Parashat Behar-Behukotai

By Neal Spevack

In the beginning of this week’s double parsha, Behar-Behukotai, the Jubilee year, Shenat HaYovel, is described. The Hebrew word yovel (from which “Jubilee” derives) means “ram’s horn,” since a ram’s horn was sounded near the year’s inception (Leviticus 25:9).

Scripture states: “You shall count off seven weeks of years seven times seven years-so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years.” (Leviticus 25:8) What economic message did the Torah want to relate?

It was a curious and unique market mechanism aimed at preventing the consolidation of land in any single group’s possession. In an agrarian society, the possession of land represented wealth and power not unlike today. The first priority was to maintain the land’s value. By counting every seven years and hence the shemitah, the Sabbatical year, the land was mandated to be left fallow and the poor had access to the land to reap and collect whatever grew naturally in the soil that year. Additionally, there was a practice of remission [i.e., forgiveness] of debts” (Deuteronomy 15:1-2). This ensured that a temporary state of impoverishment not turn into a permanent one.

The ancients knew the significance of the shemitah. Nutrients could literally be washed out of the soil as well as be depleted by whatever crop was being grown that season. The Sabbatical year preserved the land’s value. It was not unusual for the farmer, to borrow using the land as security to buy seed and other provisions to enable him to have a successful growing season. If the land’s yield was adequate, the crop could be used to pay back the debt which was incurred at the beginning of the growing season. If the season did not bring forth adequate rain, or some other cause of crop failure, the farmer would need to mortgage his property to pay back his debt for the provisions he bought at the beginning of the growing season. If too many seasons, turned bad, the farmer could become an indentured servant on the land and possibly lose possession of his land all together. This frequently occurred and the possession of the land would be consolidated amongst just a few land holders. During shenat hayovel, all lands would revert back to the possession of the original clan who owned it 50 years previously. In this way, the balance of power amongst the tribes was maintained and no one group would become too pervasive.

Unfortunately, idealistic legislation has a way of being discarded. According to some authorities, the Jubilee year was not in force during the Second Temple since the Torah states: “and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10), that is, only when all its inhabitants dwell there (Arakhin 32b). Further, one could infer from the prophets’ complaints about rich people’s mistreatment of the poor that the land was not returned to the poor every Jubilee year (Joseph Telushkin, Biblical Literacy, p.472)

There is evidence that the practice of remission of debts may not have been practiced pervasively. People were reluctant to loan money to poor people, especially when a Sabbatical year was coming. Subsequently Jewish law created a legal fiction known as a prosbul. Debts were transferred to a court by the creditor. The Creditor told the court that they were authorized to collect his debt. Since the debts owed to a court were not canceled in the seventh year, they continued to be collectible by the court even after the Sabbatical year was over. The court, in effect, collected the money for the creditor. Hillel in the first-century B.C.E., who instituted the prosbul (Shevi’it 10:3), claimed that he was not trying to help affluent people collect their money, but to ensure that everyone would be motivated to lend money to the poor (see Deuteronomy 15:9-10).

The Jubilee year showed a just way to level the playing field so that economic opportunity could be shared in the Israelite society over the generations. But who would lend money to someone using their land for security if that may only have two or three growing seasons left before the Jubilee would revert the land back to its original owners? This effectively locked up the economic engine of ancient Israel. The intent of Hillel’s prosbul recognized economic realities. But, aren’t we having a d’j’ vu? Last year, in our own country’s economic melt down, what was the intent of the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) money? We were led to believe that lending institutions receiving these funds would then readily make loans to “Main Street”. Instead, as our ancient sage Hillel wanted to fend off, executive salaries were glutinous. Individuals of Wall Street’s banks received many millions of dollars while people of Main Street became unemployed. Our Torah gives us a message that a more pervasive sharing of economic resources would lead to a more appropriate and holy society. Our country must make sure we learn this lesson as we witness Congress trying to legislate a monitoring system to keep those lending executives and brokerage firms more honest.

Neil Spevack is a rabbinical student at AJR.