Scripture: “For six years you shall sow your field, and for 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.” Leviticus 25:3-4 ESV
Observation: Exodus 23:10-11 and Deuteronomy 15:1-18 also mentioned this mandate, which aligns with the already-in-place weekly Shabbat. Indeed, the prohibition included any form of labor, even gathering crops or fruit that might reproduce without the aid of farming (verse 5). Thus, the vines, grains, and fruit would naturally decay and enrich the soil. Still, there is no historical evidence that Israel understood the benefits of crop rotation, nor any record of other nations even observing an extended respite for their agricultural lands.
Regarding the text, there appears to be a contradiction in Sabbath protocol in verses 6-7. While earlier verses prohibit any labor, these seem to permit gathering food from the fields: “The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and your male and female slaves and for your hired worker and the sojourner who lives with you, and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food.”
Some commentators argue that Shabbat permitted gleaning, but perhaps a better explanation comes from the story of the patriarch, Joseph, who prudently stored 20% of the grains from the seven years of plenty for the seven years of drought. Thus, if the implication holds, God expected Israel to set aside a portion of the grains and fruit from the previous years and preserve it for the seventh year.
Takeaway: So, what did Israel do during this downtime? Deuteronomy 31:10-13 provides a clue: Moses commanded the people to gather at the end of the seventh year to hear a reading of the law and learn how to apply it in fearing the Lord. Thus, this event would culminate in what should be an ongoing study and reflection of God’s word in the home during the Shabbat year. Indeed, the Shema required the heads of each household to teach the next generation the Torah diligently in all life matters (Deuteronomy 6:4-8).
So if observed correctly, the Shabbat year would strengthen Israel’s reverence for and faith in God, and it would provide rest for their soul through the nourishment of Scripture. The same applies to us. While we may not be able to observe a year break from our paying jobs, even setting aside a portion of our free time to keep a Sabbath soul rest (reflecting on God’s word under the direction of the Holy Spirit) will grow our faith and trust in God and help us discern his will.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you that you care about our wellbeing, as evidenced by the sacrifice of your Son. With that in mind, would you please help us pause from routine and observe a Sabbath soul rest in your word that we might grow in our reverence and trust in you? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling