Just as the Torah calls for a Sabbath day of rest for people after every six days of work, it also commands a sabbath year of rest for the land after every six years of cultivation, culminating with a Yovel, or “Jubilee,” or fiftieth year, completing a cycle of seven sabbatical years. During the sabbatical year people are to leave whatever grows for the needy and wild beasts. Within our double Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, the Israelites are told that, while they may not work the land or prune their vineyards or orchards, it is permissible to eat whatever happens to grow during the sabbatical year. Moreover, the Torah also commands that all debts are to be cancelled.
During the year of the Jubilee, which is announced by sounding the shofar on Yom Kippur, all laws of the sabbatical year are to be observed. In addition, all properties are to be returned to the families who inherited them at the time Joshua led the Israelites into theLandofIsrael. To guarantee fairness in land values, all prices of land were calculated on potential usage before the sabbatical when they would revert to their original owners. The Jubilee was also a time when Israelite slaves were freed.
These practices concerning both the sabbatical and Jubilee years were adapted and extended by the Rabbinic tradition. Every time I read through our parsha, a query arises in my mind—do we take two consecutive years when the seventh sabbatical year in each cycle, or 49th year, is followed by the Jubilee, or fiftieth year? The answer is yes. Can you imagine the faith that took? For example, owners were not allowed to collect large amounts of food in their homes because such a practice would deprive the poor. Families were to take only the amount of fruits and vegetables required for their normal needs. If there was no longer any food available in the fields, owners were commanded to remove all food from their storage places and make it available to the entire community. It was forbidden to buy or sell produce from the field during the sabbatical or Jubilee years.
Rashi suggests that the reason for the sabbatical year is to give the land time to rest, just as the Sabbath allows humans to seek renewal and revitalization through rest. Rashi, like the ancients, must have realized that crops usually grew more plentifully after the land had “rested.” Maimonides, echoing Rashi, brings out that the sabbatical and Jubilee years are commanded because by “releasing” the land it will become reinvigorated.
Maimonides, however, also stresses a social and ethical benefit of the sabbatical and Jubilee. In his discussion of charity, he emphasizes that guaranteeing food for the needy, freeing slaves, canceling debts, and returning lands are all meant to teach sympathy and promote well-being. A significant additional benefit of these special years is to encourage and instruct Jews to be generous with those in need, to share their profits and products, and to be just in business practices.
The interpreters of our tradition offer a variety of explanations and meanings for the sabbatical and Jubilee years. Yet they all have one common thread. Each explanation finds measures of great ethical, political, or spiritual significance within the traditions of resting the land, feeding the hungry, returning the land to its original owners, and liberating the slaves. By contrast, the moral concerns underlying these ancient agricultural and economic laws challenge many of the social, religious, and economic policies and priorities of our own era. It is more than enough to ponder.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham