From the Head of Jewish Life (Acting)
Shmita and Yovel
Socio-Economic equality assurance
Occasionally, we may be challenged by what we read in the Torah, as it seems to conflict with our modern sense of morality and justice and we have to “turn it over and over” to either understand it, learn from it or reinterpret it. Yet, at other times, we read in awe and even amazement at the highly advanced moral stance the Torah takes on issues that shed light on how we could be living more ethically in the 21st Century.
Many of us have heard of the שנת שמיטה “shnat shmita” (“the year of release”) as being the requirement to leave the land in Israel fallow, to enable the land to rest and rejuvenate every seven years, mimicking the Shabbat for people, hence the English translation of shmita as “Sabbatical year”.
However, the laws of שמיטה shmita, every seven years, and יובל yovel, the jubilee that occurs every fifty years, are not just about giving the land an opportunity to rest. In fact, the mitzvot (biblical laws) of שמיטה shmita and יובל yovel, that are expanded upon in several of the books in the Torah, also pertain to the release of people from financial debt, from servitude and a return of socio-economic balance and dignity to the community.
Our parasha, Behar, explains some laws of שמיטה shmita and יובל yovel, during which all work on the land ceases, all indentured servants are set free, and all ancestral estates in the Holy Land that have been sold revert to their original owners. According to the Torah, people who had debts they could not repay would become bonded servants to the person to whom they were indebted until they had paid off what they owed. When the jubilee year arrived, all such debts were eradicated, and these servants would be able to restart their lives or return to being landowners once again, debt-free, thus breaking the cycle of poverty and closing the gap between rich and poor. The same applied to ancestral land, that in those times would generally only be sold to repay debt or help make ends meet.
Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in British Palestine, wrote of the שמיטה year of 1909-1910, “The Sabbatical year comes to correct the situation of inequality and societal rifts, by removing a major source of power of the elite: debts owed to them………. What the Sabbath achieves for the individual, the שמיטה achieves with regard to the nation as a whole.” *
Members of Jewish Community Action (JCA) of Minnesota demonstrated the contemporary renewal of this idea. In 2021, they were inspired by the biblical tradition of שמיטה and יובל to advocate for relief of housing debt (rent and/or mortgage) that had been spiralling out of control due to the economic effects of COVID and led to their participation in the Maryland state-wide and national movement to “CanceltheRent”. *
The sabbatical year concept is also mirrored in the Israeli school and university systems who recognise that teachers are “growing” the knowledge and understanding of their students and “nurturing” the future generation. Teaching staff in Israel have the legal opportunity to take a full year of long service leave every seven years and return refreshed and wiser to start the cycle again, greatly reducing the level of burnout and increasing the frequency of professional development.
Consider how your own life, of the life of the nation or even of the world as a whole, could benefit from initiating such a periodic social and economic “reset”.
Shabbat Shalom. שבת שלום
* https://jufj.org/shmita-blog/ – Jews United for Justice