Lessons in Thanksgiving from the Hebrew Bible
Shalom and Happy Thanksgiving!
During this season of Thanksgiving I want you to know that I am very grateful for you! May the Lord continue to bless you for blessing the Jewish people. Thank you so much for your faithful prayers and financial support—we could not do the work of bringing the Gospel to Jewish people across the globe without your partnership.
The Sabbatical (Shemitah) Year
As you know, the Jewish calendar is quite different from the non-Jewish calendar. The Jewish year is a lunar year with 30-day months, and the Julian calendar is solar with both 30- and 31-day months. This makes it a little confusing when you are trying to align the Jewish calendar with the Gregorian calendar. We are now just a few months into the new Jewish year of 5776, based upon the traditional rabbinic date for creation.
The Jewish calendar has received a lot of attention over the past 12 months because of the many books and articles telling us that the year 5775 was a Sabbatical year, also known by the Hebrew term shemitah, or in English, “release.”
The primary rule of thumb for observing the Sabbatical year, which occurs every seventh year, was that the Israelites were supposed to leave the land fallow so that it could rest. They were to refrain from planting crops in that particular year and to trust God to provide for them.
You shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, but on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat. You are to do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove (Ex. 23:10-11).
A second, and very important part of the Sabbatical year was the forgiveness of loans. The Scripture continues,
At the end of every seven years you shall grant a remission of debts. This is the manner of remission: every creditor shall release what he has loaned to his neighbor; he shall not exact it of his neighbor and his brother, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed (Deut. 15:1-2).
Again, during the Sabbatical year, the Israelites were to show special mercy and grace towards the poor. This was to be done in a few different ways. First of all, the “successful” Israelite was commanded to help fellow Israelites who were impoverished by loaning them what was needed for their survival.
If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks (Deut. 15:7-8).
Secondly, they were to release those who indentured themselves because they had probably fallen on hard times for some reason—perhaps health, bad crops or whatever caused them to “lose the farm.” The only way for them to survive was to become enslaved to one of their fellow countrymen.
If your kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, is sold to you, then he shall serve you six years, but in the seventh year you shall set him free. When you set him free, you shall not send him away empty-handed (Deut. 15:12-13; see also 15:14-18).
Therefore, the “release” of the Sabbatical year meant that the Israelites could not plant crops in their fields, collect payments on loans, and keep all of what they produced and stored for themselves rather than giving generously to the poor. At the heart of the “release” was the opportunity to trust God for all of their needs.
Unfortunately the Sabbatical year was rarely followed and became the basis for God’s judgment during the 70 years of captivity in Babylon (Jer. 25:11).
Those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and to his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it kept sabbath until seventy years were complete (2 Chron. 36:20-21).
The Year of Jubilee
The Sabbatical year was, of course, to be observed every seventh year, but then in the 50th year—seven sabbatical years—a year of Jubilee was to be celebrated by the Israelites. You might view this as a super Sabbatical year! The word jubilee is a transliteration of the Hebrew word yovale literally meaning “with a rushing noise” (Ex. 19:13, Josh. 6:5).
Whereas the Sabbatical year helped alleviate the immediate needs of the poor, the Jubilee year was designed to give the poor in Israel a chance to start all over again. Leviticus 25:8-12 provides us with a full description of the laws for the Jubilee year.
You shall thus consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim a release through the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family (Lev. 25:10).
God Himself was also the original distributor of the Land to the twelve tribes of Israel, and again, He simply allowed His land to be used by the Israelites (Num. 32, Josh. 19)—as the giving of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people was always portrayed in Scripture as a gift from God (Gen. 12, 15, 17, etc.).
Moses also promises Israel that if the Jubilee year is faithfully observed, the Lord will miraculously cause the crops to grow during the years that the ground was fallow (Lev. 25:18-22). The God who demands that the land remain unplanted is the same God who promised to provide in abundance.
It is also interesting to note that the Jubilee year began on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 25:9) as the spiritual cleansing of the land began with the spiritual renewal of the chosen people.
As one Old Testament commentary describes,
This year of grace was proclaimed to begin with the Day of Atonement of every seventh sabbatical year to show that it was only with the full forgiveness of sins that the blessed liberty of the children of God could possibly commence.
Lessons in Thanksgiving
There are so many lessons to learn from the Sabbatical/Shemitah and Jubilee years. The most important lesson for us is to recognize that all that we have in this world comes from God. He owns everything! This means that every single one of our possessions, even the ones we worked so hard to earn, are ultimately gifts from a good God who loves His children.
The Israelites are also asked to recognize the special place given to the Levites who have a permanent right of redemption to their houses and whose crops could not be sold. They did not own land of their own, but were to be cared for materially as they cared for the Israelites spiritually (Lev. 25:32-34).
Clearly, one of the great lessons of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years is that God has called us to be stewards of all that He provides. His gifts are designed to be enjoyed, nurtured and, most importantly, shared.
We are to help provide for the poor, respect the poor, and warned not to take advantage of the poor (Lev. 25:35-43). This is one of the reasons why Your Mission to the Jewish People is doing so much to alleviate the pain of poverty in the lives of many, mostly elderly, Jewish people.
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite times of the year as it reminds me of how generous the Lord has been to me, to my Jewish people and to Chosen People Ministries.
Again, thank you for your prayers, love and support. I believe you are going to be blessed by reading the following expanded ministry reports of all God is doing in the lives of Jewish people around the globe.
Happy Thanksgiving and may the Lord fill your heart and home with His joy!