Sabbath in the Temple
The Sabbatical year was not strictly connected with the Temple services, but it was strictly enforced at the time of Christ. Generally, at this time, the year of Jubilee was not enforced any more. There are instances that have been found of just the reverse happening, though, during the period of the Jews that was right before their return from Babylon. They had celebrated the year of Jubilee and neglected the Sabbatical year. Hence Jewish tradition explains that the seventy years’ captivity was intended to make up for the neglected Sabbatical years. After the return from Babylon, the year of Jubilee was no longer kept, but the Sabbatical was very strictly observed, not only by the Jews, but also by the Samaritans according to Jewish Antiquities.
Jewish tradition also has it that it took seven years for the first conquest, and another seven for the proper division of the Holy Land. Therefore, official ‘tithes’ were only paid for the first time fourteen years after the entrance into Canaan. So that would have made the first Sabbatical year falling 7 years after that, or 21 years after their entrance into the land. The Sabbatical law extended only to the soil of Palestine itself, which included certain surrounding district.
The Sabbatical year actually meant that the soil was to be left uncultivated at the end of every period of six years, beginning after the Passover for the barley, after Pentecost for the wheat, and after the Feast of Tabernacles of all fruit trees. It commenced on New Year’s Day, which fell on the new moon of the tenth month, or Tishri, which was the Day of Atonement.
Whatever food that grew of itself during this year was to be given to the poor along with feeding the family that it belonged to. There was nothing that was to be put in storage for later, or sold during that whole year.
Another Scriptural command for them was that in the Sabbatical year no debt might be claimed from an Israelite. It was called the year of ‘the Lord’s release.’ This was not meant to be forever, though, just only for that one year. Then there was a last command that ‘in the solemnity of the year of release, in the Feast of Tabernacles,’ the law was to be read ‘before all Israel in their hearing.’
All the above ordinances, though separate and distinct, are in reality closely connected. It would have just been natural that in a year when all agricultural labor ceased, debts should not be claimed from any persons owing. Similarly, the law was to be read to all the people to indicate the ‘the rest’ was not to be one of just being lazy and idle, but to be able to meditate on the Word of God. They were supposed to take that year off to rekindle their relationship with God and become closer to Him in every way.
So that the Jewish people would not be able to take unfair advantage of ‘the Lord’s release’, Rabbi Hillel devised a formula called ‘Prosubul’ (addition), so that the rights of the creditors were secured during this year. The Rabbis explained that the release from debt did not include debts for things purchased in a shop, nor judicial fines, nor money lent on a pledge. It was not to include anything that they needed to be able to live on a daily basis, just long-term debt because they had no real income coming in for that one year. After all, God had promised to give them abundance in the six previous years and they were to use that to save back for this year.
As with everything regarding the law, though, the Rabbis turned ‘the Lord’s release’ into something perverted like almost everything else regarding God’s wonderful law that He had given them.
The ‘Prosubul’ guaranteed that the rights of a creditor were fully secure. This is what it said: ‘I, A. B., hand to you, the judges of C. D. (a declaration), to the effect that I may claim any debt due to me at whatever time I please.’
This was signed by the judges or by witnesses, and enabled a creditor to claim money lent even in the Sabbatical year. Just like many of our laws are today, it professed outwardly to apply only to debts on real property, but was worded so as to cover every case. Along with this, the debtor was to offer payment, which the creditor was to reply, ‘I remit’; upon which the debtor was to insist that ‘nevertheless’ the creditor was to accept the repayment.
In general, money owing to Jewish proselytes (a convert to another religion) was to be repaid to them, but not to their heirs. It was as if the man had separated himself from all his heirs when he changed religions, and according to Jewish law, they were not considered his natural heirs any longer. A person was looked on with great merit if he repaid a debt to the man’s heirs, because it was not a law that he had to do it.
The Rabbis also ruled that part of what had grown spontaneously in the soil for that year could be stored in the house, providing there was sufficiency left in the field to feed the cattle and other animals. They also agreed that a person could till as much land as necessary to make payment of tribute or taxes. The omer at the Passover, and the two wave-loaves at Pentecost, were also to be made from the barley and what had grown that year in the field.
Lastly, instead of all the Law being read to the people publicly in the Temple as God had told them to do during the Sabbatical year, the Rabbis fixed the following portions as being sufficient to read to the people: Deuteronomy 1: 1 – 6; 6: 4 – 8; 1 1: 13-22; 14:22; 15:23; 17: 14; 26: 12- 19; 27; 28. This is information that was given in the Mishnah. Then the service was concluded with a benediction. It was very similar to that of the high-priest on the Day of Atonement, except that it did not refer to the remission of sins. Jewish antiquity suggests that the expression in Matthew 24: 20: ‘Pray that your flight be not on the Sabbath’, may apply to the Sabbatical year because the fugitives would find it very difficult to secure any support during that year.
Rabbinical Perversion of the Sabbatical Year
The above accounts prove that there was hardly any ordinance at all that God had given to the people that the Rabbis had not taken and almost rendered fully void. They had converted all this into a huge burden that the people were hardly even able to bear.
With all the Rabbinical perversion of the Sabbath in general, it seems that the Gospels bring before us Christ more frequently on the Sabbath than on any other festive occasion. The Sabbath seemed to be His special day for doing the work of His Father. It was on the Sabbath that He preached in the synagogues, taught in the Temple, healed the sick, and came to the joyous meal at the close of this special day. Yet as Jesus exhibited the true meaning of the Sabbath more and more, that is when their opposition broke out toward Him the fiercest. They exhibited great antagonism as He showed them the difference between the ‘Spirit of the Sabbath’ and the ‘Letter of the Sabbath’.
In their worship of the ‘Letter’ they had crushed out the ‘Spirit’. The Sabbatical year was given to them by God so that they could rest physically and just enjoy and marvel in God’s marvelous works in what He had done for them. They were just to revel in the fact that THEY were God’s special possession and that He had chosen them above all people as His. It was His way of giving them a great reward for working hard for six years. He had already blessed them enough for the seventh year, anyway. All they really had to do was to enjoy it and concentrate on just praising God for everything He had done for them.
By crushing out the Spirit, they had gradually become so burdened down with ordinances that, even though they observed it strictly, the Sabbatical year really became extinct in what it was originally intended to do for them. The beginning of it was supposed to point forward to ‘the rest which remaineth to the people of God’. Instead of rest, it had become a huge burden for them.