Tzedakah: The Sabbatical and The Economy

Each week Rabbi Yoel Domb writes about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.

The occasion of a sabbatical year (like that of 5762/2002) should not have a significant impact on a modern economy. In Israel, where agriculture now represents less than 3% of the GNP, the effect is mitigated even more by the “Heter Mechira”, the legal loophole which enables the land to be sold to gentiles and be farmed in the usual manner. Many other farming activities do not require use of the land, and farmers can use them to maintain economic stability during the sabbatical year.

In biblical times, however, the situation was far more serious, because the economy was almost solely agrarian, and a total cessation of agricultural activity could easily bring people to the brink of starvation. The Torah anticipates this problem and addresses it in Parshat Behar:-

“If you shall say, “what will we eat in the seventh year, since we cannot sow or gather in the wild growths? I shall grant My blessing in the sixth year, and Will provide food for three years.”

The Torah promises that there will be plentiful food in the sixth year and thus no need to grow new crops. Unfortunately, many people did not trust this divine promise and chose to continue working their fields during the sabbatical. Chazal tell us that ultimately this was the reason for the first exile, which lasted for 70 years. This is also alluded to in Parshat Bechukotai, where the Torah describes how “the land will fulfill its sabbaticals during the time when it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies”. Chazal calculate that the Jews had ignored exactly 70 sabbatical years before the first exile.

The second Temple founders, led by Ezra and Nechemia, were determined not to repeat the mistake of their predecessors. Things were not so easy, however. Being under foreign power, the Jews had to pay taxes from their crops even during the sabbatical year. Josephus relates that when Alexander of Macedonia conquered Jerusalem in the early days of the Second Temple, he absolved the Jews from taxes during the sabbatical year. Evidently Alexander was impressed by the tenacity with which they kept the sabbatical. Unfortunately the Jewish king Herod was less benevolent and forced people to work during the sabbatical. Those who did not work were even considered rebels against the king. The Yerushalmi (Shvi’it 4:2) describes how one renegade Jew saw two others dismantling the fences in the fields as required to fulfill the biblical imperative of “abandoning” the fields during the sabbatical. He accused them of treason since by making the fields ownerless they were evading the required taxes. We can learn from this that there was a royal prohibition against abandoning fields or not working in them. (based on the explanation of Rabbi B.M.Uziel, Machmanei Uziel pp. 228)

The problem intensified after the Second Temple’s destruction. The Romans forced new taxes on the Jews, and people were so poor that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi wished to allow them to work during the sabbatical. Even when someone was arraigned before him for peddling sabbatical fruits, he remarked “what should the poor man do, all he wants is to make a living” and refused to punish him. (Yerushalmi Ta’anit 3:1). Indeed, selling sabbatical fruits presented a lucrative black market opportunity. Since official marketing was forbidden, prices were probably higher and afforded rich short-term profits. The Tosefta (Sanhedrin 5:2) describes people who used to be inactive for six years until suddenly in the sabbatical they would work furiously to make maximum profits. The Talmud disqualifies such people from giving testimony, while the Midrash promises that they will quickly lose their ill-gotten gains. Clearly Chazal were troubled by these negative effects of the sabbatical year.

What then is the goal of the sabbatical? Does it have to lead to the collapse of taxation and to black marketeering and lack of basic supplies? I believe that the key to the sabbatical can be found in the verse:

“The Sabbath produce of the land shall be to eat for you, your servants, maidservants, hired workers and foreigners who dwell with you. And for your animals and the wild animals in the field, all the produce is for eating.” (Vayikra 25:9)

The Torah is stressing that if everyone observes the sabbatical properly and benefits equally from G-d’s munificence there will be food for one and all. Economic activity with all its positive attributes causes inequality in distribution of wealth, and the temporary cessation of such activity reminds people that in G-d’s eyes everyone is equally deserving and no one need accumulate more than necessary. The message is “Sit back and enjoy what you need; don’t work for what you don’t need.”

This idea can certainly be incorporated in our frenetic modern lives, which tend to be animated by the amount we can accrue rather than by our genuine needs. If we really trust G-d and see Him as our provider we can prosper even if we have to leave our land fallow and share its yield with our fellow men. Ultimately we can strengthen our connection to G-d and learn to control our urge to attain unnecessary material gains.

Rabbi Yoel Domb is a graduate of JCT and a member of the faculty of the JCT Bet Midrash. He was awarded a fellowship from the Center for Business Ethics for the academic year 2000-2001. He is currently researching topics of business ethics in Jewish Law and is preparing a curriculum to facilitate the teaching of these topics in Rabbinical seminaries (Yeshivot).