In modern use, a sabbatical is a period (usually a semester or a year) during which a teacher or professor has no teaching duties and may pursue research or other work. Other industries occasionally grant their workers sabbaticals and the word is used for artists who take a mid-career break for inspiration. Traditionally such sabbaticals are granted every seven years, although in actual practice the period can differ.
The word comes to us via the Latin sabbaticus and is ultimately from the Hebrew shabbath, or sabbath, the seventh day of the week, a holy day on which no work is to be done. Mosaic law also created the concept of a sabbatical year, or shemitah in Hebrew. Every seventh year the fields were to lie fallow, debts to be forgiven, and slaves to be freed. From Exodus 23:10-11 (Authorized Version):
And six years thou shalt sow thy land, and shalt gather in the fruits thereof:
But the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie still; that the poor of thy people may eat: and what they leave the beasts of the field shall eat. In like manner thou shalt deal with thy vineyard, and with thy oliveyard.
English use of sabbatical year dates to at least 1599 when it is used in Robert Pont’s The Right Reckoning of Years:
These Sabbaticall yeares.
The modern concept of sabbaticals for professionals is an American invention from the late 19th century. Starting in 1880, Harvard University began granting its professors one year off in seven. The term sabbatical year was being applied to such grants within only a few years. In 1886 the Wellesley College board of trustees established this rule:
To each of the heads of the above departments the Sabbatical Grant contemplates that every seventh year of her academic service from a given date, she shall be eligible to have...a year’s leave of absence, to be passed in Europe, and with it her half-yearly salary. If for any reason an eligible officer declines the Sabbatical Year, the grant in her case may be offered to another equally eligible.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton