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Sabbatical Years Began in the Spring

In the Jewish faith, the seventh day of the week is the Sabbath, a holy day. Similarly, every seventh year is a Sabbatical year, a holy year. Each set of seven years is a week of years and the seventh year is a Sabbath-like year, just as the seventh day is a Sabbath day.

In the modern Jewish calendar, Sabbatical years begin in the fall, in the month of Tishri. Most Rabbis and most Biblical chronologists generally believe that Sabbatical years have always been counted from Tishri to Tishri, that is, from the fall of one year to the fall of the next year. Yet there is significant historical evidence that, in ancient times, Sabbatical years were counted from Nisan to Nisan, that is, from the spring of one year to the spring of the next year.

1. The arguments from Sacred Scripture

a. Jubilee years are to be counted from the month of Tishri, as Sacred Scripture clearly states: “ ‘Then you shall send abroad the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement….’ ” (Lev 25:9). But Sacred Scripture does not specify the seventh month as the start of a Sabbatical year, nor as the start of the count of the years leading up to the Sabbatical year.

b. One verse describes the count of the seven weeks of years, a total of 49 years (Lev 25:8). The very next verse calls the month of Tishri (when the Day of Atonement occurs) the seventh month (Lev 25:9). Tishri is only the seventh month when counting the months according to the sacred calendar, beginning in the spring with the month of Nisan. This indicates that the word “year” in the previous verse (Lev 25:8) is also to be counted according to the sacred calendar, with the year beginning in Nisan. Thus the Sabbatical years should be, and originally were, counted from the month of Nisan.

c. “The LORD said to Moses on Mount Sinai, ‘Say to the people of Israel, When you come into the land which I give you, the land shall keep a sabbath to the LORD.” (Lev 25:1-2).
Sacred Scripture tells the Israelites when to begin the counting of Sabbatical years, beginning from the time that they would come into the Promised Land. Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan river and into the Promised Land in the spring, in the month of Nisan.
“The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month….” (Joshua 4:19).
The first month here is certainly the month of Nisan, since, a few days later, the Israelites celebrated the Feast of Passover.
“While the people of Israel were encamped at Gilgal they kept the passover on the fourteenth day of the month at evening in the plains of Jericho.” (Joshua 5:10).
Thus the Sabbatical years were to be counted from the month of Nisan, when the Israelites came into the land which God gave to them.

d. “ ‘And if you say, “What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?” I will command my blessing upon you in the sixth year, so that it will bring forth fruit for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating old produce; until the ninth year, when its produce comes in, you shall eat the old.’ ” (Lev 25:20-22).

Notice here that the crop planted in the 8th year produces its harvest in the 9th year. This timing, where the planting of one year is harvested in the next year, only occurs when the years are counted according to the sacred calendar, with the year beginning in Nisan. Grain is planted in Nov./Dec. in Israel. The harvest of grain in the spring is a part of the religious ceremonies during the Passover. The harvest of grain begins during the Passover, when the first fruits are cut from the field and offered to God (Lev 23:9-10). Thus, planting occurs in one sacred calendar year, but harvesting cannot occur until the Passover at the start of the next sacred calendar year. And this is exactly the timing of planting and harvesting described in the passage from Leviticus 25—sowing in late autumn of the 8th year (the year after the Sabbatical year) and harvesting in the spring of the 9th year. Here again, the sacred calendar is used in referring to the counting of the Sabbatical years.

The planting in the 8th year and harvest in the 9th year clearly does not refer to a crop harvested in the 8th year and kept in storage for use in the 9th year. This passage from Leviticus refers to the 9th year as the year “when its produce comes in,” meaning when the grain sown in the 8th year is ready to be harvested. Also, the grain could not be planted near the end of the year in the civil calendar (which begins with the month of Tishri in the autumn) and harvested in the next civil calendar year. This would require the grain to be planted in the summer, when there is no rain, and harvested in the fall. Such a crop would not grow due to lack of rainfall. The rainy season in Israel is the winter time, from November through March. October and April generally have a little precipitation. The remainder of the year, especially the summertime, has practically no appreciable rainfall.

e. Sacred Scripture says that the sixth year will produce a harvest with enough abundance to last the 6th, 7th, and 8th years—until the crop sown in the 8th year is harvested at the start of the 9th year. This could mean that the crop of the 6th year would produce triple the usual harvest. Or, it could mean that the crop sown in the 6th year would continue to provide during the 7th and 8th years by growing again, on its own, each year. And this exact result would naturally occur, if the Sabbatical years were counted by the sacred calendar, beginning in spring with the month of Nisan. (See #2 above, the argument from agriculture for details.)

2. The argument from agriculture

Which makes more sense for an agricultural society, to count the Sabbatical years as beginning in the spring or the fall?

The Israelites in ancient times depended heavily on agriculture for survival. A meager harvest in any year could easily result in famine. Yet, during Sabbatical years, the Jews could neither plant nor harvest their fields.

Most of the appreciable rainfall in Israel occurs in the winter. As a result, the planting season for grain in Israel occurs in late fall (Nov./Dec.). The harvest begins during the Passover, in spring, during the month of Nisan (March/April). The first fruits of the grainfields are offered to God during Passover.

When the Sabbatical year is counted as beginning in the fall, with the month of Tishri (Sept./Oct.), grain cannot be planted in the following months (Nov./Dec.). As a result, when the usual time for harvest occurs in the following spring, there is little grain in the field. Some grain would still grow, since some seed from the previous years plantings would not germinate until a year or two had passed. Seeds from wild plants commonly germinate in different years; some seed will germinate in the first year and some in subsequent years. Modern domesticated grains, such as wheat and barley, mostly tend to germinate soon after planting, since the seed is taken from plants that germinated soon after planting. The genes which allow for delayed germination have been mostly removed from the gene pool of modern domesticated grains by this process of selection. This effect would have been less pronounced in Biblical times. So there still would be some grain growing in the fields from grain seed of previous years’ plantings, but the harvest would be significantly less.

When Sabbatical years were counted from the fall (late first century B.C. and thereafter), famine was often associated with the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. The reason is that the Sabbatical year prevented planting, resulting in a meager harvest. People tried to store up food to get them through the Sabbatical years, but the amount in storage was often insufficient.

When the Sabbatical year is counted as beginning in the spring, with the month of Nisan, the result is dramatically different. In the fall before the Sabbatical year begins, planting is permitted. When the Sabbatical year begins the following spring, the field cannot be harvested, but it is full of grain. And the Israelites were allowed to eat from the grainfield during the Sabbatical year. Sufficient grain is produced because the field was planted before the Sabbatical year began.

The following autumn, planting cannot occur because it is still the Sabbatical year, but planting is unnecessary! The grain crop from the previous spring could not be harvested and so the grain would self-sow. Just as occurs with wild plants, when the grain is not harvested, the ripe grain seed falls to the ground, naturally sowing the next crop. As a result, in the spring after the Sabbatical year has ended, there is again a full crop of grain in the field.

So, which makes more sense for an agricultural society, to count the Sabbatical years as beginning in the spring or the fall? When Sabbatical years are counted from the spring, a good harvest is probable. But when Sabbatical years are counted from the fall, a meager harvest is much more likely.
3. The argument from historical evidence

a. Josephus describes the capture of Jerusalem by Herod the great. The repeated mention of a Sabbatical year at this time has been problematic for chronologists. Josephus describes the siege and capture of Jerusalem by Herod during the latter half of the first century B.C. First he describes the siege, during the summer before Jerusalem fell. He plainly states that the Jews at that time “were distressed by famine and the want of necessaries, for this happened to be a Sabbatic Year.” (Ant. 14.475) Then he describes the capture of Jerusalem in the autumn, on the fast day (the Day of Atonement, Tishri 10).

Now here's the problem. If the Sabbatical year were counted as beginning in autumn, with the month of Tishri, then by the following Tishri, the Sabbatical year would have ended. Yet, after the capture of Jerusalem on Tishri 10, Josephus plainly states that the Sabbatical year was still going on: “…in part by the Sabbatic Year, which was still going on, and forced the country to lie still uncultivated, since we are forbidden to sow the land in that year.” (Ant. 15.7)

However, if Sabbatical years, at that point in time, were counted as beginning in the spring, with the month of Nisan, then Josephus' statements make perfect sense. The Sabbatical year began in the spring before Jerusalem was captured. The Sabbatical year continued during the siege in the summer before Jerusalem fell. And the Sabbatical year was still on-going in the autumn, after Tishri 10 when the city was captured. The Sabbatical year ended the following spring.

b. Famines caused by the Sabbatical year were fairly common after the capture of Jerusalem by Herod. On the other hand, I can find no mention of a famine caused by the Sabbatical year prior to the capture of Jerusalem by Herod.

There are numerous famines mentioned as occuring in the time before Herod took Jerusalem. However, none of these seem to have been caused by the Sabbatical year. Christ mentions the famine during the days of Elijah (Lk 4:25), but this was due to a drought. There were 7 years of famine when Joseph served the Pharaoh of Egypt, but 7 years of famine cannot be due to one Sabbatical year. Flavius Josephus mentions famine caused by war in the time before Herod took Jerusalem.

In fact, the famine during the seige of Jerusalem by Herod seems to have been caused by the war, even though it coincided with a Sabbatical year. The people could not eat from the grainfields, as they were permitted to do in a Sabbatical year, because of the siege and the war. They could not harvest the grain, because it was the Sabbatical year. And, when the war ended, it was autumn, whereas the grain ripens in spring. The grain would have long since fallen to the ground, making it unavailable.

After Herod captured Jerusalem, a number of famines coincided with the Sabbatical year.

Josephus describes a famine in the 13th and 14th years of Herod's reign. Now the first year of that famine was caused by drought. But the second year of the famine is curiously described: "....what seed they had sown perished also, by reason of the ground not yielding its fruits on the second year." (Ant. 15.302). Since Herod's reign began during a Sabbatical year, the 14th year could be a Sabbatical year (depending on how the years are counted). In a Sabbatical year, the ground would be expected to produce a crop in the second year, in other words, a year and a half after the last time the fields were sown. However, other interpretations of this passage are possible.

The first Deacons of the Church were appointed during a time when food was scarce. A dispute about unequal distribution of necessities (most importantly food) caused the Apstles to appoint seven Deacons to be in charge of distribution to Greek Christians. (Acts 6:1ff). The most likely time for such a dispute would be during a Jewish Sabbatical year, when the Jews would neither sow nor harvest their crops (Lev 25:1-7). My revised date for the appointment of the first Deacons is A.D. 21.

In Acts 11:27-30 and 12:25, Saul and Barnabas are sent to Judea during a famine (Acts 11:28), during the reign of Claudius (Acts 11:28), and about the time of the death of Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:1-23). Their purpose is to bring relief to the brethren of Judea. This famine was also mentioned by Josephus (Ant. 20.51), not long after he mentions the death of Herod Agrippa I (Ant. 20.1). Herod Agrippa I died in the third year of the reign of Claudius, after his own reign of seven years (see above). In my revised chronology, the third year of Claudius’ reign was A.D. 28. That year was also a Sabbatical year (per Wacholder, A.D. 27/28). See chapter 11 of the book for more details.

The destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem occurred at the time of a Sabbatical year. But the famine at that time, mentioned by Josephus, was due more to the war than to the Sabbatical year. See chapter 14 of the book for more details.

4. What caused this change in practice concerning the count of the Sabbatical years and when did this change occur?

As described above, at the time that Herod captured Jerusalem (mid first century B.C.), the Sabbatical year was counted as beginning in spring. Thus, Josephus states that the Sabbatical year included the summer before the city was captured and the autumn and winter after the capture of Jerusalem.

After Herod captured Jerusalem, he controlled who became high priest of the Jews. And he chose the Jewish high priests from a different group of men. “Herod was then made king by the Romans, but did no longer appoint high priests out of the family of Asamoneus; but made certain men to be so that were of no eminent families, but barely of those that were priests….” (Ant. 20.247). This change in leadership among the Jews could easily have resulted in changes to policies set by the Jewish high priest, who had authority over decisions about the religious calendar. This is the most likely time for the Jewish high priest to have changed the start of the Sabbatical year from spring to autumn.

The assertion that there were changes in the Jewish calendar from time to time is not such an unusual idea. Certainly the ancient calendar of the Jews was determined by observation of the crescent new moon. But the modern calendar is determined by calculation of the astronomical new moon date. Changes have occurred to the Jewish calendar. Also, even the Rabbis cannot agree about which year is supposed to be the Jubilee year. Nor is there agreement on when the Jubilee years were kept in ancient times.

In summary:   Jewish Sabbatical years, in the period of time prior to Herod the great's reign over Jerusalem, began in the spring with the month of Nisan. Sometime after Herod and his army took control of Jerusalem, Sabbatical years began to be counted from the autumn with the month of Tishri. As a result of this change, Sabbatical years were often years of famine. For more about Sabbatical and Jubilee years, see chapter 16 of the book.

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