The sabbatical year is mentioned three times in the Torah. The first is in Exodus 23:10–11: “Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it.” The emphasis in this passage is on letting the land lie fallow and the social benefits for the poor and impoverished. The second passage is in the context of sacred time, in which the seventh year is referred to as a Sabbath rest for the land (Leviticus 25:1–7). This passage is followed by one describing the jubilee year (Leviticus 25:8–17), which is the 50th year after seven sabbatical cycles (49 years). The jubilee year was one of a general release from debts and a return of all purchased real estate to its original tribal owners. Actually, this passage emphasizes the novel biblical belief that “the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine” (Leviticus 25:23). Similar to the weekly Sabbath, the land too has its cyclical respite with social benefits, agricultural advantages and religious renewal for the whole nation.
In Deuteronomy 15:1–6 the term shmittah is applied to the release from indebtedness, that is, a moratorium on debts at the end of the seventh year. (The Hebrew word for “let it rest” is tishmet ennah, from which is derived the term shmittah year [see Deuteronomy 31:10].) Though not mentioning agricultural aspects, Deuteronomy 15:1–6 is understood as referring to the abstention from farm work that year and the resulting lack of income in an agrarian society. The shmittah year is identical with the agricultural year in ancient Israel, which began with the rainy season in the fall and concluded at the end of the summer. Another feature of the sabbatical year is the public reading of the Torah during the holiday of Booths (Sukkoth-Tabernacles), which concludes the year (Deuteronomy 31:10–13).
There is no textual evidence attesting to the observance of the sabbatical and jubilee years in First Temple times. In fact, the author of Chronicles, interpreting Jeremiah’s prophesies of the 70 years of the Babylonian Exile (Jeremiah 25:11–12, 29:10), explains the number 70 according to Leviticus 26:34 and makes the claim that the 70 sabbatical years from the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites until the destruction of the Temple were not observed. However, there seems to be some evidence that a calendrical reckoning based on septads and jubilees was probably kept in priestly circles (Ezekiel 1:1; 40:1). Attention to the seven-year cycle was resumed during the Second Temple period in historical calculations and computations of the End of Days (Daniel 9:24ff., Book of Jubilees and the later Seder Olam) as well as in the renewal of the agrarian and economic aspects of the shmittah year (1 Maccabees 16:14ff.; Josephus Antiquities 14.475). If the theoretical jubilee year was noted, then it was counted as a 49-year cycle of seven septads. Among the commitments which the Jews accepted at the signing of the Amanah (covenant) in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah was the promise to observe the sabbatical year, formulated to include both the agricultural rest as well as the release from debts: “We will forgo [the produce of] the seventh year and every outstanding debt” (Nehemiah 10:32). It would seem that Nehemiah 5 also describes such a social setting of financial burdens, indebtedness and child indenture that would be the subject of a moratorium identical with that of the shmittah year. According to our theory of a dual chronology in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the period in which the two men worked together began toward the end of a sabbatical year (i.e., August 443 BCE).