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Parashat Behar / Behukkotai 5780

May 15, 2020

Lessons of the Sabbatical for a Time of Pandemic
A D’var Torah for Parashat Bahar / Behukkotai
By Rabbi Len Levin

“Six years you may sow your field…and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord…You may eat whatever the land will produce during its sabbath.” (Leviticus 25:3–6)


What is the proper balance of work and rest in the Bible? Can the institutions of the Sabbath and the sabbatical year inspire us with ideas for dealing with the disruption of that balance in the current health crisis?

In the biblical creation story, man and woman were originally put in a garden where they could live off the fruit of the trees that grew naturally. By their sin, they were expelled from this paradise into the real world where people must earn bread by the sweat of their brows (Genesis 3:19). In the world to come, humanity regains the state of primordial paradise; thus the Sabbath, when no work is done, was called by the rabbis “a foretaste of the world to come” (Talmud Berakhot 57b).

On the one hand, the Psalmist paints a positive vision of productive labor—“when you enjoy the fruit of your labors, you shall be happy and it will be well with you” (Psalm 128:2). And the prophet Amos predicts a glorious time when one productive season blends into the next—“when the plowman shall meet the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who holds the bag of seed” (Amos 9:13).

Today, millions of people are forced to sit idle from their work due to the pandemic, and they are panicking at the prospect of prolonged unemployment and economic disaster. A little rest may be a good thing, but economic shutdown is perceived as a disaster.

But what if technology changes the equation? If a minority of the population can produce enough to sustain all, the time-honored correspondence of work and sustenance is called into question. Do only the economically productive then deserve to eat? Or should there be a guaranteed minimum wage for workers and non-workers alike? And if one’s previous means of livelihood is upended through external circumstances through no fault of one’s own, who is responsible for providing the remedy?

The social legislation of the Bible tried to provide solutions for some of these problems, and envisioned arrangements that may foreshadow what we, at a later stage of social evolution, are now struggling to come up with.

The first part of the biblical solution was a social safety net. Well-to-do landowners were required to set aside a corner of their fields for the indigent to gather enough to eat (Leviticus 19:9–10). In another teaching, every three years a tithe was set aside for the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28–29).

The second part was the weekly Sabbath. One day a week, people should step back from life’s productive pursuits and focus on longer-range goals. On this day, people cultivate the ideal of human existence that is not bound forever to the wheels of industry but reaches toward spiritual aspirations.

The third part was the sabbatical year. One year in seven, the productive cycle takes a break. The land recovers by lying fallow; people are encouraged to cultivate endeavors other than material survival. To be sure, this raises the obvious problem: What are people going to eat for that year? The text voices the question and gives the answer: God will provide God’s blessing so that the land will be productive enough to support the people living on it. (Leviticus 25:20–22) The rabbis went further: basing themselves on the biblical law (Leviticus 25:6–7), they ruled that the produce of all land in the seventh year should be considered common to all, so that anyone may come to anyone’s field and gather whatever is necessary for immediate consumption (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Sabbatical Year, 4:24). But commercial profiteering on food during the sabbatical year was forbidden (ibid., 6:1).

The fourth part was the remission of debts. Sometimes life’s circumstances force people to borrow in order to maintain themselves. Extended adversity may deprive them of the ability to repay the loans. Those who can afford to do so should forgive the loans, so that the impecunious can reestablish themselves with dignity. Again, this raises a problem: what if this arrangement discourages prospective lenders from lending? The text voices the question and gives the answer: be generous to your impecunious kinsfolk, and God will be generous to you (Deuteronomy 15:9–11).

The fifth part was the redistribution of wealth. Every fifty years, a Jubilee was proclaimed, and the land was to be restored to the families that owned it originally. (Leviticus 25:8–17)

Society and technology have changed tremendously since the Bible was written. Application of biblical solutions to modern problems is likely to be very indirect, proceeding from basic values rather than specific mechanisms. Still, the vision of the biblical authors on these questions is quite suggestive. It may be stated in a few basic propositions:

  • All human beings are sacred in God’s eyes and deserving of respect.
  • There is a time for work, and a time for non-work pursuits.
  • Poverty often comes through adverse circumstance and is no judgment on character.
  • There is an obligation on the whole of society to provide for the material sustenance of all its members and to assist them in times of adversity.
  • Not all times are alike. Different arrangements are appropriate for distributing the goods of society to its members during normal productive times (through labor wages), and in unproductive periods.
  • A society that looks out for the welfare and dignity of all its members is deserving of God’s blessing.

This is an extremely challenging time for us in all our lands of residence. We should be encouraged by the generosity of spirit with which the majority of people have responded to the challenge, and by the innovative ideas people have come up with to help us all through it. May we draw on the ethical values and practical suggestions of our tradition in forging our own solutions to help us through these times, and may we all be rewarded in the long run with increased appreciation of each other and creative ideas for equitable social arrangements in the good times to come (may they come soon!).

Rabbi Len Levin is professor of Jewish philosophy at AJR.