So, just how and when did the notion of a Sabbath year beginning with Tishri, the seventh month, get considered and implemented by the Jewish religious leaders? Needless to say, with Part 2 we’re going to find out.
The Transition to the Tishri Year
The New Year date of Tishri 1 for the Sabbath year is an offshoot of late Talmudic interpretation. As has been previously noted in Part 1, Scriptures never claim that the seventh month began a regular Sabbath year.
The deduction that Tishri began a Jubilee year was itself a misreading of Leviticus 25:8-13. The rabbis of the post-Bar Kochba period, in an effort to “build a fence around the Law,”21 merely extended their misreading of Leviticus 25:8-13, which dealt only with the year of Jubilee, to the regular Sabbath year.
Nowhere is the superimposition of a Tishri year by the Jews of the post-Bar Kochba period (after 135 C.E.) more self-evident than when we compare Deuteronomy 31:10-13, with Josephus (Antiq. 4:8:12) and the Mishnah (Sotah 7:8).
Deuteronomy commands that, “מקץ (in the last part)22 of the seven years,” there would be a public reading of the Torah, “in the appointed time of the year of the shemitah (Sabbath year),23 in the feast of Tabernacles (i.e., in the seventh month).”
Josephus (late first century C.E.) proves that this was still the understanding in his time. The Sotah (200 C.E.), meanwhile, contradicts it, making this public reading occur at the beginning of the eighth year.
Bar Kochba Revolt
Further, there is no record of Tishri as the official beginning of the Sabbath year until some 65 years after the Bar Kochba revolt. Earlier records make no such claim. As a result, there is no justification for assuming that it was common practice before the post-Bar Kochba period.
There can be little doubt that part of this transition from an Abib (spring) to a Tishri (fall) New Year date was influenced by the dominance of foreigners and pagans in Jerusalem and Judaea after the overthrow of the Bar Kochba revolt, and the decrees and ordinances established by Hadrian thereafter.
These foreigners utilized the Macedonian version of the Seleucid era, which began the year in Hyperberetaeus (Sept./Oct.; Tishri).
The Seder Olam, for example, states:
And in the Exile they write in documents according to the reckoning of the Greeks (i.e., Seleucid Era).”24
After the rabbis had determined that the Sabbath year should begin with Tishri, it was an easy step to determine every year as starting from this same point.
A further indication that the Sabbath and Jubilee years, up until the Bar Kochba revolt, continued among the Judaeans to begin with the month of Abib (Nisan) can be drawn from these facts.
It is inconceivable, for example, that the Jews of the late sixth century B.C.E., having left their Babylonian exile in 538 B.C.E. to resettle Judaea, would not have known the correct way of observing scriptural years.
Several Sabbath years and a Jubilee year transpired during this exile and those faithful Yahwehists who returned to Judaea, such as the high priest Yahushua (Joshua), the son of the high priest Yahuzadaq (Jozadak), would certainly have continued to count them.
Also, many who lived in Judah before the destruction of the first Temple and their exile into Babylonia in 587 B.C.E. were still alive. One noted example was the prophet Daniel.25 When a portion of the Jews returned from their Babylonian captivity in 538 B.C.E., this older generation was available for guidance.
In the mid-fifth century B.C.E., the knowledge and timing of the Sabbath and Jubilee years would still be known. It was during this period that the scribe Ezra (author of the books of Chronicles and Ezra) and Nehemiah (of the book of Nehemiah fame) settled in Judaea.
The devout prophets of Yahweh named Haggai and Zechariah, among others, also lived there. These men, well-versed in scriptural knowledge and inspired of Yahweh, would undoubtedly be aware of which years and seasons represented the Sabbath and Jubilee years.
In full support of this view, we know that the Jews who returned from their Babylonian captivity took a pledge to keep the Sabbath year.26 That they continued to keep the Sabbath year is verified in the records of Josephus, who points out that Alexander the Great (331 B.C.E.) permitted them to continue this practice, as did the Romans in the first century B.C.E.27
Interpretations with regard to the understanding of the laws of the Torah began to change when Antiochus Epiphanes tried to hellenize Judaea (169–165 B.C.E.).
At this time there arose a Jewish party called the Pharisees. They believed in a system of oral laws, based upon rabbinic traditions, that were later to be codified in the Mishnah. This sect was opposed by the older and more conservative party of the Sadducees, who held to a strict understanding of the Torah and gave no regard to oral tradition.
In the reign of Hyrcanus (134/133–105/104 B.C.E.) the Pharisees had already gained great influence among the masses and, during the reign of Queen Alexandra (76/75–68/67 B.C.E.), they rose to power over Judaea.28
At the time of King Herod, 37-4 B.C.E., the legitimate line of Hasmonaean high priests was removed and in their place Herod set up “some insignificant persons who were merely of priestly descent.”29
This degenerated priesthood, combined with the rise of the scribes as a religious power (who brought into being the Pharisee sect and the Talmudic traditions), soon perverted the sound doctrines originally practiced.
Traditions and interpretations replaced the authority of Scriptures and from the time of Herod onward the doctrine of “traditions” dominated Jewish life. These numerous traditions were condemned by Yahushua the messiah as actually being opposed to sound scriptural doctrine.30
It was by these lower ranked, “insignificant” priests and the new scribe class that Yahushua the messiah was wrongfully tried and executed.
Josephus refers to a Judaean high priest of the first century C.E., named Ananus, as “rash in his temper and unusually daring” and tells of his conspiracy to kill Jacob (James) the brother of Yahushua the messiah.31
The servants of a subsequent priest named Ananias are called “utter rascals” who combined their operations with “the most reckless men.” These men “would go to the threshing floors and take by force the tithes of the priests. Neither did they refrain from beating those who refused to give. The high priests were guilty of the same practices as their slaves, and no one could stop them.”32
Out of this degenerated class of priests and the “tradition”-believing rabbis and scribes there arose support for the Bar Kochba revolt. It was thought that Simeon Bar Kochba (Simeon ben Kosiba) would restore the rabbis to power in Judaea.
Many of the rabbis, of course, did not believe in the messianic attributes of Bar Kochba, but they nevertheless supported the rebellion in his name as a political quest for freedom.
Wacholder and others speak of “the gradual shifting of the New Year from Nisan to Tishri, which has been formalized into our Rosh ha-Shanah.”33 Yet their perception of this “gradual shifting,” at least for the Sabbath years, assumes that it occurred shortly after the return of the exiles in 538 B.C.E.
In turn, this view leads them to interpret passages from the book of Maccabees, Josephus, and other early records as if the month of Tishri had long been the official beginning for the Sabbath year.
Many others go so far as to assume that the month of Tishri began every year, not just the Sabbath year!
Contrary to this view, nothing in these records even suggests such an early change. Most likely, the alteration did not become official until long after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
Indeed, one cannot even find evidence that the Jewish Sabbath year officially began with Tishri during the Bar Kochba revolt (133–135 C.E.).
Not until the Mishnah (about 200 C.E.) do we find this interpretation, and historians admit that this late text does not prove ancient practice.34
The change in the beginning of the year could only start to occur after the degenerated priesthood had been put into place (in Herod’s day) and after a substantial period of time had elapsed.
During this time there were one or more of three things that occurred: 1. memories of the correct observances under a more honorable priesthood had died; 2. the correct observances had become grossly misunderstood; 3. the correct observances were wrongly overturned by an ill-considered notion that the former leaders had been in error.
This change would more properly have mushroomed after the First Revolt, while the Zealots and other extremists had come to power, yet not become truly fashionable until after the Second Revolt, when the vision of Bar Kochba as a “messiah” had been crushed.
Foreign domination of Jerusalem and Judaea after the Bar Kochba revolt necessitated contracts and other civil matters to be conducted with the Macedonian version of the Seleucid year (beginning in Tishri). This reality would certainly contribute to the movement toward a Tishri calendar.
There was also a problem created by a winter planting season in Judaea, which had need of harvesting in the spring and summer.
It was much more convenient to begin a Sabbath year with the planting season and end it before the next planting season began. Discontinuing the Sabbath year in the midst of an agricultural season would have been construed by many rabbis as a hardship.
In fact, this very agricultural excuse is used today by various assemblies purporting to follow Yahweh, thereby justifying their reasoning for a Tishri beginning for the Sabbath year.
It became a simple matter for the rabbis to reinterpret Leviticus 25:9 to mean that the seventh month of the 49th year of the Jubilee cycle represented the beginning of the year of Jubilee, and by extension the seventh month of every sixth year of the Sabbath cycle represented the start of the Sabbath year.
Based upon this evidence, one cannot automatically assume that the early pre-Mishnah records (i.e., before 200 C.E.) are to be read with the understanding that the month of Tishri in the sixth year of the Sabbath cycle was utilized by the Jews of those times as the official beginning of the Sabbath year.
Each record must be analyzed in context to determine when the beginning of the Sabbath year actually took place.
When the records are scrutinized, it becomes clear that the Sabbath year began with the month of Abib (Nisan) around springtime.
There is much more evidence which proves that late Talmudic interpretations misunderstood certain earlier Jewish agricultural practices that came into existence after the mid-second century B.C.E.35
These earlier Jewish practices, which built “a fence around the Law,” required the observance of the Sabbath year during the latter part of the sixth year of the cycle in an effort to protect the Sabbath year.
It was believed that, by prohibiting harvesting and sowing in the months just before the Sabbath year had actually begun, they could prevent people from inadvertently crossing over the time line and defiling the sabbath year. The few months prior to the sabbath year, therefore, conformed with the practices of the oncoming Sabbath year.
The later Talmudic Jews (second century C.E. and after) simply misinterpreted these previous safeguards and falsely assumed that the Sabbath year should begin at the time of the year when the above mentioned prohibitions started.
Nevertheless, all of the pre-Mishnah records demonstrate that the earlier Jews officially began their seventh year, the Sabbath year, with Abib 1. The decision to change was encouraged by the loss of official records, the loss of Jewish governmental authority, and circumstance.
For example, after the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 C.E. the Jews came under even heavier influence of foreign kings and cultures utilizing a year reckoned from the fall. This transition was further facilitated by the preservation of a Tishri year among the Jews themselves.
Josephus poignantly reminds us that a Tishri year was still used during the first century C.E. for things not related to divine worship, such as “selling and buying and other ordinary things.” The agricultural season was also an influence.
The “need” of most present-day chronologists to interpret a “Tishri” beginning for the Sabbath year is pursued in order to make the earlier records conform with late Talmudic interpretation and more recent theory.
In turn, important items of evidence from the pre-Mishnah period are adjusted to fit either the practice promoted by the Zuckermann-Schürer calendar, or to pursue Wacholder’s idea that the later Talmudic writers really did agree with the more ancient records but that their works have been misunderstood.
By now, one may be wondering when the next Sabbath Year occurs?
For the answer, the it is highly suggested you peruse the publication by Qadesh La Yahweh Press titled The Sabbath and Jubilee Cycle.
Note: Adapted from a chapter contained in the publication by Qadesh La Yahweh Press titled The Sabbath and Jubilee Cycle.
Click this link for Bibliography and Abbreviations.
21 Ab. 1:1-5, e.g., 3:1-4.
22 HEL, p. 234, מקץ, “from the end” or “at the end,” meaning in the last part of something.
23 That the shemitah is the Sabbath year see SJC, chap. XI, p. 159, ns. 2, 3.
24 S.O. 30.
25 Dan. 1:1-21, 5:1-31, 8:1, 9:1-2, 10:1; 2 Kings 24:1-25:21; 2 Chron. 36:5-23; Ezra 1:1-3:13.
26 Neh. 10:31.
27 Jos., Antiq. 11:8:5-6, 14:10:5-6.
28 Jos., Antiq. 13:10:5, 13:16:1-3, Wars 1:5:2.
29 Jos., Antiq. 14:16:4, 20:10:5.
30 E.g. Matt. 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13; Col. 2:8; 1 Pet. 1:18.
31 Jos., Antiq. 20:9:1.
32 Jos., Antiq. 20:9:1-2.
33 HUCA 44, p. 155.
34 See CKIJ p. 70; and OOGA pp. 439, 454f; MNHK p. 51.
35 See SJC.