Sabbatical and Jubilee Years as a Social and Political Vision

Behind these biblical practices is a vision of how politics, economics, and relations to the environment should be structured that makes manifest spiritual concerns as well.

Waskow is a contemporary commentator whose teachings on Jewish civilization often reframe or revalue traditional categories and practices. Here, following a detailed survey of the laws of the sabbatical year and the jubilee year, he offers a survey of how the Torah’s laws might be understood by political theorists and economists today. Pages 151-152 from Down-to-Earth Judaism, by Arthur Waskow. Copyright (c) 1995 by Arthur Waskow. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

How does this whole pattern match up with anything that "modern" economists and politicians might say? It is quite different from all of them in any flavor: conservative, liberal, or radical.

On the one hand, the biblical pattern encourages getting ahead in the world through hard work, thrift, expansion, ownership, and putting lots of indentured employees on the payroll. Surely most modern capitalists would applaud this. Yet on the other hand, every seventh year this process pauses in midstride as people are forbidden to get ahead by working the land, and as those who have fallen into the pit of debt clamber out. Even more extraordinary, once a generation the Torah tries to dissolve "getting ahead" altogether, and affirms the social, economic, and political equality of all Israelites. Once a generation, it cancels out all success and all failure by sharing the most important element of the Israelite economy: land.

Most modern secular socialists might hail such a transformation as "the Revolution"–once and for all! The Torah does not. Instead, it expects and affirms that once equality is achieved, it will not and should not stay put. For then the process of "getting ahead" and "falling behind" will begin all over again. And it will keep on, with pauses every seventh year, for another forty-nine years.

The notion that ownership, working status, and money should all constantly change through a sacred cycle of time is a unique vision of biblical economics, different from anything that the modern age has proposed or carried out.

And the vision is not only economic, not only ecological, not only political. It is all of these–and through them "spiritual" as well. As Rabbi Max Ticktin points out, the Jubilee challenges ancient and modern ideas of making oneself immortal by piling up material goods. The Jubilee brooks no Pharaoh with jewels buried in a pyramid, no billionaire who believes that "whoever dies with the most toys wins."The Jubilee replaces "having more" with "going deeper," deeper into one’s own self as part of the One Self that unifies the world.

Was the vision carried out? Part of it was–especially the seventh-year Shabbat for the land and the annulment of debts. The fiftieth year’s wholesale redistribution of land was rarely, if ever, actually done. Yet the vision survived.

Early in the sixth century BCE,for example, Jeremiah demanded (chapter 34 [of the biblical book of Jeremiah]) that the people make a jubilee by freeing all their slaves. When they failed, he prophesied disaster. If they would not free their slaves, they themselves would all become slaves. If they would not share their land, they would lose it.

Yet Jeremiah also invoked the Jubilee vision as a vision of hope (chapter 32), even though the Babylonians were on the verge of conquering the land and he was prophesying their victory. At this dire moment Jeremiah, using precisely the legal form delineated in Leviticus 25, paid seventeen shekels to redeem a plot of land in his tribal village. He placed the deed of its redemption in a pottery jar, to remain buried until someday when the redemption could actually take place. And he proclaimed that someday the whole land would be redeemed as well, so that houses, fields, and vineyards could be bought and sold again.

Thus he affirmed that the great liberation of the jubilee applies both to each individual and to the whole people.

Does this vision from another age have any implications for our time?

In this vision, there is a coherent model of a "sustainable economy" in which the people are fed for many generations and millennia, and the land is not tortured into desolation. Today, ecologists and economists focus on how to create just such a sustainable economy. This is no abstraction: It is as personal as Jeremiah’s pottery jar. When people who are struggling over how to protect ancient forests and to use lumber resources properly define their battle in terms of "spotted owls" versus "logger jobs," that is what they are fighting over.

This vision contains a coherent model of how to encourage both entrepreneurship and equality. Political theorists and activists struggle over which of these values is more important, and how to balance them. When people battle over "safety nets" and "tax incentives," over "welfare" and "empowering the poor," those are the issues they are fighting over.

This vision is not only about the grand design of a society, it is also about the details of everyday life. It presents us a coherent model of how families and individuals should borrow from and lend to each other, how they should buy from each other, and contains many other teachings about interpersonal ethics over money, issues that we encounter in our lives every day.

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