Spiritual Economy: What Are Shemittah and Yovel Really About? | Aleph Beta

A Spiritual Economy

What Are Shemittah And Yovel Really About?

Immanuel Shalev


Parshat Behar is all about the seemingly strange laws of two different events. The first is Shemittah – the “Sabbatical” year – which comes every seventh year. In the Shemittah year, we don't work the land; we let it rest. And the second "event" discussed in Parshat Behar is Yovel – the “Jubilee” year – which falls in the fiftieth year (i.e. after every seventh Shemittah). In the Yovel year, not only does the land rest, but slaves and land both go “free.” Slaves are released from their masters and land is returned to its ancestral holder. But what are the Shemittah and Yovel cycles really about?

Sabbath… for the land? Freedom of a people, freedom for land? Rest? These all sounds like nice ideas, but how do they all fit together? What exactly is the significance of these odd, seemingly archaic laws? Is there some spiritual meaning behind Shemittah and Yovel that can apply in all generations, whether we're in or outside of the land?

Join David and Imu (who aren't farmers, or economists!) as they grapple with this strange section of the Torah and discover how the ancient cycles of Shemittah and Yovel can apply to our lives today.


David: Welcome to Parshat Behar.

Behar is one of the shortest parshiot – it's just one chapter long. And it's all about the seemingly strange laws of two different events: shemittah and yovel, the sabbatical year, and the year of the jubilee. These laws are so foreign to us, especially to those of us living outside of the land of Israel...and think of those words: "Sabbatical".... "Jubilee" – they sound so archaic. What are they about?

What Are the Laws of Shemittah and Yovel in the Bible?

Immanuel: Well the laws are relatively simple. Let's start with Shemittah. God says: "ki tavo'u el haaretz asher ani notein lachem, when you come to the land, vishavta haaretz shabbat La'Hashem" – the land will keep a sabbath, unto God. Okay, that's interesting, how does land keep the sabbath? Well, the next verse tells us how: "Six years you should plant your field, prune your vineyards, gather in your wheat" and in that seventh year, sadcha lo tizra, vicharmicha lo tizmor" – don't plant your fields, and don't prune your vineyards.

So in shemittah, you're not allowed to work the land. But don't worry, God says, you won't go hungry; just because you can't work the land, doesn't mean you're not allowed to eat from what naturally grows on the land. You're allowed to eat from it, along with your slave, your maidservant, your hired worker, and your settler who lives with you. Not to mention the animals that are in your land as well.

David: Okay, so that's shemittah. Then there is this second event, Yovel. The verse says you are supposed to count 7 sabbaths for land (that's 7 cycles of shemittah, or 49 years) and on the 50th year, it's a yovel. In the Yovel year, three things happen: First, it has all the laws of shemittah, you can't work the land. Second, anyone who is a slave, goes free. And third, land goes free.

How does land go free? Well, say that I owned some land, land that was my ancestral holding in Israel. I sell my land to Imu – in the Yovel year, that land, which is now Imu's, comes back to me.

Immanuel: So here are 2 questions: First of all, why should we care about any of this? Are these just arbitrary laws? Did God get a little Sabbath-happy when writing the Torah? Last week, we talked about how, for 6 days you work, and 7th day you rest. So maybe 6 years you work, and 7th year you rest. And then, maybe after 7 times of resting in the 7th years, we have an extra super dee duper rest. But are we supposed to learn anything from these laws? What do they mean to us?

Secondly, let's assume God has an interest in making us rest in the 7th year. So work for 6, rest in the 7th, I get it. But what is the meaning behind the strange laws of Yovel? Shemittah and Yovel are seemingly connected, but Shemittah has nothing to do with freedom, it's about rest – why should land go free in Yovel? And how did slaves get mixed up in all this? Don't get us wrong, we're very happy slaves are going free, but what do they have to do with Shemittah?

David: Join us this week as we explore Shemittah and Yovel this week on the Parsha Experiment. Hi, I'm David Block

Immanuel: And I'm Imu Shalev.

David: And welcome to the Parsha Experiment. Now, we're not economists, and we're not farmers. We're just two Jewish boys from Long Island. But we think we have a pretty strong theory for how to understand these laws, and this whole section of the Torah, so hear us out.

What Is the Purpose of the Shemittah and Yovel Years?

David: We want to suggest that the laws of Shemittah and Yovel are designed to solve a serious economic problem. The economies of the ancient world were all agrarian. That meant, in order to make money, you took the only asset you had, land, and you mixed it together with labor, usually the labor of a farmer, and you produced crops. You could either eat those crops, or, if you have a surplus of crops, you could sell them. If you were an entrepreneur, you could take that extra money and use it to buy more land, or better seed, so you could yield an even larger surplus the following season, or maybe hire some workers, or buy some slaves so you can sip Mai Tai's while they do the back-breaking labor of the field.

Immanuel: And this all sounds fair to us, right? Hard work and entrepreneurship should be rewarded, more capital, more land, more money goes to the people who have the skill to provide jobs for the rest of us. To feed the rest of us. But the problem is, this isn't always true.

Take Larry. Larry is a farmer who has fallen on hard times. His area of the country faced severe drought this year and he can't feed his family, let alone pay his workers. But Larry is an entrepreneur. He realizes that his land is on a great trade-route and he thinks that he can turn a tremendous profit by opening up an inn. There's only one problem. He's out of money and opening up an inn is very expensive. To open this inn, he needs capital. Start up money. So Larry goes to a bank and asks for a loan.

David: The bank doesn't want to take a risk on this guy, what if the inn isn't successful? So they give Larry a loan on condition that he mortgage his land to the bank. If the inn goes under, the bank will just take his land. Thankfully, though, Larry's business is successful, and he saves himself and his family from a life of poverty through pure ingenuity.

Well, not pure ingenuity. It was ingenuity and access to capital. Larry was able to turn an idea into reality because a bank was willing to take a bet on him. And the only reason they took that bet is because Larry is a landowner.

Immanuel: Okay, so let's change our case a little bit. Say that Larry isn't a great entrepreneur and he doesn't think of this inn idea. But his employee, Sam, does. Larry is selling his land to make ends meet, and Sam wants to buy it and build an inn on it. Only thing is, Sam isn't a landowner, he has no capital. So when he goes to the bank, he has nothing to mortgage, so the bank won't take a chance on him. Sam has the ingenuity, but no land or capital – and now he lost his job on Larry's farm. What does he do now? He doesn't have a choice. Because Sam no longer has a job, and doesn't have the opportunity to start his own business, in order to provide for himself and his family, he must sell himself into slavery.

David: This is our problem. Ancient economic systems were set up in a way in which, over time, capital tended to concentrate in fewer and fewer hands: the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Across many civilizations, you had the wealthy, landowning class at the top of the pyramid, with sharecroppers and hired workers in the next and much bigger tier, with slaves, the largest class, at the bottom. And think about it. If there's no way up the pyramid, and many ways down, the wealth gap grows larger and larger. You have the many producing wealth for the few.

There is this inverse relationship between slaves and land ownership. The less control you have over land, and the more alienated from land you become, the more like a slave you become. And the problem with agriculture, and with this entire economic system, is that it made it very tempting to subjugate the poor and turn them into slaves. Agriculture is really hard, and so expressing ownership, not only over your land, but over other people, is very desirable. Look at the slavery in the south in early American history. Or, notice how Egypt, the breadbasket of the Middle East, made its wealth on the backs of slaves.

Immanuel: So if these are the problems of agrarian societies, the laws in Parshat Behar are the solutions.

The Shemittah and Yovel Cycles: The Bible's Poverty Solution?

Immanuel: Shemittah and Yovel are like bookends of the ways out of poverty. When read together, they basically tell the following story. Shemittah is the year that provides some relief to the poor. The produce of the land becomes hefker, ownerless, and anyone having a hard time making ends meet can eat off the fat of the land. And if that isn't enough, the parsha continues. We said at the beginning that this week's parsha is entirely about shemittah and yovel. Well, that's not exactly true. There are some seemingly-random agricultural laws, also sitting in this parsha.

Right after the yovel section, the text tells us, Ki yamuch achicha – when your brother becomes poor, u'machar me'achuzato – and he sells his property, a family member should buy it back for him. A landowner fell on such hard times that he sold his land. That's bad. The Torah doesn't like it when you are alienated from your land. Your relatives have a responsibility to buy it back for you and help get you back on your feet!

David: But if you don't have a relative who can do that for you, what happens? You become landless. And that brings us to the next law in our parsha: vichi yamuch achicha – when your brother becomes even more poor, don't let him be homeless, now that he has sold his land, let him live with you. And if he asks for a loan, lend to him, don't charge him interest. Give him a loan, access to capital, so that he can lift himself up! But, if you don't have someone who will do that for you either, or if your business did not work out, God has another failsafe for that too.

The next case discusses someone so poor that he needs to sell himself into slavery: vichi yamuch achicha, when your brother becomes poor, vinimkar lach, and he is sold to you, you may not work him as a slave, kischir kitoshav yihiyeh imach, he must be treated as a hired worker. Give him a job, and let him go free in the yovel year.

Immanuel: But why would letting a poor, homeless person go free in Yovel help with anything? Remember, without capital, they still don't have a way up the economic ladder! Well, remember that in Yovel, not only did the slaves go free, but land returned to their original owners. That poor and homeless person leaves the land of his master and can finally return home. If people wouldn't or couldn't lend to him, he would finally have land, and a new opportunity to provide for himself and for his family. That's how land and slaves are connected in Yovel, and that's how Yovel is connected to shemittah.

What Does Shemittah and Yovel Really Mean?

Immanuel: Shemittah, Yovel, and the economic laws in-between seem to be all about avoiding slavery. They are checks and balances on the harsh agricultural economic system that ends up concentrates wealth in the few, and leads to the abuse of the many.

David: The Torah's system is neither purely capitalist nor purely socialist. Capitalism today has all kinds of checks and balances to prevent monopolies and promote competition. And the Torah is not claiming that everyone needs to own all the wealth equally. The people of Israel all began on an equal footing and after that initial distribution, the regular capitalism of an agrarian economy could take hold – that's all perfectly allowed. But, God was very aware of the dangers of such an economy, and how those who end up without land end up perpetually stuck in a cycle of poverty, with a lack of economic opportunities, and no access to capital.

So, God put a check in the system. It runs as a free market for 49 years, punctuated by some relief in the shemittah years, but in the 50th, וְשַׁבְתֶּם אִישׁ אֶל-אֲחֻזָּתוֹ, וְאִישׁ אֶל-מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ תָּשֻׁבוּ – everyone returns to their ancestral land, to their families. God hits the "reset" button. All acquired land is returned. Social classes are re-aligned. Anyone who has had to sell him or herself goes free, and gets to return to his rightful property. Everyone gets a fresh start.

Is Shemittah or Yovel Fair?

Immanuel: But how is any of this fair? I bought that land from David, I paid him very nicely for it! Why does he suddenly get to snatch it back? That hardly seems fair.

Well, God addresses that directly – and in so doing, reveals the underlying reason for all of this. וְהָאָרֶץ, לֹא תִמָּכֵר לִצְמִתֻת – no land can ever be sold, perpetually. When you buy land, you're really just leasing it until yovel. Why? כִּי-לִי, הָאָרֶץ – because, God says, the land is really mine! You're just guests in it! Yes, I gave you land to use and enjoy, to prosper and become wealthy! But not at the expense of anyone else. It's mine, so I make the rules – if you want the land, you have to treat everyone equally. All get the same opportunities. That's my condition.

David: And now look how God continues: כִּי-גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים אַתֶּם, עִמָּדִי – because you are all strangers and sojourners with Me. Remember that language? God said that during Shemittah, everyone gets equal access to the land, even וּלְתוֹשָׁבְךָ, הַגָּרִים, עִמָּךְ – and the sojourners, visitors, who are staying with you. You know why? Because all of you are landowners and sojourners, staying with Me, in My land! And later God makes it even clearer: כִּי-לִי בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, עֲבָדִים – for all of Israel are My servants. All of your servants go free in the 50th year, because, after all, you're really all My servants.

The agricultural economy doesn't just create a social justice problem, it creates a spiritual problem as well. If I think the land is mine, if I think I can acquire people like property, I become distant from the Creator. Determining the fate of a piece of the earth litzmitut, perpetually? That's God's domain. And controlling the fate of another human soul? That's God's domain. And just as Shabbos teaches us not to over-create, by resting one day out of every 7, Shemittah teaches us that we can create on the land, provide opportunity for our brethren, and create jobs. But we can't over-create. In the 7th year, rest. And in the 50th year, remember that land, people, they are both in my domain. You are only stewards of the wealth I give you.

The Spiritual Meaning of the Shemittah and Yovel Years

Immanuel: Just like shabbos, Shemittah reminds us that despite our work and despite our ingenuity, God is our Creator. And if God is our Creator, then we are His children, and if we are all His children, we are all brothers. That's why every law in this parsha is introduced "vichi yamuch achicha" – when your brother becomes poor. We are all family, and our economic production should not be a game of Monopoly, where the goal is to accumulate wealth and "win" over others. Indeed, this parsha ties us together as a people, where no one in the family of God gets left behind.

David: And maybe that's why these laws are here, at this point in the Book of Leviticus. The last few weeks, we've been learning about kedusha as a way to make a place in our world for others, just as God made a place in His world for us. And that's exactly what Shemittah and Yovel are about - creating space for others. The verse even says. כִּי יוֹבֵל הִוא, קֹדֶשׁ תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם - It is holy for you!

In fact, this is actually the culmination of the kedusha section. Why? Well, we've seen 2 different expressions of kedusha – we've seen kedusha in physical space, and then we saw kedusha in time.

Immanuel: And now look at the very last verse of our Parsha, which is really the concluding verse to the whole kedusha section: אֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ, וּמִקְדָּשִׁי תִּירָאוּ: אֲנִי, יְהוָה – Keep My Sabbaths and be in awe of My sanctuary, for I am God. Sabbath is the paradigmatic example of Kedusha in time. We make time for God every 7 days.

Respect Mikdash – God's sanctuary, the Mishkan, is the paradigmatic example of Kedusha in space. We make a space in our world for God. Perhaps holiness in time and space come together in the land of Israel through Shemittah and Yovel. Every 7 years, and every 50 years, we create a time where all space is devoted to our brothers and sisters.

David: As the book of Vayikra winds down, we begin to take the lessons of the mishkan, of the sanctity of God-space and apply them to the land. Because if the land is God's and we are God's children, then we are all brothers and sisters before Him. We're given the opportunity to build our lives, and our careers, but we have the responsibility to take care of the rest of the family. And what can be more holy than that?

Immanuel: Join us for the conclusion of the book of Leviticus next week on the Parsha Experiment.

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