The Shmitah and Yovel: Sabbatical and Jubilee Years

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Shmitah & Jubilee

Is it irresponsible for a society to insist that land is returned the original land-holder, even if they had lost it through laziness and lack of care? What kind of society would insist that moneylenders continue to lend to those in need, even if they knew that the borrower would be unable to pay the money back by the 7th year? These are some of the questions we might ask about Shmitah and Jubilee, the 7 year and 50 year cycles described in Leviticus 25.

If God owns the earth, then it is not irresponsible to insist that someone who has purchased land from someone who has fallen into difficulty and must sell it, must return that land to the original owner -- so that once a generation, there is equal ownership of land again. It is very hard for me to see how the return of each family's originally assigned land to each family would not result in a great transformation of society in the direction of economic equality.

Whether some people had lost land because they were unlucky in rainfall, or lazy in work, or "too generous" in helping others -- they got their original holding back. This is a different moral outlook from that of many of us, who would condition getting help on the morals and efforts of the down-and-out person. Here the criterion is the health and holiness of the whole society, which is best affirmed by a periodic return to equality and dissolution of hierarchy. The slate gets wiped clean.

The Yovel is a "karma-stopper" -- whatever bad baggage you brought in, you get a fresh chance. Thus the society as a whole does, as well. That is why the Yovel began on Yom Kippur -- when the same thing had happened in relationship to sins against God.

With regard to money-lending arrangements, the law that lending should continue to those in need regardless of the upcoming Shmitah year, this law was eventually evaded with a prozbul. It became "unrealistic" -- that is, there wasn't enough political power or moral suasion to make it happen -- later, under the conditions of a Hellenistic world market, which is why the prozbul evaded it.

Annulling debts only seems "unjust" if one starts from a place in which property is really, and is intended to be, "private." That is, Shimon really does own his money. But that is not the Torah's sense of justice. For the Torah, God owns Shimon's money. God has lent it to Shimon. So it would be profoundly unjust for Shimon to refuse what God wants -- for Shimon to give God's money to Reuven when Reuven needs it more.

This is not a system aimed at "economic development" -- at least the kind of explosive development the world has seen in the last hundred or 200 years. Much slower growth, as pausing for one whole year out of every seven would suggest.

The main value was not the rapid expansion of wealth -- it was the BALANCING of work and rest, wealth and sharing.

As for the ecological aspect: the Torah says (Lev 26: 33-35 and 43-44) that if we do not follow this pattern of seventh-year rest, the earth will rest anyway -- thru famine, drought, exile. And Second Chronicles (36: 20-21) claims that this is exactly what happened -- that the people lived in the Babylonian Exile as many years as they has prevented the land from making Shabbat.

To me this sounds like an ecologist's warning: poison the earth, and it will poison you and create cancers etc; overwork it by pouring too much CO2 into the air, and it will overheat and create global scorching. Fits totally with the second paragraph of the Sh'ma, which far too many of our synagogues simply skip or mumble.

In the halachic tradition, the laws of Shmitah and Yovel only applied in the Land of Israel. It needed to, of course, because how could we have the power and responsibility to shape such an economic system where we did not rule and indeed were kept at arm's length from power and citizenship?

BUT THAT IS NOT OUR SITUATION ANY MORE. If we believe that there is deep wisdom in these teachings, then precisely because we are NOT Karaites we can reexamine how to apply their wisdom in our own societies and our own day.

We -- we Jews, a minority outside Israel -- cannot and do not have to impose these rules on anyone; AND we can work WITH those of other traditions, including some that have absorbed some aspects of this Torah, to see how to apply these teachings in a very different society from EITHER the one in which they were written OR the ones in which the Rabbis said they were irrelevant.

In **Godwrestling -- Round 2** and in articles here and there I have explored precisely this question: how could we, in a very different society, join with other communities to apply the basic wisdom of these teachings, which I believe would help to heal both the terrible gaps and illnesses of our society, and to help heal our crisis with the planet.

by Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Director, The Shalom Center.

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