“The Torah’s Revolutionary Economic System”
(updated and revised from Behar 5765-2005)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Behar, is an extraordinarily fascinating parasha, featuring revolutionary economic ideas.

The Torah, in Leviticus 25:2, proclaims: וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַהשׁם and the land shall keep a Sabbath unto G-d. Just as Jews must have Shabbat, a day of rest, so must the land have its rest–the Sabbatical year known as שְׁמִטָּה—shemita. Farmers may work the land for six years, but in the seventh year the land is to lie fallow and be “released” from cultivation.

The Torah makes it clear that, contrary to popular perception, the land is not the absolute possession of the human “landowner,” but rather belongs to G-d. The mortal “landowner” merely holds the land in trust for G-d’s purposes. This idea was so revolutionary, that the ancient peoples who lived alongside the Jews and saw them practice the laws of shemita, had trouble comprehending their behavior. In fact, the Roman historian, Tacitus, (c. 56 CE-c. 120) attributed the practice of shemita to laziness on the part of the Jews.

During the Sabbatical year, the land was devoted to G-d, by being placed at the service of the poor and the animals. During that year, as the land lay fallow, all fields were open to the public, who were entitled to come and take food from whatever grew wildly for their daily needs. Furthermore, in Deuteronomy 31:12, we learn that the seventh year was to be set aside as a time for national educational enrichment, and that all Jews, men, women, and children, were to be exposed to the teachings and duties of the Torah. In his commentary on the Pentateuch, (The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, Soncino, p. 531), Rabbi Joseph Hertz notes that while the leaders of most ancient peoples worked diligently to keep knowledge away from the masses, it was “the glory of Moses” that he made Torah knowledge universally available to all the Jews, young and old alike.

Parashat Behar also introduces the concept of the Jubilee, known in Hebrew as יוֹבֵל–Yovel. In the fiftieth year, the year after the seventh year of the seventh Sabbatical cycle, all land that had been sold by its original tribal landowner, reverted back to the original tribal owners. Hebrew servants and their families were emancipated, and almost all property, returned to the original owners. This system assured that no family or tribe was to be locked into perpetual poverty, and that, at least, every fifty years the downtrodden were able to regain their family real estate holdings and start rebuilding their lives, without the terrible burdens of old debts. The American social philosopher Henry George is quoted as saying, “It is not the protection of property, but the protection of humanity, that is the aim of the Mosaic code.”

A law that is often overlooked, is the regulation regarding the sale of individual homes. All individually-owned homes that had been sold during the previous years were also returned to their original owners in the Jubilee year, with the exception of those homes built within walled cities. This, of course, significantly limited the extent of urban development that could take place on the land.

For those of us who live in capitalistic economic systems, the Torah’s laws regarding land and dwellings, must seem strange at best, or foolhardy, at worst. Clearly, the Torah does not support the practices of pure capitalism. Neither does the Torah advocate pure socialism, where wealth is divided equally by all. Wealth is certainly not regarded as sinful in the Torah’s eyes. The Torah system is, in essence, a modified economic system that makes certain that the poor can be resuscitated and restored to a point where they can have a chance to regain their dignity.

Although it might be speculative, it seems to me, that while the Torah expresses the centrality of caring for the needy, it also articulates a rather strong anti-urban attitude. Those of us who live in brutally overpopulated cities, and dwell in buildings that are essentially stacked boxes of apartments, know well the price that is paid for this mass warehousing of humanity, resulting in a lack of fellowship, neighborliness and friendliness. It may very well be that human beings do not have the capacity for the vast numbers of social and business relationships that are foisted upon them today, so that all relationships quickly become shallow, and hardly any of them are meaningful. Because of over-urbanization and over-stimulation, not to mention the ubiquity of social media, everything becomes superficial.

The Torah, in effect, declares, don’t build high-rise dwellings with 30 apartments on a floor. Human beings need to live in manageable “herds,” even the animals know that. It is not unusual for a city dweller to learn that a next-door neighbor had passed away several months earlier. This kind of stockpiling of bodies may be considered “dwelling” together, but it certainly is not “living” together.

Because of the Torah’s rules mandating restricted urbanization, there will inevitably be more open space. Perhaps the Torah is also encouraging us regarding the importance for every person to have a garden–a real, personal agricultural experience. People simply need to feel a connection to the earth, to appreciate the role of the farmer, to behold the beauty of flowers blossoming, to feel a connection to nature, and, in that way, connect more profoundly with G-d.

As our already frenetically-paced lifestyle becomes increasingly frenetic, increasingly compartmentalized, increasingly lonely, we see more people losing their humanity, becoming increasingly unsociable, and increasingly violent.

Although the economic and social systems of parashat Behar are not readily replicable today, this parasha surely serves as a most effective reminder about how careful we must be not to allow our present systems to reduce us as human beings. We need to take the time to stop, and smell the roses. We need to stop, to look our spouses and our children in the face, and have meaningful conversations with them. We need to kneel down more often, to help the child who cannot stand tall on his/her own. We need to regenerate our minds and our hearts by setting aside sacred time for study.

That is the fascinating and revolutionary message of parashat Behar. Let’s go for it!

May you be blessed.

Please note: The festival of Lag Ba’Omer (literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start on Saturday night, May 25th, and continue all day Sunday, May 26, 2024. The Omer period extends for 49 days, from the second night of Passover through the day before the festival of Shavuot. The 33rd day is considered a special day because, on that day, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying, and marks, as well, the anniversary of the passing of great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.