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.