This article examines the meaning of the phrase תשובת השנה. This phrase appears in 1Ki 20:22, 26, 2Sa 11:1, 1Ch 20:1, and 2Ch 36:10. Note that the word תשובה can be related to the verb שוב "to return" just as תקומה "standing" is related to קום "to arise, stand", תנופה "waving" to נוף "to wave", תזנות "fornication" to זנה "to commit fornication", and תוצאה "outgoing, extremity" to יצא "to go out". Thus, it could be concluded that תשובה means "return".
Two phrases related to תשובת השנה are בצאת השנה in Ex 23:16 and תקופת השנה in Ex 34:22 and 2Ch 24:23. Considering the phrase בצאת השנה, since the verb יצא can mean either "to come out, proceed" or "to go out", it might seem that the phrase could be translated either "when the year proceeds", that is, "at the beginning of the year", or "when the year goes out", that is, "at the end of the year". However, in the context of years the meaning "go out" does not seem to fit, since it is not clear where the year would go out when it ends. In contrast, not only "to proceed" but also "to come out" would fit, since years come from the Lord, who controls times and seasons and their events. It could be noted also that in other passages the verb used to describe an ending year is not יצא but תמם "to be complete" (Ge 47:18, Lev 25:29, Jer 1:3). Thus, the intended meaning of בצאת השנה must be "at the beginning of the year". As for תקופת השנה, accounting for the similarity of Ex 34:22 and Ex 23:16, it can be concluded that it also refers to the beginning of the year.
The meaning of the phrase תשובת השנה can be examined by considering the years of the reign of Zedekiah. A year of reign of a king will be assumed to begin at the anniversary of the first day of his reign and end on the day preceding his anniversary on the following calendar year. For example, if a king was crowned on the 4th day of the 5th month, his first year of reign began on the 4th of the 5th month and ended in the next calendar year on the 3rd of the 5th month. Thus, his year of reign overlapped with two calendar years. It included the period from the 4th of the 5th month to the end of the first calendar year, and also the period from the beginning of the next calendar year to the 3rd day of the 5th month. Here, the day and month numbers are taken with respect to the calendar year, but the year number refers to the year of reign of the king. Now the last year of reign was normally shorter than a full year, since it was ended by the last day of reign, which did not have to happen one full year after the preceding anniversary.
Since Zedekiah reigned 11 years (Jer 52:1) and the end of his reign was in his 11th year (Jer 52:5), it follows that the 11 year period was obtained by rounding to 11 the 10 years of his reign plus the total number of days in which he reigned during his last year. Since the duration of his reign was rounded to 11 and not to 10, this duration must be closer to 11 than 10. Therefore, the 11th year of Zedekiah must have began at least six months before the fall of Jerusalem. Given that Jerusalem fell on the 9th day of the 4th month (Jer 39:2), it follows that the 11th year began during the previous solar year, at least six months before the 9th day of the 4th month of the calendar year in which Jerusalem was captured, but not earlier than the 10th day of the 4th month of the previous calendar year. Since the 4th month of the Hebrew calendar is in the summer, the 11th year of reign could have began in the summer, fall, or winter, but not in the spring. As will be shown next, the summer season can also be excluded based on Jer 28:1, 17. The time of Jer 28:1 was the 5th month during the 4th year of reign of Zedekiah. In the context of Jer 28:1, the phrase שנה ההיא "the same year" of Jer 28:17 refers to the year of reign of Zedekiah. Consequently, Jer 28:17 implies that the 4th year of Zedekiah extended into the 7th month. Therefore, the 5th year must have began sometime after the 1st of the 7th month, which was in the fall. We conclude that the 11th year must have began in the fall or winter, but not in the spring or summer.
As stated in 2Ch 36:10, Zedekiah was made king לתשובת השנה "at the return of the year". Considering the period of the fall and winter seasons and the events that the phrase "return of the year" could possibly denote, notable is the 7th month, since this is when the new year begins in the Hebrew calendar. This could be seen in Ex 23:16, where it is stated that the Feast of Ingathering, which is in the 7th month, takes place בצאת השנה "at the beginning of the year". Therefore, it could be concluded that תשובת השנה refers also to the beginning of the year.
The word תשובה has been interpreted elsewhere as referring to the spring season of the year. However, this clearly does not fit the information we have about Zedekiah, as could be seen above. Moreover, the interpretation above in which the word refers to the beginning of the year fits the other passages in which the word occurs. The word describes a time when kings would go out to fight wars in 2Sa 11:1, 1Ch 20:1, 1Ki 20:22, 26. Note that the Hebrew year began in the fall, at the end of the fall harvest. Given the mild winters of the promised land, it may be that the local leaders preferred the fall and winter seasons for waging wars. Moreover, once the harvest was over, it would have been easier to enlist men in the army. Now wars that would start in the spring could extend to the summer; note that a winter day would have been far better for soldiers wearing armor than a hot summer day. So it seems very appropriate to interpret תשובה as referring to the beginning of the Hebrew year in the fall season.
Finally, the following remarks could be made. When Zedekiah's reign was considered above, it was noted that its length was between 10 and 11 years and was rounded to 11 years. This is not a unique rounding example. By comparing 1Ch 3:4 and 1Ch 29:27, it can be seen that a period of 7 years and 6 months (1Ch 3:4) is rounded to 7 years (1Ch 29:27). A possible explanation would be that the 6 months represent a period rounded to 6, the period itself being somewhat less than 6 full months. Moreover, it could be noted that 2Ki 18:1 and 2Ki 18:9 provide some evidence for interpreting a year of reign as the period between two successive anniversaries of the first day of reign, as these two verses can be easily explained under this interpretation. With this interpretation, the 1st year of Hezekiah began sometime during the 3rd year of Hosea (2Ki 18:1). Thus, the 4th year of Hosea began while Hezekiah was still in his 1st year. About 3 years later, Hosea was in his 3 + 4 = 7th year, while Hezekiah was in his 3 + 1 = 4th year (2Ki 18:9). Now a reference to the 11th year of Zedekiah appears also in Jer 1:2-3. This passage is not understood here as stating that the 11th year of Zedekiah ended when Jerusalem was taken into captivity in the 5th month. Rather, Jer 1:2-3 is interpreted as stating that the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah during the reigns of Josiah and Jehoiakim, during the subsequent interval of time extending to the fall of Jerusalem (the end of the 11th year), and during the next interval of time extending to the exile of Jerusalem in the 5th month. Evidence for this view is found in Jos 20:6, which is grammatically related to Jer 1:3. In view of Nu 35:22-29, it can be seen that Jos 20:6 provides an example showing that two successive clauses introduced by the particle עד do not have to describe events taking place at the same time.