Business Ethics and the Sabbatical/Shemitta Year

by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir

This Jewish year, 5761, is the Sabbatical year in Israel, the year when according to the Torah, agricultural labors are not carried out. But the commandments relating to the Sabbatical year, known in Hebrew as shemitta go far beyond giving a fallow year to our fields. In fact, the main principles of the Jewish approach to our possessions can be learned from the laws of shemitta.

There are three main places in the Torah where shemitta is mentioned. The first is in Shemot, parshat Mishpatim. Let us look at the verses in context:

“Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Six years shall you sow your land and gather in its produce. And in the seventh year release it and leave it alone, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what is left shall be left to the beast of the field. So shall you do to your vineyard and your olive trees.” (Shemot 23:9-11.)

Here the emphasis is on equality or social justice. Unlike the regular year when the landowner is in control of the produce, in the seventh year the poor have equal access to the fruits of production. Contextually, we can connect this to the empathy with the downtrodden, which our experience in Egypt taught us, as mentioned in the first verse.

In Vayikra in parshat Behar, the laws of shemitta are elaborated at greater length. Let us examine some selected verses:

“Speak to the children of Israel, saying: When you come in to the land which I gave to you, the land shall rest a Sabbath to HaShem. Six years shall you sow your field, and six years shall you prune your vineyard, and gather its produce. And in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbatical, a Sabbath to HaShem; you shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the growth of your harvest nor gather in the grapes of yield; the earth shall have a Sabbatical.” (Vayikra 25:2-5.)

In this passage the focus is not social, but religious: the land has a Sabbath to HaShem. This theme is reiterated later in the passage:

“And should you say, ‘What will we eat in the seventh year? We will not be planting nor gather our produce!’ I will command My blessing in the sixth year, and it will make produce for the three years. . . And the land will not be sold in permanence, for Mine is the land, and your are sojourners and residents with Me.” (Vayikra 25:20-21, 23.)

Here is a message which is relevant even in a society of exemplary equality: Man is not the master of the world nor the source of blessing; G-d is. Our Sabbatical rest, like our Shabbat rest, gives us a break from productive activity to remind ourselves that we are not in control. Shemitta is a lesson in Divine providence.

However, the message of social equality is not absent here either. Immediately following the first verses we cited the Torah continues:

“And the Sabbath of the land shall be to eat; for you and for your manservant and for your maidservant and hired man who live with you. And for your animals and for the wild beast in your land will be all of the produce to eat.” (Vayikra 25:6-7)

Here again is the message of equality, that in this year all share equally in the fruits of the earth. However, these verses also carry an additional message. Unlike the passage in Mishpatim that merely mentioned that the Sabbatical is so that the poor may eat, here the Torah explicitly orders that the produce of this year is to eat.

Our tradition tells us that this expression confers a special sanctity on the produce of the shemitta year, a sanctity which both enjoins us to use them for food or for similar enjoyments and which forbids us to waste them. (Sukkah 40a.)

Most interestingly, this produce may not be treated as merchandise that is exploited only in order to make a profit. (Pesachim 52b.) Relating to HaShem’s providence in this way is problematic for two reasons. For one thing, the very nature of profit is that it accrues to a single person. Profit is a salient expression of private property, whereas the message of the shemitta year is that G-d’s bounty is intended for all. Second of all, relating to objects in this way is alienating. The merchant is ultimately uninterested in whether his stock in trade is apples or zephyrs; market forces tell him to examine only how much it costs him to make or buy and how much it fetches on the market. Yet part of the essence of providence is that HaShem is providing us with wonderful items for our enjoyment and delight.

To summarize the message of these two passages, the Torah is telling us that although economic production is something that is usually created through our effort, ultimately it is a gift from HaShem and the result of His blessing. This blessing is meant for us to enjoy, but we must remember that ultimately all of us have an equal claim on this manifestation of Divine providence.

A very similar message is provided by the manna, which came directly from HaShem. The amount of manna each person found in his receptacle was the same whether he exerted himself to gather much or whether he perfunctorily gathered little. (Shemot 16:18.)

There is a third passage in the Torah dealing with the shemitta year, in Devarim (parashat Re’eh) where we are commanded on the release of debts in the seventh year. This passage is adjacent to the verses which strictly warn us to be generous in giving to the poor. Afterwards we find the commandment to free slaves after six years of work, parallel to the first six years of the shemitta cycle, and to give them gifts which will help them to be self-reliant. (Devarim 15:1-18.)

But one of the most interesting messages of the shemitta year is not related to its laws but rather to its timing. The Sabbatical comes only once in every seventh year! During this year the institutions of private property are partly suspended, but during the other six years they are rigidly enforced!

Parsha Mishpatim begins with the rules of a Hebrew slave. While we are enjoined to treat him fairly, the fundamental inequality of master and slave, like the parallel one of boss and employee, is not questioned. The main laws of damages, which are among the most important safeguards of private property, are in this parsha, as is the prohibition for judges to favor the poor person in judgment. (Shemot 23:3.)

While commerce in fruits of the Sabbatical year is forbidden, commerce in all other goods, and at all other times, is perfectly permissible and is protected by the same basic laws as those that protect personal possessions.

Indeed, one of the expressions the prophet Yechezkel uses to describe the Jewish people at the time preceding the redemption is “a people gathered from the nations, gathering mikneh vekinyan” – livestock and possessions. (Yechezkel 38:12.)

So this is the message of the shemitta year:

  1. Private property is permissible and proper, but we should remember that ultimately all belongs to HaShem – “the land is Mine”. (Vayikra 25:23.)
  2. Enjoying our possessions is encouraged, but we should remember that HaShem’s bounty is intended for others as well. “The produce is the land to you to eat – for you, and your servant. . .”. (Vayikra 25:6.)
  3. It is natural that there are rich and poor people, but the rich have a responsibility to display generosity towards the poor. “For the poor shall never cease from the land, therefore I command you saying, open your hand wide to your poor brother”. (Devarim 15:11.)
  4. It is natural for there to be a master and servant, boss and employee, but the master has to treat the slave in a humane way. “Don’t work him with rigor.” (Vayikra 25:43) The master must also eventually release him and allow him to fend for himself. “He shall serve you for six years, and in the seventh year you will set him free. And when you set him free, you shall not let him go away empty-handed”. (Devarim 15:12-13.)

 

Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir received his Ph.D. in Economics from MIT, and received his Rabbinic ordination from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate after 12 years of study at Israeli Rabbinic Institutions (yeshivot). Rabbi Meir directs the Jewish Business Response Forum at the JCT Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility, and is a Senior Lecturer in Economics at the Jerusalem College of Technology