The Time When the First Sabbatical Year was Observed
Considering the unique standing of the Sabbatical year in Torah, we will explain why the Land needed to be first conquered and inherited by Israel, and then the law of the land observed. This will be further explained in the following vein. We will explore the law of the Sabbatical year in the context of the story of the greatest leaders of Israel: Mosheh and Yehoshua. That said, hereafter we will address the law of the Sabbatical year and how it was first observed in the manner of the present author’s book The Reckoning of Time, wherein we sought to restore to the best of our ability the reckoning of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years from Creation to the coming of Mashiach.
It was decreed that Mosheh would not enter the Land with the people but that his disciple, Yehoshua, would lead them. By the words of YHVH, Mosheh had to die in a foreign land. And Mosheh went up from the desert plains of Mo’av to Mount Nebo to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Yericho. And YHVH showed him all the land which He swore to his fathers (Deu 34:1). And Mosheh died there on his 120th birthday, the first of the twelfth month, having lived 120 years (Deu 34:7). And the people feared Yehoshua as they feared Mosheh.
Rabbi Shlomo Yitschaki (1040 – 1105), was a medieval French rabbi and author of a comprehensive commentary on the Talmud and Tanach. Today he is known by the acronym Rashi (RAbbi SHlomo Itschaki) and is acclaimed for his ability to present the basic meaning of the Biblical text. He says that “today” was the exact day Mosheh was born, and on that day, he died [Sotah 13b].
The first Sabbatical year in the Land
Per Exo 7:7, Mosheh was eighty years old before the beginning of the plagues in Egypt and led Israel forty years in the wilderness. Thus, Mosheh lived 120 years (Deu 34:7) and died on the first of the twelfth month (See also Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, Book 4:8:49). The people wept for him thirty days (Deu 34:8) and then entered the land on the first day of the first month of the following year led by Yehoshua.
Note: Flavius Josephus (Yoseph ben Matityahu Ha-Kohen) was born in 37 CE and died around 100 CE. He started as a priest in the Temple and ended as a Roman citizen, surviving the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. He has been recognized as a historian and a military commander during the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans. We now return to the text.
We came therefore to the point when Israel was about to enter the Promised Land. But what would be considered entry into the land? When the last Israelite crossed the Yarden River (Jos 4:11); when the land was taken in the first conquest (Jos 11:23, Jos 13:1-6); or when the land was divided between the clans and inherited it (Jos 14:5, Jos 19:51)? And why is that important for this study?
YHVH told Mosheh to begin the reckoning of the Sabbath and Jubilee years upon entering the Promised Land and if we manage to correctly determine when this counting began. The most pronounced verse is,
When you come into the land which I give you, the land shall rest a Sabbath to Yehovah. (Lev 25:2)
Taken on its own, this verse seems to imply that a Sabbath of the land is to be observed immediately upon entering the land. But nothing in the command suggests that immediate action was intended. And could that have been even possibly? The command must therefore be interpreted according to its meaning in the overall context of Leviticus 25.
In practice, when Israel enters the land they (1) have to conquer it, (2) divide it between the tribes and families, (3) work the land for six years, (4) and only then they could bring the first fruits of the land and observe the seventh year as the shemittah (sabbatical year) as, indeed, this is what the Torah clearly instructs in the following verses of Leviticus 25.
In terms of personal land ownership, that particular aspect of the law pertaining to the Jubilee year could not have possibly been observed during that first year in the Promised Land, when Israel crossed the Yarden River. This is a suitable explanation as to why that command to “keep a Sabbath unto YHVH” was not implemented at their crossing of the Yarden River; not until the land was secured in the hands of the Israelites. The Jewish authorities hold the view that the law became obligatory fourteen years after the first entry into the Promised Land. The conquest of the land took seven years and its distribution among the families seven more. Then, the land was cultivated for six years, and on the seventh year (that is the twenty-first after entering the land), the first Sabbatical year was celebrated.
And indeed, this is exactly what Mosheh instructed the Hebrews: to take of the first of all the fruit of the land and to bring them before the Lord declaring that they had come to the land promised to the forefathers,
And it shall be, when you come into the land which Yehovah your Elohim is giving you as an inheritance, and you possess it and dwell in it, that you shall take some of the first of all the fruits of the soil which you bring from your land that Yehovah your Elohim is giving you, and shall put it in a basket and go to the place where Yehovah your Elohim chooses to make His Name dwell there. And you shall come to the one who is priest in those days, and say to him, ‘I shall declare today to Yehovah your Elohim that I have come to the land which Yehovah swore to our fathers to give us. (Deu 26:1-3)
This means what it literally implies, for it is quite impossible to suppose that the nation was expected to fulfill all these laws upon entering the land. The choice of order is significant for how the law of the land in Leviticus 25 is understood. Notice the sequence of steps: (1) when they came into the land, (2) when they possessed and dwelled in it, (3) they were to bring the first fruits, and (4) then to observe the seventh year. That took place on Yom Bikkurim in the twenty-first year after they had crossed the Yarden River, according to the word of YHVH,
When you have passed over the Yarden into the land of Kana’an then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and shall destroy all their engraved stones, and shall destroy all their molded images, and lay waste all their high places, and you shall possess the land and dwell in it, for I have given you the land to possess. (Num 33:51-53)
They took possession of the land and dwelt in it. And Yehovah gave them rest all around, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers (Jos 21:43-45). In other words: the Sabbaths of the land could have only been observed when (1) Israel was cleansed from sin and disobedience in the wilderness, (2) the Land was purged from the pollution of idolatry of the pagans, and (3) the land was inhabited by its rightful owners. Only when all these conditions were met, then the Sabbaths and Jubilees could have been reckoned.
In short, it took seven years for the first conquest, and seven more for the division of the land. Then the first tithes were paid seven years later, and the first Sabbatical year was in the twenty-first year. We learned therefore that according to tradition, which is very well established, it took seven years for the conquest of the land. But the question we may ask is this: is this a mere tradition of the sages or it is based on Scripture?
The time when the Land was inherited
In Joshua 14, we read that after the land was conquered, Kalev came to Yehoshua to ask him for Hebron as a place of his settlement. Yehoshua blessed him and gave him the city as an inheritance (Jos 14:12-14). From this we understand that the land had already been conquered but not yet divided. In his arguments to take possession of Hebron, Kalev said that he was forty years old when Mosheh sent him to spy out the land along with Yehoshua and the other ten spies (Jos 14:7). At the time of his appeal, he was eighty-five (Jos 14:10). So, from the time they were sent to survey the land to the time of division of the land there were forty-five years. We know that Israel had been in the wilderness for thirty-eight years until that generation died out, and at the end of the thirty-eight years the conquest of the land began. If we deduct these thirty-eight years from forty-five, we will receive seven years of the actual conquest.
The story of giving Hebron to Kalev concludes with the statement that the land had rested from war, which can only mean that the seven years of conquest had come to end (Jos 14:15). With the giving of Hebron to Kalev the leader of the tribe of Yehudah began the division of the already conquered land among the families: first the land for the children of Yehudah was partitioned (chapter 15), then the land for the children of Yoseph (chapters 16 and 17). Therefore, the teaching of the sages that it took seven years for the conquest of the land is correct.
From law and order to anarchy
The land can possibly observe its Sabbaths and Jubilees not only when it is conquered but also divided and inherited among the people. Only then the land can be cultivated and observe its due rest on Sabbath. Without the conquest and the inheritance of the land, Israel’s entry would be a mere crossing of a river with no bearing on the Sabbatical and Jubilee years.
The conquest of the land was substantially completed in the jubilee year of 2500, according to the reckoning of time of the present author. Yehoshua called the Reubenites, Gadites and the children of Manasseh, and gave them his blessing. He commended to guard the Torah and exhorted them to divide the spoil of their enemies with their brethren (Jos 22:1-8). He then dismissed them, and they departed for their possessions east of the river. The main object of the Torah with regard to the land was to keep intact each tribe’s inheritance. Therefore, the Sabbatical and Jubilee years were not inaugurated before the land had been conquered and apportioned among the tribes and the clans.
In the light of what has been said above, and if our line of reasoning is correct, then, it is now possible to reckon time from Creation to the conquest of the Land, as follows:
- It was 1,948 years from Adam to Avraham.
- It was 75 years from Avraham’s birth to the Covenant.
- It was 430 years from the Covenant to the Exodus.
- It was 40 years from the Exodus to the crossing of the Yarden River.
- It was 7 years for the conquest of the land.
- It was 7 years for the division of the land.
Total of 2,507 years until the laws of Sabbath and Jubilee years came in effect. The Tabernacle was erected in Shiloh. The first Sabbatical year of the land was celebrated seven years later. Seven more years, Yehoshua son of Nun died at the age of 110 (Jos 24:29, Jdg 2:8) when the second Sabbatical year was observed in the land. Thus, he ruled over Israel 28 years (7+7+7+7 = 28 years). For 18 years after Yehoshua’s death there was no settled form of government in the Land but anarchy (Antiquities of the Jews 6:5:4). And it came to be, after the death of Yehoshua, that the twelve judges of Israel came: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Devorah, Gideon, Tola, Yair, Yephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Shimshon.
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