Before I begin to answer these questions, I want to mention that the notes which follow will not attempt to cover this subject in great detail but will try to give a brief outline about it, so that readers will have a better idea of what it is. For anyone wanting to study it in greater depth, I would refer them to the many good publications available giving more detail about the Shemitah.
A Day of Rest
Without stating the obvious, everybody knows that the week consists of seven days – from Sunday, the first day of the week, through to Saturday the last day of the week. In the Book of Genesis we read that after six days, when God had finished His creation, He rested on the seventh day, blessed it and made it holy (Genesis chapter 2 verses 1 to 3).
When God rested on the seventh day following His creation, He thereby established the seventh day as a day of rest and holiness. But it was not until the Israelites had left Egypt in the Exodus that we learn where, for the first time, they were commanded to observe the Sabbath. There we read that the Sabbath was to be a day when the Israelites ceased any worldly activities, rested and devoted the day to the Lord; the Lord laying down severe penalties for anyone who did not observe it (Exodus 31:14 – 15).
For Jews, Saturday is the Sabbath, the day of rest, the day set aside to worship God. The word Sabbath is a Hebrew word meaning rest. Christianity has moved away from Saturday worship to Sunday worship. I am not going to go into any discussion here about which day is the right day to worship, especially as I believe that we as Christians should anyway be continually worshiping our God and not reserve that for only one day in the week.
A Year of Rest
So while we understand that every seventh day should be regarded as a Sabbath, what is not as well known is that every seventh year is a Sabbath year. (I use the present tense because it is a permanent requirement by the Lord even though it is not properly observed today.) In Leviticus chapter 25:1 – 4, we read where the Lord commanded the children of Israel that, when they came into the land He was to give them, the land itself was to observe a Sabbath to Him. They were to work the land for six years “But in the seventh year the land is to have a Sabbath rest, a Sabbath to the Lord”.
Not only was the land to lie fallow, but the year was to be kept separate because, unlike any of the previous six years, no work was to be done: no sowing, planting or gathering was to take place. The lands, fields, vineyards and groves were to be left to the poor and anyone could eat from them (Exodus 23:10 – 11). In ancient times this could be easily done, but in this modern world it would be much more difficult to achieve and would be a somewhat radical undertaking. Yet the Lord commanded it and would undoubtedly prosper those who abide by it.
The Sabbath Year and Connection to God’s Judgment
In Leviticus chapter 26 the Lord tells the Israelites that He will bless them if they keep His commands: these include references to the land. However, as He did with His commands concerning the keeping of the Sabbath day, He also told them that He would punish them if they disobeyed Him regarding the rest the land was to receive, again laying down punishments they would get in the event of disobedience. In verses 33 to 35 of Leviticus 26, the Lord clearly told them what sort of punishment they could expect if they disobeyed His commands regarding the land. He said: “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.”
Many years before they were taken into captivity in Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah was given a word from the Lord warning the Israelites that because of their disobedience they would go into captivity in Babylon for seventy years. They were also told that when the seventy years were completed they would return: their punishment would be over because the land would have received the rest it had been denied previously (Jeremiah 25:11 – 12).
It is an interesting historical fact that the Israelites were in the land for 490 years: from the time they occupied the land until they were led away in captivity to Babylon. In that 490 year period there were seventy Sabbaths. We know that the Israelites were in captivity in Babylon for seventy years, as prophesied by Jeremiah in chapter 25:11 – 12, that being their punishment and also the time required for “the land to enjoy its Sabbath years all the time that it lay desolate and they were in the country of their enemies.”
The Lord’s Release – Shemitah
In addition to the requirement to observe Sabbath years, the Israelites were also required to cancel all debts on the last day of each Sabbath year. The Lord commanded that on the last day of the Sabbath year, all debts were to be cancelled. In English this is referred to as “the Lord’s release” (Deut. 15:1 – 2). It is from the Hebrew for “release” that we get the word “Shemitah”. In the Hebrew calendar the last day of a Sabbath year is Elul 29 which, by the Gregorian calendar, falls mainly during the month of September, although on a few occasions it occurs during the first few days of October.
Although the last day of the seventh year was called the Shemitah, in time the whole year was referred to as the Shemitah year. The Shemitah is a reminder that God is the source of all blessings; both spiritual and physical and when God is removed from life then removal of the blessings will also follow.
The Shemitah and Israel Now
Now that many Jews are back in most of the land, and are themselves in control of it, do they observe the Lord’s requirements for the Sabbath year and the Shemitah day? The answer is basically no, although there are examples of some who have done so and are known to have prospered from it. However, the majority do not but, with the help of rabbis, many amongst them who are convicted to try to keep the Shemitah year and day, resort to all sorts of manoeuvring to get around the biblical requirements. For instance, some schemes involve “selling” land to foreigners or special courts at the beginning of the Shemitah year, continuing to work the land, and “buying” it back at the end of the year. They have devised similar schemes regarding the release of debts on Elul 29! The idea behind these schemes is that the law applies to Jews and not to foreigners or special courts; the latter being regarded as acceptable because they are not individuals, so are not bound by the Lord’s decrees.
So in a roundabout way many in Israel today are keeping the requirements of the Sabbath year including the release of debts on its last day. However, religious Jews do not accept these practices and one can only wonder what God thinks about all the scheming going on regarding the land and the release of debts on Elul 29. In the example of the exile to Babylon, we have seen that the Israelites were severely judged and punished when they failed to observe Sabbath years.
The Shemitah and Other Nations
The big question facing us now is: “Does the Shemitah apply to nations other than Israel”?
I cannot find a direct biblical answer to this question although we do know that God does punish gentiles and nations, including Israel, for disobedience towards Him. However, as Jonathan Cahn suggests in his book The Mystery of The Shemitah, throughout history there have been many recorded events that have occurred at the time of the Shemitah, or shortly afterwards, negatively affecting nations; too many to be written off as mere coincidence. These events have taken the form of economic or other problems or the start of wars. The other question we need to consider is whether the Shemitah applies when the Jews are not back in the land and in control of it as was the case before 1948. Even here the answer appears to be yes, especially when we look at the example of developments against the Jews of Germany in 1938, a Shemitah year.
When is the Next Shemitah?
It is important to note at this point, that going back to ancient records, Jewish scholars have been able to accurately identify when the Shemitah years occur. Even as I write now we are coming to the end of the current Shemitah year. It ends on Elul 29th which this year is from sunset on 13th September, 2015, through to sunset on 14th September per the Gregorian calendar; about a month hence.
Before listing some of the “upheavals” that have fallen at the end, or about the end of Shemitah Years, it would be well to consider the timing of the Shemitah years. They begin on Tishri 1, or Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish civil year, and end on Elul 29. It is important to point out here that in the northern hemisphere the Shemitah year begins and ends at the time of the summer harvests. As pointed out earlier this is usually during September.
Notable Events Which Occurred At or Near the End of Recent Shemitah Years
1973. The “Yom Kippur War” – October 6th to 25th. Although the war began badly for Israel, it managed to win that war but it took a heavy toll on Israel and Israelis. More importantly, the longer term aftermath of this war resulted in enormously negative consequences for Israel itself and the world at large – the rise of Arab hegemony. I consider its negative after-effects to equal those of WW1 and WWII.
1987. The big “Black Monday” stock market crash on October 19th occurred only four weeks after the end of the Shemitah year on September 23rd. In this instance the fallout from the crash turned out to be surprisingly small although it took two years for global markets to recover.
2001. The stock market plunge on September 17th and the following global economic and political uncertainty was undoubtedly triggered by the Al Qaida attacks in America on 9th September, 2001. The stock market was immediately closed and reopened on September 17th, the last day of the Shemitah.
2008. The infamous GFC – Global Financial Crisis. The stock market crash happened on September 29th 2008 – Elul 29th!
2015. 13 – 14 September ? ? ? September 17th is the final Day for US Congress to vote concerning the “Iranian Deal” – the deal aimed at curbing Iranian nuclear expansion. It is a bad deal for Israel and other Middle Eastern countries, yet is being promoted otherwise by the US Administration and the key nations involved in the deal – the P5+1.
Everyone can hardly fail to realise that the world is in turmoil, economically, militarily, naturally and spiritually and is surely ripe for judgment. The news is full of it; a lot predicting very difficult days ahead.
Thus the final question we need to ask is: “Are we likely to experience any major negative developments in the world this September or within a short time after the end of the Shemitah year and after the day of the Shemitah on 17th September?”
All I can suggest is: “Don’t be surprised if major upheavals occur during the coming months”.
In closing, I would like to remind readers that, as Christians, we need to remember Jesus’ injunction:
“When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28)
Chris, from our fellowship, has an interest in Bible prophecy and from time to time will share his views with us on current events and how they relate to prophecy in our series “Bible Prophecy”.