Stop the Machine! — The Sabbatical Year Principle

The biblical shemitah represents an alternative to the consumer society.


Reprinted from the column “The People & the Book,” The Jerusalem Report, May 21, 2001. The article is a commentary to the dual weekly Torah portions B’har-B’hukkotai, Leviticus 25:1-27:34.

This year is a sabbatical year in Israel, and as usual, it’s a huge problem. The commandment described in Leviticus 25:1-7 mandates letting the land owned by Jews in their own country lie fallow every seventh year. The resemblance to Shabbat, the weekly Sabbath when no work is done, is more than coincidental: The seventh year of “release” (shemitah) is called a “Sabbath of the land.”

But it is more than that, for in an agricultural society, a Sabbath of the land is also a year-long sabbatical for most of the populace. Indeed, the Biblical shemitah is a stirring example of an entire society choosing to live at a significantly lower material standard of living for a year in order to devote itself to more spiritual pursuits than the daily grind. The vision is more revolutionary still, with its radical egalitarian thrust: All the produce of the land that grows by itself must be free to all (even animals have equal access), and all loans are to be forgiven, allowing people sunk in debt an opportunity to start over.

So what’s the problem? Well, these days – who can afford not to work for one full year? And how can we feed ourselves without agriculture for a whole year? And share our dearest resources with everybody? When seen thus, as a problem, shemitah invites solutions that bypass the original intent, whether fictitious sale of the land to non-Jews or depending on food raised by them.

The whole observance of the precept has become a subcategory of kashrut: People ask whether food is grown according to the rules, not whether the society doing the producing and consuming is “kosher.” It certainly isn’t seen as a model for addressing burning social and environmental issues. It has become another source of tension for and between Jews; another wall separating us by degree of religious observance.

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Jeremy Benstein is the fellowship director of the Abraham Joshua Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv.

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