The Torah envisions a world where the ownership of land, freedom from debt, and freedom from slavery become a reality every fifty years. Thus eliminating the possibility of feudal rulers while creating a system where all people become economically more equal.
Sabbatical Year explained: “The Eternal One spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: Speak to the Israelite people and say them. When you enter the land that I assigned to you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Eternal. 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 Eternal: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.” (Lev. 25:1-4)
Jubilee Year explained: “You shall count off seven weeks of years – seven times seven years – … a total of forty-nine years…. You shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family.” (Lev. 25:8-12)
In this week’s parsha Moses is given laws establishing the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee Year. Both are rooted in the concept that the earth we inhabit was created by God and we are just inhabitants of this world… and, based on the following, the Israelites are not the servants or property of any other person. They are the servants of the Eternal. : “One (a fellow Israelite) shall be under the other’s authority as a laborer hired by the year; the other shall not rule ruthlessly in your sight. If not redeemed in any of those ways (the ways listed in prior text), that person, along with any children, shall go free in the jubilee year. For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I the Eternal your God.” (Lev. 25:53-55)
It is interesting to look at how these laws were practiced through the ages. “The ‘Sabbath of the land’ was observed for many centuries before the First Temple. No information about such observance has come down from the period of the First Temple, but there is ample attestation from the centuries preceding the Common Era and thereafter. For example, the First Book of Maccabees reports that in a sabbatical year the city of Beth-zur surrendered to the Syrians, being unable to withstand a siege for lack of provisions (6:49) This incident is also mentioned by the historian Josephus, who also provides other references. The most interesting of these tells that Julius Caesar exempted the Palestinian Jews from certain taxes in sabbatical years.” (G. Plaut, The Torah, A Modern Commentary, Rev. Ed., p. 855)
Many Jews did continue the observance of the Sabbatical Year. However, there are many reports of Jews trafficking in produce. In the late 1800’s Jewish farmers in the land that was to become Israel, objected to the restrictions of the Sabbatical Year. If they ceased production of produce they would lose all their clients. They appealed to the Rabbis of the area. These Rabbis suggested a compromise involving the selling of their land to non-Jews for the year. Thus, they could continue to supply their clients…. As a result, the Sabbatical Year has not been commonly practiced in recent years.
In regards to the Jubilee Year, “according to talmudic sources, the law was in effect only when all the tribes were resident in their respective territories; it therefore fell into abeyance as soon as the trans-Jordian tribes of Reuben and Gad were exiled. There is no record that it was practiced during the Second Commonwealth.” (ibid. p. 586)
The basic reasoning behind the Jubilee Year is that no person owns the land or the people of Israel. Ultimately the land belongs to God… and as quoted above, the Israelites owe their allegiance to God. The results were the elimination of the possibility of a feudal leader gaining power over the majority of the people as they suffered during poor economic periods. Under the Jubilee concept, all the people would have their freedom and land returned every fifty years. So no leader could gain total power over large numbers of the people because: 1) all the Israelite slaves were given freedom and a chance to return to their families… 2) The ownership of the land would always return to original owners.
In both economic and political thought, the concept of freeing all workers and returning ownership of land and property every fifty years seems utopian in nature. However, it is interesting to examine this concept in terms of today’s economic environment … and the headlines seen in the current business press. As little as fifty years ago there was a booming class of middle class business owners making a decent living. Then, during the past decades, large corporations either merged with, or drove, these smaller businesses to extinction. This occurred for two reasons…. First, due to the size of the big corporations, they were able to offer goods and services at a lower price which was more attractive to most people…. Second, the larger corporations had large bankrolls and were able to buy smaller competition and acquire greater market shares….The result is exactly what the concept of the Jubilee Year was attempting to avoid… a small ruling class with a large number of workers earning low wages. This replaced a large middle class of small business owners paying higher wages to the few workers they employed.
Today there are some “progressive” thinkers who want to break-up the large corporations and return the ownership and profits of commerce back to a greater portion of the people…. Just as envisioned in the Jubilee Year. Obviously, this proposal doesn’t get much attention by today’s corporate world… or the government they seem to control.
Maybe, the power of the Dollar has become a greater power in today’s world than the power of God … and the ideals envisioned in the text we read this week. Maybe the power of the dollar is greater than the power of the Eternal.