Question: "What is a sabbatical year?"

Answer: The Sabbath is the seventh day of the week, a day of rest for the Hebrew people under the Mosaic Law. But the Law also spoke of a sabbatical year. Leviticus 25:1–7 provides instructions for the sabbatical year to be observed after the Israelites moved into the Promised Land.

Leviticus 25:3–5 explains what to do—or, rather, what not to do—on the sabbatical year: “For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest.” Every seventh year, then, was to be a time of no planting or pruning of crops. The Sabbath day was a rest every week, and this rest was applied to farmland once every seven years (the sabbatical year is also mentioned in Exodus 23:10–11).

If the Israelites were not to plant during the sabbatical year, what were they to eat? Leviticus 25:6–7 explains: “Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.”

The food for the Israelites, their servants, and livestock was to come from harvesting the sabbatical year’s “volunteer” crop—reaping the harvest that grew on its own accord in the seventh year. Leviticus 25:20–22 anticipates the people’s question: “You may ask, ‘What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?’ I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years. While you plant during the eighth year, you will eat from the old crop and will continue to eat from it until the harvest of the ninth year comes in.” In other words, the Israelites had no reason to worry. God promised to take care of them, if they would only trust Him.

Deuteronomy 15 also speaks of the sabbatical year. In this passage, a further command is given: forgive all debt and release all Hebrew servants. If the Israelites obeyed this command, they had another promise: “The LORD your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you” (Deuteronomy 15:6).

Observing the sabbatical year was an important sign of trust in the Lord, and it was accompanied by great blessings. Refusing to obey this command, God warned, would lead to a curse: “I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins. Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it” (Leviticus 26:33–35).

Sadly, Israel failed to observe the sabbatical years. They continued cultivating and harvesting their land on the seventh year just as they had the other years. As a result of that and other sins, God brought the Assyrians and the Babylonians against Israel, and God’s people were removed from the Promised Land for a period of time. The biblical historian notes the significance of the deportations: “The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested” (2 Chronicles 36:21).