The Shemitah and The Yovel: Examining The Relevance of God’s Appointed Times, Part I
Counting the Days
Rabbi Jonathan Cahn has made quite a stir with his recent book, The Mystery of the Shemitah, by applying an ancient biblical principle to current events to see if there is a correlation. The average person might be inclined to dismiss his findings as circumstantial at best. And yet Rabbi Cahn’s extensive compilation of data and events documents far too many correlations with Shemitah years to be dismissed as simple coincidence, hype, or superstition. The discerning person would do well to take a closer look and see what this is all about.
What is the Shemitah?
The Shemitah (Strong’s H8508, שׁ֧מִטָּה) is the “year of the release”, or “year of remission”. At the end of the Shemitah debts are forgiven, indentured servants and slaves go free, and the land enjoys a Sabbath rest free from cultivation. The principle is explained in detail in Leviticus 25, with amplification in other passages of the Torah (Law, Teaching, and Commandments of God) on specific points. Here are some of those key passages:
Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its produce, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beasts of the field may eat. In like manner you shall do with your vineyard and your olive grove. Six days you shall do your work, and on the seventh day you shall rest, that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female servant and the stranger may be refreshed. (Exodus 23:10-12 NKJV)
And the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you come into the land which I give you, then the land shall keep a sabbath to the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather its fruit; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath to the Lord. You shall neither sow your field nor prune your vineyard. What grows of its own accord of your harvest you shall not reap, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine, for it is a year of rest for the land. And the sabbath produce of the land shall be food for you: for you, your male and female servants, your hired man, and the stranger who dwells with you, for your livestock and the beasts that are in your land—all its produce shall be for food.” (Leviticus 25:1-7 NKJV)
At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts. And this is the form of the release: Every creditor who has lent anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not require it of his neighbor or his brother, because it is called the Lord’s release. Of a foreigner you may require it; but you shall give up your claim to what is owed by your brother, except when there may be no poor among you; for the Lord will greatly bless you in the land which the Lord your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance—only if you carefully obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe with care all these commandments which I command you today. For the Lord your God will bless you just as He promised you; you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow; you shall reign over many nations, but they shall not reign over you. (Deuteronomy 15:1-6 NKJV)
So Moses wrote this law and delivered it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel. And Moses commanded them, saying: “At the end of every seven years, at the appointed time in the year of release, at the Feast of Tabernacles, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place which He chooses, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Gather the people together, men and women and little ones, and the stranger who is within your gates, that they may hear and that they may learn to fear the Lord your God and carefully observe all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land which you cross the Jordan to possess.” (Deuteronomy 31:9-13 NKJV)
What Is The Yovel?
The Shemitah has an interesting connection to another of God’s Appointed Times: the Yovel, (Strong’s H3104, יוֹבֵל), often translated as Jubilee. Yovel has two significant meanings: “ram, ram’s horn, trumpet, cornet”; and “Jubilee year (marked by the blowing of cornets)”. The text governing the Yovel is also in Leviticus 25:
And you shall count seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years; and the time of the seven sabbaths of years shall be to you forty-nine years. Then you shall cause the trumpet of the Jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land. And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family. That fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee to you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of its own accord, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine. For it is the Jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat its produce from the field. In this Year of Jubilee, each of you shall return to his possession. And if you sell anything to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor’s hand, you shall not oppress one another. According to the number of years after the Jubilee you shall buy from your neighbor, and according to the number of years of crops he shall sell to you. According to the multitude of years you shall increase its price, and according to the fewer number of years you shall diminish its price; for he sells to you according to the number of the years of the crops. Therefore you shall not oppress one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God. So you shall observe My statutes and keep My judgments, and perform them; and you will dwell in the land in safety. Then the land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill, and dwell there in safety. And if you say, “What shall we eat in the seventh year, since we shall not sow nor gather in our produce?” Then I will command My blessing on you in the sixth year, and it will bring forth produce enough for three years. And you shall sow in the eighth year, and eat old produce until the ninth year; until its produce comes in, you shall eat of the old harvest. (Leviticus 25:8-22 NKJV)
There are specific provisions in the remainder of Leviticus 25 and in Leviticus 27 regarding the impact of the Yovel on various property transactions – including transactions regarding human servitude. The key point of those provisions is that the land and people of Israel belong to God and Him alone. If there is any need to encumber the land or people for any reason, that encumbrance is only temporary. Just as debts are discharged in the Shemitah, in the Yovel control reverts to the original owners, whether it is land going back to the original tribe and family, or individuals going out in freedom from those to whom they were obligated as employers or masters.
The next thing to note about the Yovel is its timing. It happens every 50 years: count seven periods of seven years (Shemitahs), totaling 49 years, and then the 50th year is the Yovel. The Yovel is a mirror of the commandment for counting the Omer, which is the period between the feasts of Firstfruits and Shavuot (Pentecost) (Leviticus 23:9-22). From the Sabbath (Shabbat) which marks Firstfruits following the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, we count seven Sabbaths (full weeks of seven days), totaling 49 days. The following day, the 50th, is Shavuot. As long as Israel was in the land, that 50th year occurred between two Shemitahs, meaning that it counted as a “Year 0”, not as the first year of the next Shemitah. However, there has been no official count of the Yovel since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD.
This brings us to another critical aspect of the Yovel: it can only be counted when all Twelve Tribes of Israel are in the land. Jewish sources cite Leviticus 25:10 as the authority for this requirement:
And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family. (Leviticus 25:10 NKJV)
According to one respected Jewish source, this verse “implies that the Jubilee is only sanctified when ‘all who live on it’ – meaning, all who are meant to be living there – are in the Land of Israel. Furthermore, the Jubilee is only observed when every tribe is living in the specific part of the land which . . . it was allotted when the Land of Israel was divided.” (“When is the next Jubilee year?”, Baruch S. Davidson, Chabad.org). The Assyrian Empire conquered and exiled the Ten Tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722-721 BC, leaving the three tribes of Judah in the land until the Babylonian Conquest of 586 BC. However, since there were remnants of all the tribes remaining in the land, the Yovel continued to be observed until the Babylonian Conquest. By that same principle, the Yovel was counted during and after the Jewish nation returned from Babylonian exile in 538 BC. The count ceased upon the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 AD. In the centuries since then there has been debate in Jewish circles about whether it is even possible to count the Yovel, and if so, how to accomplish the count. One method would be to continue counting as before, with the Yovel coming between two Shemitah periods. Another method is to count the Yovel as occurring during the first year of the next Shemitah.
What seems to be the accepted method, and the method that Rabbi Cahn has used in his book, is this second method. The Yovel in this case is secondary to the Shemitah, for it is only the Shemitah that can continue uninterrupted. This means that the Shemitah-Yovel cycle is only 49 years, not 50. However, judging from the evidence Rabbi Cahn has presented, it seems that this is correct in terms of seeing how the Lord is moving through time to bring about the redemption of His people and His land.
This question of redemption touches on one of those puzzling things about the Yovel and Shemitah passages. In between Leviticus 25 and 27 is a complete chapter about the consequences of obeying and disobeying the Torah of God. Leviticus 26 begins with this:
You shall not make idols for yourselves; neither a carved image nor a sacred pillar shall you rear up for yourselves; nor shall you set up an engraved stone in your land, to bow down to it; for I am the Lord your God. You shall keep My Sabbaths and reverence My sanctuary: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 26:1-2 NKJV)
The Lord then goes on to explain the blessings of keeping His commandments, and the curses that result from disregarding what He has commanded. The companion passage to Leviticus 26 is Deuteronomy 28, where Moses reiterates these blessings and curses.
But why does the Lord insert a list of blessings and curses in between His commandments regarding property and people? And why does He start that list by reminding Israel about the dangers of idolatry? Here is one answer: the Lord is specifying what holy means. His people and His land are set apart to Him alone, and thus are different from every other people and land. It is easy to see how the laws of inheritance and property apply to this, and with a little thought it is easy to see where idolatry fits into the picture. Holy God wants more than just the physical things – land and bodies. He wants the non-physical things as well – hearts and minds. Idols of wood and stone are but representations of things that have appeared first in the hearts and minds of men and women. They may never take the form of a statue of a false god. In fact, most of the time idols never take physical form at all. They are, nevertheless, just as real and powerful in the minds and hearts and souls of those who cling to them. That is why God’s prohibition against idolatry stands to this day. We may not worship Molech or Baal or Asherah in the forms that they appeared in Bible days, but we still attach ourselves to the things that these false gods promised: prosperity, wealth, comfort, power, and anything else that mankind has defined as satisfying.
The principle God states in Leviticus 26 is the same as the principle He has stated from the beginning: choose Him and live, or reject Him and perish. These are the powerful lessons of the Shemitah and the Yovel which we must learn if we are to understand their application to us in these Last Days.
Part II continues the investigation of the Shemitah and Yovel by examining the possibility of their application to the modern world, and by reviewing the consequences to the people of Israel when they chose not to observe these commandments.