Seven positive and seventeen negative commandments
Focus on the holiness of the land of Israel
Shemitah the Sabbatical Year (last year of seven year cycle)
• Complete rest for the land
• Sowing fields, pruning vineyards, reaping after growth of previous year’s harvest and picking grapes prohibited
• Produce that grows on its own during the year is considered ownerless and available for anyone to eat
• Shemitah year ended last Rosh Hashana (2015)
Yovayl (“Jubilee” year after seven Shemitah cycles)
• “And you shall proclaim freedom [release of debts and servants] throughout the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof”
• Shofar blasts on the tenth day of the seventh month (Yom Kippur) announce its arrival
• Each person’s hereditary land (allotted when his ancestors first entered the Land of Canaan) is returned to him, if it had been sold
• Hebrew slaves are freed
• Prohibition of sowing, reaping, and picking grapes
Redemption of hereditary land in Israel
Redemption of hereditary houses in walled cities in Israel
Helping another Jew by…
• Acting before he begins to fail
• Not letting him starve
• Not charging interest for lending money or foodstuffs
Social justice for fellow Jews [when the impoverishment of another Hebrew is mentioned, he is referred to as “thy brother”]
Idolatry is forbidden
Sabbath must be observed
The Linkage to the Number Seven
This week, the Torah presents ideas and regulations designed to rest the body; nourish the soul; regain lost freedom; recover ancestral property; replenish the soil and to prompt the realization that all one’s earthly possessions ultimately derive from God. Shabbos occurs on the seventh day. Shemitah is a seven year cycle. Yovayl occurs the year after a period of seven Shemitah cycles. Of the Three Festivals, two last seven days. The third, Shavuos, occurs after seven weeks of counting the Omer. The High Holy Days take place in the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. According to Nechama Leibowitz, the sevenfold counting of the Omer “symbolized the incomplete character of the liberation from Egypt and the looking forward to its final consummation in the receiving of the Torah”.
The word Shabbos and related root-words appear often in the text. All harken back to the seven days of Creation that culminated in Shabbos. The calendar of sacred days and seasons prompts thoughts about God, about His ongoing involvement in the universe and about our place in the world.
“But in the Seventh Year the Land Shall Have a Sabbath of Complete Rest, a Sabbath of the Lord.”
Shemitah literally means loosening or easing or releasing.
God refrained from productive creativity on the seventh day of Creation. We are commanded to rest weekly, on the seventh day. So, too, the land needs to have its own Sabbath and lie fallow every seven years. All agricultural activity is prohibited; fruits and vegetables that grow on their own are deemed ownerless (hefker) and available for all to eat.
During Shemitah all outstanding debts between Jewish debtors and creditors are cancelled. But during the first century BCE, Hillel the Elder realized that this created serious societal problems in that the lenders refused to lend and those who were desperately in need had no way to obtain loans. Because of this pressing need Hillel instituted the pruzbul, a legal document that transfers the debt to the Beth Din (religious court). The wording of the pruzbul is “I give over to you [the Beth Din] all debts which I have, so that I may collect them any time I wish.” According to the Torah law only loans made between two private parties are cancelled.
Acknowledges that the land belongs to God
Provides the opportunity for the population to study Torah (Ibn Ezra)
Reinforces the idea that amassing assets should not be one’s only life goal since ultimately it is Divine involvement that determines success (Isaac Arama)
Places limitation on one’s eating (due to food scarcity) which, in modern times, leads to simpler, healthier lives
Eliminates class differences in that all vegetation that grows is available to all equally
Facilitates soil restoration by requiring that fields remain uncultivated
“A Yovayl Shall That Fiftieth Year be to you”
Yovayl means a ram or ram’s horn. Loud blasts from the ram’s horn were sounded throughout the land on Yom Kippur to announce the start of the Yovayl year. The translation “Jubilee Year” (from the Latin root for “wild shout”) has no connection with Yovyal but “may reflect the modern use of jubilation to designate a festive celebration, especially an important anniversary” (Gunther Plaut). Martin Buber thinks that just like the ram is the leader of flocks, Yovayl is “the year that leads the return, that leads home and brings home, that restores impoverished owners of land to their original land and people fallen into bondage to their families…the horn of Yovayl calls and fetches us home.”
Yovayl rules include:
• Liberation of slaves
• Prohibition of farm work (as in the Shemitah year )
• Lands returning to the original owner and
• Voiding of current owner’s right to the land even after he has worked it for many years
• Admonishment of both parties to abide by principles of justice and honesty [“ Al tonu ish es achiv”—you both should not wrong one another by not insulting; by not provoking; by not taking advantage of the weakness of the other party; and by tactless remarks calculated to hurt the other person’s feelings]
Sefer Hachinuch thinks that Yovayl was designed to curb Man’s acquisitive instincts and remind him that the earth belongs to God. Counting of the years would prevent someone from coveting and possibly stealing land belonging to others, because ultimately it would be returned to the original owner.
The nineteenth century social and economic reformer Henry George observed that the concentration of land in the hands of a few led to the downfall of many ancient societies. Yovayl assures the even distribution of wealth by insisting in the re-division of the land in accordance with the original allocation, thereby making monopoly impossible. Purchase of land is more correctly to be thought of as a long term lease rather than an outright buy with the price dependent on the number and value of the crops remaining until Yovayl arrives and reverses ownership. The legislation prevents the development of a landless class and the concentration of property and power in the hands of a select few.
Rav Kook sees in Yovayl “a remedy for the distortions of the past, restoring national life to its original conception and its pristine freshness…the nation is visited with a spirit of forgiveness and repentance in remedying all the injustices of the past…as soon as Yom Kippur arrived the Bet Din sounded the shofar, the slaves left their households and fields returned to their owners”. The mystical Rav Kook perceives a restoration of individual self-respect and freedom; a nurturing of the nation’s soul; an elimination of inequalities, distortions and faults which then frees the divine soul dwelling in the nation to shine with all its spiritual glory. The group of sevens—Sabbath, Shemita and Yovayl—work together to invest the nation with a spirit of forgiveness and a remedying past injustices.
In summary, Yovayl has major societal, economic and religious benefits including …
o Preventing the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few
o Countering our natural acquisitive inclination
o Reminding us again of our dependence on God, the ultimate “owner” of the universe
o Realizing that no human being is chattel to be indentured forever
o Stressing the importance of a united family.
According to the Talmud, Yovayl was celebrated so long as the entire land of Israel was inhabited by Israelites. It ceased to be observed with the disappearance of the Ten Tribes.
The Nation of Israel: a Single Extended Family
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments on the recurrent use of family members in description of social legislation: “…let no one wrong his brother…redeem what his brother sold…if your brother is impoverished, redeem what his brother sold…let your brother live with you”. The word “brother” sometimes means a relative but mostly means your fellow Jew. Family is absolutely fundamental to Judaism and we are members of a an extended family-- being children of Avraham and Sarah; sharing the same history; reliving the same memories on holidays and often suffering together at the hands of our enemies. Rambam elaborates: “If a brother will not show mercy to a brother, who will show mercy to them? To whom do the poor of Israel lift up their eyes? To the gentiles who hate them and pursue them? Their eyes are turned to their brethren alone”.
Rabbi Sacks concludes that the family is the most powerful vehicle for continuity by providing education and tradition to its offspring. Family feeling is also the most primal and powerful moral bond. “Wherever families are strong, a sense of altruism exists that can be extended outward from family to friends to neighbors to community and from there to the nation as a whole….The Jewish people remains a family, often divided, always argumentative, but bound in a common bond of fate nonetheless.” Our parsha reminds us of our obligation to help our fallen brethren rise again.
On The Treatment of a Slave [“Eved”]
Slavery as it existed in the ancient and modern world (and still exists today) was cruel and inhumane. The slave could be punished or killed at the master’s will. In ancient Greece the slave had no more rights than the beast. Athens maintained a thriving slave market. Aristotle believed that the practice of any manual job should disqualify the practitioner from citizenship. All non-Greeks slaves by birth were fit for nothing but obedience. In ancient Rome slaves were the lowest class of society, having no rights and no legal status or individuality. They could not create relations or families, nor could they own property. They were considered the property of the owner.The slave could be mutilated and crucified at the master’s whim.
The Torah’s attitude towards the institution of slavery is both progressive and enlightened. Nechama Leibowitz cites the German-Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) who observed that the Torah has no unique word to describe a servant and master. Eved can refer to anyone who…
Has sold himself
Has been sold
Is God-fearing (“eved Hashem”)
An eved always remains a human, never chattel. His treatment is highly regulated. He…
• Is bought in a private transaction, not in a public slave market
• Is treated with dignity
• Eats the same food as his master
• Cannot be given needless work or work with no time limit
• Is automatically freed after six years or during Yovayl, whichever comes first
The treatment of an eved is so demanding that the Talmud concluded that “Whoever buys a Hebrew slave buys a master over himself”.
“Do not exact from him [fellow Jew] advance interest...do not lend him money at advance interest or give him your food at advance interest”
Both charging and receiving interest are prohibited. One of the Hebrew words used to characterize interest is neshech, which derives from the root meaning “to bite”. Demanding payment of interest in advance takes a substantial “bite” out of the sum being loaned. The other word is “tarbit” [which later evolved into the word ribbit, “increase”] refers to the interest received by the creditor.
In the agrarian society of the Torah lending money to a fellow Jewish farmer [who was considered family] was an act of philanthropy—and not a business proposition—that provided the farmer with the necessary working capital to purchase supplies. The loan would be repaid after the crop is sold. The location of this prohibition in close proximity to the laws of Yovayl and Shemitah suggests that the purpose of the law was to drive home again the idea that that property is not ours unconditionally and that we have a responsibility to share our resources with others. Therefore, one cannot “rent out” money because it is God’s and merely on loan to us.
The intent of the mitzvah is to emphasize our obligation to our co-religionists. A shared history and outlook creates a unique relationship which is evidenced by the obligation to lend to our fellow Jews interest-free. Such loans demonstrate an extra level of compassion and responsibility for the welfare of our brethren. Therefore, this prohibition does not apply to a non-Jew. Rambam asserts that it is obligatory to charge interest on loans to non-Jews.
Rav S.R. Hirsch reasons that the ban on interest belongs in the category of sins between man and God. It is about an excessive [and false] sense of ownership that may prompt one to refuse to lend money to others in need unless accompanied by profit. But one who truly appreciates and understands that it is God who has the ultimate ownership would act differently. Since the crime is not about victimhood, both lender and borrower share in the violation. Furthermore, notes Rav Hirsch, utilizing one’s funds for capital investment and for paying labor (and not for financial transactions) creates the possibility of narrowing the gap between rich and poor.
Some suggest that the interest is a form of servitude, but of a financial type. A no-interest loan is a more dignified relationship between the parties.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that lending money for interest brings in revenue without any physical effort. This stands in sharp contrast to the Torah’s approach that to be meaningful “even spiritual revenue must be earned by active involvement.”
With the rise of commercial activity in the sixteenth century, loans developed into sources of capital for businesses. As these kinds of loans were vital for commercial success, and were not the kinds of loans first envisioned by the Torah, efforts were made to find a permissible way to charge interest on loans.
The Talmud discusses an iska business arrangement in a partnership. Rabbis in Poland and subsequently in other parts of Eastern Europe created a document called “heter iska”. The essence of this document is to transform the lender-borrower relationship into an investment relationship. The provider of the capital, now a partner in the venture, agrees to limit his share in the profits to the dollar amount of the interest payments. What was once an interest payment is now considered profit. This technical redefinition of the loan as an investment allowed Jewish commercial enterprises to succeed without the laws of interest being violated. The banking industry in Israel has also adopted use of this document.
Following is the introduction to a Shtar Isko [Agreement Concerning Interest on Loans] format developed by the Beth Din of America:
“Jewish Religious Law strictly prohibits the paying or receiving of interest on loans made between Jews. However, when monies are advanced in the course of a business transaction, an agreement may be entered into, whereby the provider and receiver of these funds are considered equal partners. This partnership is based upon the stipulation that, upon request, every loss must be attested to by two trustworthy witnesses, and all profits verified by oath. All consequent profits and losses are then equally shared. However, in order to avoid these very stringent requirements, the provider of the funds, under this “Shtar Isko”, agrees to waive his share of the profits in lieu of receiving a fixed percentage of the money advanced. This percentage is then considered profit, rather than interest on a loan. This agreement becomes effective when the receiver of the funds executes a form as set below.”