The First “Prosbol” and the Beginning the Sabbatical/Shmitta Year (updated)

Written by Michael Moore

April 11, 2008

Sunday, April 6th, began the month of Nisan and the Biblical New Year. According to the present Jewish calendar, the current Sabbatical Year began this past fall, at Rosh HaShanah. But in what month did the Sabbatical Year begin during the First and Second Temple periods? And, to what extent were its regulations observed? Does the Biblical Sabbatical Year actually begin now?

The Sabbatical Year during the First Temple Period

Leviticus 25 provides the instructions that one year in seven is to be set aside as a fallow year, when the land will not be worked and when the fields will remain unsown and unharvested.

In the Pentateuch, the New Year, the first day of “the first month of the year” was linked to the Exodus and the first feast of unleavened bread. Exod 12:1-2: “The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, ‘This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.'” Also see in Deut. 16:1-2 where this first month is called “Aviv“.

The oldest legislation involving the Sabbatical Year is found in Exod 23:10-11:

“You shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, but in the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow.”

From the Holiness Code, what grows of itself in the following year may not be harvested:

Lev 25:3: “Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruits; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath to the LORD; you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.”

Also from the Holiness Code, it is evident that the harvest was suspended for two years in a row. Once, since harvesting was prohibited during the Sabbatical Year, and once again during the following year because no crop was sown and no vines were trimmed. It is also clear that what grows of itself in the following year may not be harvested. (“Eating old produce”, e.g., from the sixth year, here means produce drawn from storage.)

Lev 25:3-5: “Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruits; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath to the LORD; you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. What grows of itself in your harvest you shall not reap, and the grapes of your undressed vine you shall not gather; it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land.”

Lev. 25:20-22: “And if you say, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?’ I will command my blessing upon you in the sixth year, so that it will bring forth fruit for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating old produce; until the ninth year, when its produce comes in, you shall eat the old.”

In the Deuteronomic History, Isaiah and the first “prosbol”:The legislation concerning the seventh year or “Shmitta” in Deuteronomy (Deut. 15:1-18) ignores the year’s agricultural requirements but instead focuses on the release from debt and slavery that is required in that year. However in the book of 2 Kings, at the time of the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 702, which apparently took place during a sabbatical year, although the plowing and sowing was suspended for two years in a row, the people were exceptionally allowed to eat what grew of itself. This may have been a permissive setting aside of one requirement during difficult times. In a way this might be considered the first prosbol, (originally applied by Hillel to allowing continued lending in spite of the Shmitta year to keep the economy from breaking down). The following verse was likely used for the continued allowance of the gathering of what grows wild, “of itself” for sabbatical years during the Second Temple Period.

“And this shall be the sign for you: you will eat this year what grows of itself, in the second year what springs from the same, and in the third year sow, reap, plant vineyards, and eat their fruit.” (2 Kgs 19:29; the corresponding verse in Isa 37:30 varies slightly.)


Two-lined barley and mustard growing wild: ready to be picked in Jerusalem during the Sabbatical Year (2008)

The beginning and observance of the Sabbatical Year during the Second Temple Period

Following the “sign” of 2 Kings 19:29 as a rule, and not an exception, the observance of the Sabbatical year during the Second Temple Period allowed for the general public to freely gather produce from both wild areas and fallow farm plots. In this case, the fruit was considered then to be owned by no one as long as the fruit was picked for personal use (Safrai, pp. 825-827).

It does appear that the beginning of the agricultural calendar, especially with respect to the Sabbatical year, changed at some stage during the Second Temple Period. This was introduced some time after the time of Alexander the Great as Hellenism and the Macedonian calendar influenced the entire Near East.

The Macedonian Calendar was a luni-solar calendar. The only difference from the rest of the Greek calendars consisted in the date of the new year celebration. The Macedonian Calendar started after the first new moon following the autumnal equinox during the month Dios and included 12 months of either 30 or 29 days, with the last decade of either ten or nine days, giving a total of 354 days for one year. To bring the Macedonian year in accordance with the solar tropical year a 13th month had to be periodically inserted into the year. Some of the months from Macedonian Calendar can be found in the calendars of other Doric cities. After Alexander the Great the influence of the Macedonian Calendar extended also to Asia and Egypt.” (Theodossiou, E. et al)

This change may well have taken place during the calendrical reforms which took place during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes (Dan. 7:25), which tended to conform to the Syrian (Macedonian) Lunar Calendar beginning in the fall, with the introduction of a 19-year lunar cycle (in which an offering on the behalf of the emperor was to be observed on his monthly birthday celebration, 2 Macc. 6:7). Although certain parts of the practice were revoked after the events of 167 BCE, the 19-year Lunar Calendar continued to be observed (for this discussion see Vanderkam, pp. 113-116).

The Beginning of the Agricultural Year and the Sabbatical Year according to Rabbinic Sources

It is generally understood from Rabbinic sources that a new year starting with Nisan provided a calendar for most societal needs, and that another new year was a Tishre-based year, which functioned with regard to agricultural practices and the rules of shmitta during sabbatical years. In fact, the Mishnah speaks of not two but four “New Years” per calendrical year.

Rosh Hoshanah 1:1 “There are four new years: (1) the first day of Nisan is the new year for kings and festivals; (2) the first day of Elul is the new year for tithing cattle. R. Eleazar and R. Simeon say, ‘It is on the first day of Tishre’. (3) The first day of Tishre is the new year for the reckoning of years, for Sabbatical years, and for Jubilees, for planting [trees] and for vegetables; (4) the first day of Shebat is the new year for trees, in accord with the opinion of the House of Shammai. The House of Hillel say, ‘On the fifteenth day of that month [is the new year for trees)’.” (Neusner translation)

The Implications of Shifting the Beginning of the Year to the Fall

The implications of whether one counts the Sabbatical Year from the fall, Tishre, or spring, Nisan, is quite significant since the latter calendar would demand that the farmer and his clients would lose not one, but two years of crops in a row. The spring grain harvests would be lost in either calendar. However, in the case of the Nisan-based calendar: (1) the previous year’s period of plowing and sowing would not be carried out since the projected crop could not be harvested during the actual sabbatical year. (2) Since the period of pruning, plowing and sowing is prohibited during the latter half of the Nisan-based sabbatical year, no crops would be produced during the following year (nor could the grapes be harvested on vines which had not been trimmed.)

Shifting the beginning of the Sabbatical Year to the fall would allow the early sowing period (which begins in December) to be included as part of the same fallow year as the harvest, and at the same time, allow the following sowing period to proceed for the first year of the next sabbatical cycle. However, this only imperfectly resolves the issue, since the beginning of the Tishre-based year still precedes the end of the harvesting of certain summer fruits including grapes, dates and, especially, the olive harvest, which take place in the final two months of the previous agricultural year. This would mean that the fruit of those first two months of the first year would be gathered from trees and vines that were unplowed and unpruned (which is actually forbidden in the laws of Leviticus 25).

The Natural Agricultural Year

Logically the agricultural and Sabbatical Year and calendar should coincide with the duration of one natural agricultural year. The natural agricultural year in Israel covers the period from December/January, when wheat and barley are sown, to the end of the following November, when olives and dates are harvested.

A quandary arises when neither calendar year, whether the Fall Equinox/Tishre-based year (e.g., the Gezer/Canaanite calendar and Rabbinic calendar) nor the Spring Equinox/Nisan-based year (e.g., the Bible and Qumran) actually contains a single agricultural year from beginning to end. On the one hand, the Nisan-based calendar contains the full sequence of harvests that are associated with a single agricultural year (while the Tishre-based calendar contains harvests connected with two separate agricultural years starting with the olive harvest). On the other hand, the Tishre-based calendar includes the initial process of sowing in the sequence “six years you shall sow, six years you shall prune and gather” (while the Nisan-based calendar includes the period of sowing, but primarily from the following agricultural year; barley, wheat, oats, peas, chickpeas, lentils, vetch, flax and certain vegetables were sown primarily in the period between December and February, while millet, sesame and other vegetables were sown between March and April; on this, see O. Borowski, Agriculture in Iron Age Israel).


Borowski, O. Agriculture in Iron Age Israel (ASOR, Boston, 2002)


Pfann, S. “Dated Bronze Coinage of the Sabbatical years of Release and the First Jewish City Coin”. Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society 24 (2006) 101-113.

Safrai, S. The Jewish People in the First Century: Historical Geography, Political History, Social, Cultural and Religious Life and Institutions. Volume 2 (VanGorcum, 1987)

Theodossiou, E.; Danezis, E.; Grammenos, Th.; Stathopoulou, M. “The Macedonian Calendar in Macedonia” Joint European and National Astronomical Meeting, JENAM-97. 6th European and 3rd Hellenic Astronomical Conference, held in Thessaloniki, Greece, 2-5 July, 1997, Meeting Abstract, p. 341.

Vanderkam, J. Calendars in the Dead Sea Scrolls: Measuring Time. (Routledge, 1998)

You May Also Like…

Gethsemane VR

Gethsemane VR

In the light of the occasion a slight detour from Qumran but not so far from the Temple Mount. A Reflective Stroll...


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *