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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What is Shmita?

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, introduces the concept of the sabbatical year. As it happens, 5775 will be a sabbatical year. So you may be wondering, what is shmita (shmee-TAH, the Sabbatical year)?

Shmita literally translates in English as “release.”

Leviticus 25: 1-7 states:

The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai:  Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I give you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. 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.

The Torah here draws an analogy between the people and the land. Just as the Jewish people are commanded to rest every seventh day, and to allow our animals and servants to rest every seventh day, we are commanded to rest the land every seventh year.

Deuteronomy 15 adds additional regulations for the sabbatical year:

At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. 

That chapter goes on to specify that Jewish slaves belonging to Jews will also be released in that year.

Now in fact, we don’t know exactly how these rules were applied in ancient times. The Biblical text suggests that the sabbatical year wasn’t observed:

This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said, ‘Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you six years, you must let them go free.’[a] Your ancestors, however, did not listen to me or pay attention to me. (Jeremiah 34: 13-14)

In Nehemiah 10, the re-establishment of the sabbatical year is proclaimed, but again, we don’t hear how that actually played out.

The problem was and is that taking this law literally is extremely difficult. Imagine for a moment what it implies: all agriculture ceases for a year. All debts are cancelled. Slaves are let go. The richer you are, the more losses you take, but there are risks and losses for everyone.

The rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud devised ways to make it work. (If you are interested in the details, check out prozbul, and otzar beit din.  To get an idea of what is involved in a traditional rabbinical observance of these rules, you can read “Shmittah Revisited” by Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff.)

But what if we take a more expansive approach to the interpretation of these verses? What if the real point is not in the details, but in the values that the shmita year teaches?

What are some of the values that shmita endorses?

  • Food security
  • Economic justice
  • Sustainable use of land
  • Human, animal, and land health
  • Freedom

Genesis 1:26 is often interpreted to mean that human beings may do with the earth what they like:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

The principles of the shmita year (as well as the prohibitions on unnecessary cruelty to animals) remind us that we are not the rulers of creation, free to do whatever we like regardless of consequences.

Economic expert Rabbi Meir Tamari has observed in his book The Challenge of Wealth that proponents of various political and economic ideologies have often tried to use Torah to argue that their particular system is God’s system. He points out that one can make such arguments for many conflicting systems: capitalism, socialism, communism, etc. Torah is not an endorsement of any one economic or political system; rather it offers us a vision of a world of justice and peace. It is up to us and our human creativity to find ways to bring that world to fruition.

Perhaps the commandment for shmitah (remember, it is literally translated “release”) teaches us that we should regularly release our preconceived notions of economics in order to take a hard look at what is going on around us so that we may bring our world back into line with the values expressed in Torah:

  • Are there slaves? Release them!
  • Are there hungry people? Feed them!
  • Are resources being exhausted? Find better, sustainable ways to meet the need!

We are living in a time when many people are concerned with these problems. While we do not all agree on solutions, we can support one another in seeking many different solutions to slavery, workplace abuses, hunger, concerns about climate, and concerns about justice. We can release our insistences that our plans be the only plans.

Our times call for creativity, and now the shmita year is coming to call us to even higher creativity, and an even higher standard of justice.

Psalm 126 says that “those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.” Much is wrong in our world today. Let us make use of the shmita year, and shmita creativity, to work towards a new harvest, a harvest of joy.