Parashat Behar: Take that, Tacitus!

Image: Publius Cornelius Tacitus, 66-120 CE. (Wikimedia)

One of the oldest criticisms of Judaism and Jews is that we are a lazy people. In the ancient world, everyone lived on a 24/7 work schedule. There were no weekends, only a few major religious holidays, depending on the religion. That applied to everyone, from the Pharaoh to the lowliest serf: everyone had a job to do, and they worked at it without ceasing. Anyone who didn’t work that way must be lazy.

“Jews hold sacred what everyone else calls profane, and permit what everyone else thinks immoral. They sacrifice rams and bulls as an insult to the gods of the Egyptians. They are lazy and rest one day of the week, and one year out of seven.”

– Tacitus, 1st c. CE

Tacitus would have been horrified by the commandments in Parashat Behar, because this week we receive the message that we are supposed to observe not only the Sabbath, but keep every 7th year as a Sabbatical YEAR, and worse yet, every 50th year a Jubilee year! In Sabbatical years, the land must rest: no crops would be cultivated. Instead we would live on stored produce, and in the Jubilee year, all debts would be forgiven.

Tacitus would probably have said, not only are these people lazy, they’re crazy, too.

In truth, we are not certain how strictly Sabbatical years and Jubilee years were kept. We do know that the release of borrowed funds was a problem. The wealthy were unwilling to lend when there was a “get out of debt free” card on its way, and both the poor and the entrepreneur needed to be able to borrow. Economies cannot grow without some form of debt.

In the first century BCE, Hillel devised a solution for the debt problem, which he called the Prosbul. Debts ran through the rabbinical court, so that no one person held debt against another. That way, the rich felt they could lend and the poor could find capital. We can infer that before that time, people were serious enough about Sabbatical and Jubilee years that it created a problem that had to be solved by the rabbis.

Such is the wonderful flexibility built into the systems of halakhah, Jewish law. As Orthodox thinker Blu Greenberg writes, “Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halakhic way.” Torah is not intended to be a straightjacket. The job of rabbis is to help the Jewish people live lives of Torah, and sometimes that means looking at an old rule, and either finding a way around it, or changing it altogether. We don’t do that lightly – I’m sure that the Prosbul was a scandal in its day! – but no society beyond the most simple can grow without a way to grow the money supply.

So, Tacitus, we aren’t lazy. Just the reverse: we are an enterprising people, who have learned how to get our work done in six days, and devised ways to live according to Torah and still have time to rest and to be, time to praise and to love!

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