 C.E. and had included the reign of Caligula, the prince of the “people to come”as foretold to Daniel. The reason why Jewish commentaries have so much trouble with the Sabbatical years is because of what the angel revealed to Daniel about God’s timetable for the Jews—the Jewish leadership simply does not want to believe their exclusive party is over.


  2. Dan Bruce says:

    I believe that sabbatical years were consecutively tabulated from the time the Israelites entered the land and, as far as biblical prophecy and chronology are concerned, their accounting did not change even during and after the exile. This can be demonstrated by the interpretation of the prophecy of the “seventy weeks” in Daniel 9:24-27, which depends on knowing sabbatical years but not in the way most expositors apply them.

    The first mistake in interpreting the prophecy of the “seventy weeks” is to assume that a “week” means seven years. That would make the seventy weeks equal to 490 years. However, as I have shown in my book Lifting the Veil on the Book of Daniel, the word “weeks” means Feast of Weeks,* which occurred once a year in ancient Israel. So, the seventy weeks mean seventy Feast of Weeks (each ending on a Day of Pentecost).

    Also, the decree that starts the prophecy was not one made by a Persian king, as commonly assumed by most expositors, but was a decree issued by Julius Caesar issued in 44 BCE, as recorded in Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 14.10.5 (Whiston translation), as follows:

    Gaius Caesar, consul the fifth time [in 44 BCE], hath decreed, That the Jews shall possess Jerusalem, and may encompass that city with walls; and that Hyrcanus, the son of Alexander, the high priest and ethnarch of the Jews, retain it in the manner he himself pleases; and that the Jews be allowed to deduct out of their tribute, every second year the land is let [in the sabbatical period], a corus of that tribute; and that the tribute they pay be not let to farm, nor that they pay always the same tribute.>/blockquote>

    The sabbatical years come into play in the way the seventy weeks are divided into three time periods–7 weeks, 62 weeks, and 1 week. The 7-week division (which most expositors ignore in their interpretation of Daniel 9) synchronize with the seven Feast of Weeks that occur in a sabbatical (seven-year) period, and that locates the seventy weeks in history with precision.

    The decree by Caesar identifies where to locate the start of the seventy weeks, it must come after the decree and the first seven weeks of the seventy weeks must align with a seven-year sabbatical cycle. Since it is known that Herod’s Temple was destroyed in a sabbath (seventh) year, and since it is known that Titus and the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, it can be calculated that the sabbatical cycle that began immediately following Caesar’s decree began on the first day of Nisan in the year 42 BCE. From there it is simple calculation to locate all seventy weeks in history, as follows (using Pentecost as shorthand for Feast of Weeks):

    The 7 weeks = Pentecost 42 BCE through Pentecost 36 BCE
    The 62 weeks = Pentecost 35 BCE through Pentecost 27 CE
    The Seventieth week = Pentecost 27 CE through Pentecost 28 CE

    Jesus was baptized in early 28 CE. That date can be verified from the information in John 2:13-21, which records that Jesus’ first Passover in Jerusalem, which occurred shortly after his baptism, occurred 46 years after the start of construction on Herod’s Temple complex. Since it is known that Temple construction was begun in the same year that Augustus Caesar visited Syria, and that happened in 20 BCE according to a work by the historian Dio, then counting forward in time 46 Passovers (that’s the way years were tabulated by the priests/scribes in ancient Jewish times) brings one to the year 27 CE (19 BCE through 27 CE = 46 Passovers). So, the next Passover, which occurred a few days after the events of John 2, was the Passover of 28 CE.

    If you recall, Jesus was baptized, tempted in the wilderness for 40 days, then soon thereafter went to Jerusalem for Passover (28 CE). Afterwards he preached for a short while in Judea until he heard about the imprisonment of John the Baptist, whereupon Jesus and his disciples moved the public ministry to the Galilee. This latter event happened soon after the Pentecost of 28 CE, which was the final Pentecost (Feast of Weeks) that brought the seventy weeks of Daniel 9 to an end (verified by the fact that the six things in Daniel 9:24 that had to happen had been accomplished).

    I would imagine that the above exposition is the first time you have heard the interpretation of the seventy weeks associated with 70 Feast of Weeks. And, you may have been unaware of Caesar’s decree, which so perfectly matches the biblical text in Daniel 9. However, the above interpretation of the seventy weeks fits both the biblical text and documented history, and I believe it to be a true interpretation of the prophecy. It also explains the meaning of the 7-week period, equating it with a 7-year sabbatical cycle to locate the prophecy in history, and shows the precision of the prophecies recorded in Daniel and how the interpretation of Daniel’s chrono-specific prophecies depends on having an accurate understanding of the sabbath calendar.

    I have explained everything all too briefly here. The chronology is explained in much more detail in my book on Daniel if anyone wants to pursue my interpretation of the seventy weeks further, or feel free to contact me as indicated on my website. I enjoy talking sacred chronology. Thanks for listening.

    (*) Daniel used Jewish festivals to denote time periods in his chrono-specific prophecies: Passover, an evening-to-morning observance denoted as “evening-mornings” in the Hebrew text of Daniel 9; Feast of Weeks, denoted as “weeks” in Daniel 9; and Day of Atonement, denoted as “days” in Daniel 12.


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