“The Revolutionary Nature of Shemita and Yovel

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In the first of this week’s double parashiot, parashat Behar, we encounter the remarkable laws of Shemita–the Sabbatical year, and Yovel–the Jubilee celebration. In Leviticus 25:1-2, the Al-mighty tells Moses to speak to the people of Israel and to tell them: “Kee tah’vo’ooh el ha’ah’retz ah’sher ah’nee no’tayn lah’chem, v’shav’tah ha’ah’retz Shabbat la’Hashem.” When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Sabbath unto the Lord.

Just as G-d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, and just as the Jewish people rest on the Sabbath day, so must the land of Israel, upon which the Jewish people dwell, rest in its seventh year. This remarkable and revolutionary law of Shemita called for the cessation of planting every seventh year of the Sabbatical cycle. Only that which grows wild may be eaten by the farmer. In effect, the concept of ownership of land vanishes during this year. At any time, a needy person may enter a field and remove enough food to feed himself and his family.

Some scholars point to this law as the earliest form of what is today known as “crop rotation.” The land is allowed to rest, its nutrients restored. The land thus becomes more fertile and productive in the future years.

The seventh year was not merely a respite from work, it was in fact utilized as a national educational opportunity that culminated in a massive educational celebration for both men and women, as well as children. On the year following the Shemita observance, during the festival of Sukkot, the people of Israel would gather together in Jerusalem for what was known as Hakhel, Deuteronomy 31:10-13. In a most impressive ceremony, the king of Israel would take out a Torah scroll and begin to teach his people. Even resident aliens were taught the teachings and duties of the Torah at this Hakhel gathering.

The Hertz commentary cites the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37 C.E.- circa 100 C.E.) who claims that most ancient societies kept intellectual knowledge restricted to the elite. Moses and the Jewish people in effect revolutionized education by disclosing the great ideas of the Torah to the entire people of Israel, and exposing the full nation to knowledge. Hertz proudly notes that F. Verinder, a non-Jewish English scholar, expressed his amazement at the Sabbatical year practice, declaring that it is the equivalent of sending the English worker once every seven years to a year’s course at a university to learn science, law, literature, and theology.

Not everyone was so favorably impressed by this practice. The Roman historian Tacitus (55-117 C.E.) ridiculed the observance of the Sabbatical year, attributing it to laziness on the part of the Jewish people. On the other hand, Alexander the Great (356 B.C.E.-323 B.C.E.) and even the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar (100 B.C.E.-44 B.C.E.) relieved the Jews from paying some of their taxes during the seventh year when they did not work their fields.

Just as the land lay fallow every seven years, every fiftieth year, with the arrival of Jubilee–the Yovel, the land returned to its original owners.

Modern scholars speculate about the origin of the word “Yovel,” suggesting that it might have originally meant “ram” because of the ram’s horn that was sounded ushering in the Jubilee. Others say that it has to do with the root of the Hebrew word for “release.” The Ramban (Nachmanides–Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) says that the word means “to transport,” that at Yovel everything is returned to its original independence and to its original root, which is of course, G-d Al-mighty.

In the Yovel year, as in the Shemita, the land lies fallow. All Hebrew slaves receive their liberty, but most importantly, all landed property that had been sold during the previous 49 years, reverts back to its original owners, and families that received the tribal land when it was first apportioned during the conquest of the land by Joshua, return to their original patrimony. According to the rabbis, this restoration reflected the powerful message recorded in Psalms 24:1: “La’Hashem ha’ah’retz oom’lo’ah, tay’vayl v’yosh’vay vah.” The earth and its fullness belongs to G-d, the world and its inhabitants.

The Yovel represents one of the most revolutionary contributions of Judaism to humanity. Its implementation and practice meant that no person was destined to be poor forever. If a person’s fate had taken a turn for the worse, and because of business and agricultural reversals had to sell his real estate, there was always the anticipation that, come Yovel, the land would be restored to the original owner. The children of the man who had become so poor, now enjoyed the same advantages along with all the other land owners, having received a new start with the return of the ancestral family land.

So highly regarded was the practice of Yovel by Henry George, the great American social reformer, 1839-1897, that he acknowledged his indebtedness to the laws of the Jubilee as one of the sources for his lifelong passion to eliminate inequities in his contemporary economic system. Writes George, “It is not the protection of property, but the protection of humanity, that is the aim of the Mosaic code. Its Sabbath day and Sabbath year secure even the lowliest rest and leisure. With a blast of the Jubilee trumpets, the slave goes free, and the redivision of the land secures again to the poorest his fair share in the bounty of the common Creator.”

Once again, we see how the Torah was far ahead of its time. Judaism’s understanding of the need for universal education, the necessity to set aside sacred time for family and for study, and the farsighted vision of a system that allowed for a more equitable distribution of wealth among all the inhabitants of the lands, is nothing short of revolutionary!

May you be blessed.