Behar-Bechukotail, Sabbatical and Jubilee, 8th May 2021 – Fred Diamond

One of the main features of this week’s portion – a double portion – Behar-Bechukotai is to present the laws of Shmita and Yovel: Sabbatical and Jubilee. I naturally associate the words in English with academic sabbaticals and regnal anniversaries. The biblical meaning is strongly tied to the land though: sabbatical is a Shabbat for the land every 7 years, and Jubilee is a release of the land every 50 years, the time periods being the obvious link with today’s common usage.

What I want to do is describe the rules of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years and how they’ve been interpreted, and explore their significance.

I’ll start with the Sabbatical, but I’m so distracted by the word’s powerful idyllic connotations for me as an academic that I’ll stick with the Hebrew term shmita. The Torah stipulates that every 7 years be a shmita year, during which special rules are in force that require, in essence, two things:  you need to let the land rest, and you need to forgive all debts.

The first of these, the idea of a Shabbat for the land, is what we find at the start of this week’s portion, which I’ll return to.  The second of these, the release of all debts every 7 years, is decreed separately in Deuteronomy, and this is where the word shmita, meaning “release” or “remission” is used.  It comes along with instructions to provide for the needy among you, and not to refrain from lending because of an approaching shmita year.  Reluctance to lend was however a reality recognized by the Rabbis, so Hillel created a legal mechanism, a document called a Pruzbul, which would allow borrowers to override Shmita and commit to paying their debts.  And you can fill in your Pruzbul online – there’s a convenient link from the Chabad website.

Let me return now to the first aspect of Shmita – what does it mean to “let the land rest”?   Well, here are the precise instructions from the beginning of Behar, Chapter 25 of Leviticus:  “Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield.  But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the LORD: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.  You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.  But you may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce—you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you,  and your cattle and the beasts in your land may eat all its yield.”

So you’re supposed to leave the fields fallow – no planting. The way it’s codified by Rambam (Maimonides), you can’t perform any agricultural work – no plowing, no fertilizing. You can’t harvest in the “ordinary way”.  You can only gather what you intend to eat, and you can’t profit from the produce – you don’t own it.  In fact, anyone can come take what they need.  Rambam devotes 8 chapters of the Mishneh Torah to the details about this – what constitutes working the fields and orchards, what constitutes an orchard, what exactly you can use the produce for, when you can sell it and what you can do with the proceeds, how you can’t facilitate others doing agricultural work, how you can eat the pomegranates you picked only as long as the trees are bearing pomegranates, and after that you have to give them away.  And I haven’t mentioned the rules for aftergrowth, and the special rules for onions.

Shmita was apparently a big deal, and still seems to be to some extent, or I should say, it is once again, because the laws of shmita are interpreted by Orthodox Jews as applying today, but only in Israel. In fact the next shmita starts this year on Rosh Hashanah. And even though I would guess most farm owners in Israel aren’t observant, they still need to follow the laws of shmita in order for their produce to be certified as Kosher, so there’s pressure to do it in order to preserve a large part of their market.

But then how do the farmers manage financially, and what do Orthodox Jews in Israel eat during shmita?  Of course, there’s imported food, but there are also loopholes: shmita rules don’t apply to hydroponics for example.  And they don’t apply to farms owned by non-Jews, so Jewish farm owners can sign up to a scheme in which their land is temporarily sold to a non-Jew for a nominal amount.  And if that’s not Kosher enough for you, then there’s a loopier loophole I won’t go into.

These machinations are understandably borne of necessity, but I’d like to think the spirit of shmita, the idea of a Shabbat for the land is alive and well, not just in Israel’s Orthodox community, but that there’s a growing consciousness of it in the wider world.  The idea of shmita is fundamentally about sustainability, about a symbiotic rather than exploitative relationship with natural resources, an emphasis on taking only what you need, and on providing for others, not just in the present but in the future.

I’ll come back to this, but first let me give you a crash course on Jubilee, or Yovel. It was mentioned in today’s reading but it’s first introduced this way in Behar – I’ll abridge a little: “You shall count off seven weeks of years—seven times seven years… a total of forty-nine years.  Then you shall sound the horn loud… on the Day of Atonement… and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.”

According to Rambam, there were 3 critical features of the observance of Jubilee: sounding the shofar, the release of all slaves, and the release of the land – meaning its return to its original owners.  This was supposed to happen every 50 years, so you have 7 sabbatical cycles of 7 years, and then the 7th sabbatical is followed by a Jubilee year, though it seems to be a subject of debate as to whether this was really the case, or whether it was a 49-year cycle in which every 7th sabbatical was a Jubilee.  In any case, the laws of Jubilee were interpreted as not applying any more after the destruction of the First Temple, so they haven’t been practiced for over 2500 years.

But what were the rules for Jubilee?  Well, sounding the shofar and releasing slaves are straightforward, and these would happen at the start of Yom Kippur.  The laws of shmita with regard to the land were also in force for the year, so you had two consecutive fallow years.  But the release of the land was something different: it was a requirement that purchasers return land to its ancestral owners, and for the original owners to reclaim it.  This would, of course, make it hard for the ancestral owners to sell in the first place.  And this is consistent with the fact that they weren’t supposed to sell it, except in the case of financial necessity. And in that case it’s understood to be a temporary sale – the proximity of the next Jubilee is taken into account in determining the price.  Furthermore if the temporary owner does something to improve its value, like plant trees, then the original owner has to compensate for this when reclaiming it.

This principle of permanent ancestral land holdings would of course serve to entrench property ownership. This certainly runs counter to modern ideals concerning social mobility and distribution of wealth.  But another way to look at it is to view the ancestral holding, not as a privilege but as an obligation.  You don’t really own the land, but rather it’s your responsibility.  If it’s supposed to belong to you, and your descendants, forever, then that’s a powerful incentive to take care of it.

This brings me back to the spirit of shmita, the importance of sustainable use of resources, the obligation to look after the land, instead of exploiting it to maximize pleasure and profit.  And in the spirit of Yovel, to do so with future generations in mind.  The 50-year calendrical cycle stipulates long-term planning, and imposes a responsibility to preserve resources and ensure sustainability.

Of course, we don’t have the same strong connection to the land as in biblical agrarian society, at least most of us don’t.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t have any fields to leave fallow.  But the broader implications of Shmita and Yovel seem as relevant as ever today, when our consumption choices as individuals have global impact, because in reality, we do all have an ancestral holding – it’s our planet.