Stop the Machine! -- The Sabbatical Year Principle

The biblical shemitah represents an alternative to the consumer society.

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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.