Stop the Machine! -- The Sabbatical Year Principle

The biblical shemitah represents an alternative to the consumer society.

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Reprinted from the column “The People & the Book,” The Jerusalem Report, May 21, 2001. The article is a commentary to the dual weekly Torah portions B'har-B'hukkotai, Leviticus 25:1-27:34.

This year is a sabbatical year in Israel, and as usual, it’s a huge problem. The commandment described in Leviticus 25:1-7 mandates letting the land owned by Jews in their own country lie fallow every seventh year. The resemblance to Shabbat, the weekly Sabbath when no work is done, is more than coincidental: The seventh year of "release" (shemitah) is called a "Sabbath of the land."

But it is more than that, for in an agricultural society, a Sabbath of the land is also a year-long sabbatical for most of the populace. Indeed, the Biblical shemitah is a stirring example of an entire society choosing to live at a significantly lower material standard of living for a year in order to devote itself to more spiritual pursuits than the daily grind. The vision is more revolutionary still, with its radical egalitarian thrust: All the produce of the land that grows by itself must be free to all (even animals have equal access), and all loans are to be forgiven, allowing people sunk in debt an opportunity to start over.

So what’s the problem? Well, these days - who can afford not to work for one full year? And how can we feed ourselves without agriculture for a whole year? And share our dearest resources with everybody? When seen thus, as a problem, shemitah invites solutions that bypass the original intent, whether fictitious sale of the land to non-Jews or depending on food raised by them.

The whole observance of the precept has become a subcategory of kashrut: People ask whether food is grown according to the rules, not whether the society doing the producing and consuming is "kosher." It certainly isn’t seen as a model for addressing burning social and environmental issues. It has become another source of tension for and between Jews; another wall separating us by degree of religious observance.

Shemitah is the solution; what is the problem?

But what if we looked at shemitah not as a problem, but as a solution, and then considered what problems it’s meant to solve? In that light, shemitah becomes a political statement of social and environmental import, raising deep questions about the nature of a healthy and sustainable life, for individuals, society and the land.

For instance, currently only academics have a sabbatical year. Why? Our “affluent” society actually decreases leisure and family time, as more people not only choose to work to fulfill what they want to be, but feel compelled to work, in order to afford what society says they should have. Consumerism necessitates “producerism” to keep both supply and demand high. Yet as shemitah hints, people are indeed like the land, in ways that are more obvious in the modern world: For both, when overwork leads to exhaustion, we engineer continued “vitality” not with true renewal, but with chemicals.

But just as silence is an integral part of speech, punctuated periods of fallowness are crucial for guaranteeing continued fertility. There’s no reason why only an intellectual elite should benefit from a year of learning, reflection and regeneration: The original sabbatical was for farmers, not physicists. And making each year “shemitah” for one-seventh of the labor force would also be a creative way to combat unemployment.

Variations on the sabbatical idea are actually cropping up with surprising force and relevance: a world scientists’ proposal for a moratorium on genetic engineering; calls for remission of debts to third world countries; growing opposition to unfettered economic and technological growth.

The fact that the very idea of any sort of technological moratorium or trying to gain control over the frenetic pace of economic development seems hopelessly utopian only emphasizes the problem. Technical innovation outstrips ethical deliberation, and human lives are adapted to fill corporate "needs." Contemporary society is a sorcerer’s apprentice whose tools have taken on a life of their own - leaving us to run behind, trying to catch up.

Shemitah suggests an alternative to the acquisitive life

The sabbatical principle, dictating periods of enforced restraint, rededication and redistribution, presents a compelling alternative to business as usual. Limiting the share that production and consumption have in our lives will create the space for higher pursuits. The economy must not be an engine that runs of itself, disengaged from social and environmental concerns, but a conscious expression of our spiritual and moral values. Wealth, both money and land, are not personal property to be accumulated, but divine abundance channeled through us to be shared for the benefit of all.

As a problem, shemitah has become of interest to limited sectors of the Jewish people. As a solution, it can serve as a bridge to all those seeking answers to pressing social and environmental problems. It’s extremely hard for us to critique a worldview that we’re completely inside - hard to imagine that things can be different. The ancient institution of shemitah and the religious language in which it is couched are an urgent message from a distant time that can provide a much-needed challenge to the prevailing Zeitgeist. Perhaps the specific solutions that the shemitah idea suggests will not be deemed practical; it can, however give us much-needed help in formulating the crucial questions.

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Jeremy Benstein

Jeremy Benstein is the fellowship director of the Abraham Joshua Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv.