The Sabbatical Year

Behar By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On May 19, 2005 / 5765 | Torah Commentary | Israel

The DNA of Judaism is the number seven. Imprinted deep in the creation story of the Torah, it pervades almost every facet of biblical practice and many of its narratives. Its constant recurrence drives home the axiom that the universe is a product of God’s will, and that we humans are but tenants and stewards in one small corner of its expanse. For the Torah, the virtuous life springs from an awareness of our beginnings.

In this week’s parashah, we meet a salient example of this conviction at work in the sabbatical year. The number seven determines not only a weekly cycle of seven days, culminating in one day of cessation from all work, but also a yearly one in which the land is to lie fallow in the seventh year. The Torah goes out of its way to stress that both periods of rest constitute a Sabbath dictated by 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 (Leviticus 25:3-4).

Unlike the weekly Sabbath, however, the sabbatical year is restricted to the land of Israel, God’s gift to the people sprung by God from slavery. It is to be a land governed by stability and justice and to that end, whatever grows on one’s property in the sabbatical year is considered ownerless, available to man or beast, rich, or poor.

The anonymous fourteenth-century author of Sefer ha-Hinukh (a compilation of the Torah’s 613 commandments), in contrast, emphasized the personal import of the sabbatical year. The Torah’s deeper intent is to disabuse us of the fallacious idea that the universe has existed for eternity. The belief in creation is the key to finding God, while the sabbatical year helps us realize the vital role God plays in all we do, from growing crops to baking bread. By renouncing some portion of our worldly goods, we assist others without any expectation of reward, even as we intensify our trust in God (Commandment 84).

Underlying both the social and theological superstructure was a practical impulse. Professor Baruch A. Levine, in his commentary on Leviticus, points out that irrigated land runs the risk of being saturated in time with alkaline, sodium, and calcium. There is substantial evidence to suggest that this was the primary cause for the decline of the prosperous economy of Sumer in southern Mesopotamia in the second millennium BCE (JPS Torah Commentary 272). In short, there were real advantages to allowing the land go untended periodically, obscured for us by the Torah’s predilection to recast ancient practices in its own unique theological garb.

Nevertheless, as it stands, the sabbatical year borders on being utopian. Rabbinic literature is replete with material that attests to its observance in the breach. One homilist applied the verse, “Mighty creatures who do His [God’s] bidding (Psalm 103:20),” to the exceptional few who heeded the web of self- denying injunctions.”Generally the performance of a mitzvah lasts a day [Shabbat] or a week [Pesah or Sukkot] or even a month [mourning]. But one that stretches out for a whole year? And this particular individual goes out and sees his field and vineyard abandoned and barren yet still pays his taxes obediently! Can you imagine any greater hero (i.e., “mighty creature,” as in the verse) (Vaykra Rabba 1)?”

Another homilist, less restrained, applied the verse, “A miserly man runs after wealth; he does not realize that loss will overtake it (Proverbs 28:22)”, to the many who scorn this sabbatical year. The verse has in mind “Those who do business in the seventh year. They scurry about to make money, spurning the sabbatical year, and believe they will prosper. But God sets out against them, undermining their wealth and forcing them to sell.” The context of the law gives the homilist his license. The passage that follows it in our parashah speaks of, “When you sell property to your neighbor (25:14).” Hence, if you deny the land its “sabbath of the Lord (25:2),” you will end up impoverished (Tanhumah, B’har 1).

But castigation left reality unaltered and rabbinic leadership moved to alleviate the burden of the ideal. The patriarch and editor of the Mishnah, R. Yehudah Hanasi, reduced the gravity of the sabbatical year by declaring most of its injunctions to be of rabbinic provenance rather than biblical, and released many localities in Palestine (like Ashkelon, Beit Shean, and Caesarea) from the jurisdiction of the law. When denounced by some, R. Yehudah defended his actions as a crown he was proud to wear. His student and later leader in Palestine, R. Yannai, went still further, and ordered Jews in his day to plant and harvest in order to have enough money to pay their taxes to their Roman rulers. To ensure survival, individually and collectively, it had become necessary to set aside the sabbatical year (see the responsum by Rabbi David Golinkin in the Responsa of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel Law Committee, 5746).

By the end of the nineteenth century, the halakhic establishment in Eastern Europe and Palestine suffered from a systemic failure of nerve. In the face of emancipation and Zionism, piety had turned into paralysis and traditional learning into a defensive weapon. The prospect of acting on the age-old dream of returning to Israel under admittedly human and secular auspices triggered a head-on collision over the obligation to abide by the strictures of the sabbatical year. From 1889 to 1910, the battle raged till temporarily resolved by the courageous stance of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, then still rabbi of Jaffa, the urban center of the new Zionist Vishuv.

Kook, who in 1919 would become the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, was an ideological radical but a halakhic conservative. Still, in this instance, to affirm the abrogation of the sabbatical year, he utilized the long-recognized subterfuge of selling the land to a non-Jew. Profoundly sympathetic to Zionism, he wanted to promote the resettlement of Israel within a halakhic framework, thereby facilitating the aliyah of Orthodox Jews who might stem the total secularization of the enterprise. Above all, he wanted to avert the de-legitimization of Zionism from a halakhic perspective, though his counsel to transfer Jewish ownership every five years for a period of two hardly added to its respectability (Binyamin Ish Shalom, Ha- Rav Kook: Bein Ratzionalism le-Mistikah 190).

Hence my own preference for the proposal, put forth by Rabbi Golinkin in 1986. A religious practice intended for small agrarian communities is utterly unworkable in modern Israel where 90 per cent of the population is urban. Circumstances have changed so drastically that the ideal must not be allowed to become the enemy of the good. To let the land lie fallow is today no more than a voluntary gesture of piety. The rest of us must find more feasible and less harmful ways to give expression to our subservience to God’s presence in the world.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat B’har are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld. This commentary is a reprint from 5760.