What I am feeling right now, and have been feeling since the first of Elul, is some combination of overwhelmed, exhausted, burned out, apathetic, and scared. I was feeling particularly bad about that last Thursday, when it occurred to me: I am feeling all of those things because I am changing. A lot. (Heck, I have change to spare if you need some.) And if Elul/Rosh Hashanah isn't about taking a close look at one's life and deciding to change, I don't know what it's about. It's just that I made the decisions to change (= to do teshuva) several months ago, and now I am living out the results of those changes in real life and real time. And man, it's hard...
Why is change so hard? Why am I so resistant to doing the things that would most help me in life? Why is it sometimes so easy to do the wrong thing and so hard to do the right thing? Why, even when we make changes that we think are for the best, does it still not feel good? Should I interpret this general weariness as a sign that I have made a big mistake in uprooting my life, quitting my job, and transplanting myself to a new country, or just as a sign that I have uprooted my life, quit my job, and transplanted myself to a new country--and those things are exhausting, hence the weariness? Is this what we call a "difficult transition"?
One of the things that has been particularly difficult in this change is my new environment of intellectual challenge. Simply put, I am studying difficult texts, with relatively little support from people other than my chavruta [study partner], and shiur [class] is difficult for me to follow, at least partly because I don't get through all of the sources before shiur begins. Like this summer, there is a relatively wide range of background and experience in the shiur, but unlike this past summer, I feel like I fall out on the lower end of things rather than the higher end of things. This is not a feeling that I am accustomed to, and not because I am especially brilliant, but because I've always gravitated towards the things that I was naturally better at, and avoided the things that were more difficult for me. Thus, it is hard for me not to understand everything, and to accept that I won't be able to understand something in particular. I have so much to learn and I can't learn it all instantaneously. That's what I'm here to do, right? Learn? So I need to accept being with not understanding things and not asking the most brilliant, penetrating questions, and just listening sometimes, without necessarily taking anything in.1 This goes against my nature.
All in all, I would say that this Elul, I am changing and learning to live better and differently. It's not, as I sometimes feel our classic liturgy impresses upon us, to feel bad, unworthy, and guilty. It's about closely examining the way things are and learning to live in a way that is productive, rather than constantly damning. It's about learning, in my case, to understand less, rather than always pushing to understand more and feeling stupid for failing at it.
My blessing for my readership is: May this coming year of 5769 bring you to the changes that will sweeten and deepen your life. May you have the courage, as I am trying to, to do things that are difficult and to be open to admitting their difficulty--let's agree not to pretend that everything is easy, okay? May the things that inevitably begin with difficulty this year bring immeasurable rewards in the end. May you be able to appreciate the fullness of those rewards in their time.
1. Moving down to an easier class is not an option. The next lower class would be too easy. Also, since I almost always understand more than I think I do, I am assuming that that is true in this case, too, and that I am getting more out of just sitting, listening, and not understanding than I think I am. If that makes any sense.
What happens when a law designed to help poor people ends up hurting them? What happens when a law designed to give the land a bit of rest has the potential to destroy entire agricultural settlements? Do you follow the letter of the original law, trusting that it will all work out, or do you enact new laws to fix the old laws and maintain their spirit?
These are the kinds of questions that arose centuries ago in connection to shmitah, the sabbatical year, which is taking place during this Jewish year of 5768. During shmitah, fields are left fallow, slaves are freed, and debts are forgiven. In this essay, delve into how the Bible and the Rabbis tried to preempt or mitigate problems with letting the land lie fallow and forgiving loans.
The Bible itself anticipates that the Jewish people will lack faith that they will have enough to eat in the seventh and eight years if they neither harvest nor plant in the seventh year, as the shmitah laws ordain:
“And should you ask, ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?’ I will ordain my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will still be eating old grain of that crop; you will be eating the old until the ninth year, until its crops come in.”
The Bible promises that the sixth year’s crops will produce a triple yield: enough to sustain an agricultural economy for the sixth, seventh, and eight years of the cycle.
The Bible also anticipates a potential societal problem that would have severe ramifications for the poor: people would refuse to loan money to poor people as shmitah approaches, due to the law that requires loans to be forgiven during shmitah.The solution? Once again, God promises to reward, with blessings, those who follow this law.
Beware lest you harbor the base thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,” so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt. Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings.
The Rabbis saw that despite the incentive of Divine blessing, the problems anticipated by the Torah had, in fact, arisen. Poor people were being denied essential loans in the years leading up to the shmitah, and the agricultural burden became increasingly difficult as small-scale local economies were transformed first by the Roman occupation of the Land of Israel and later by the development of a modern economy in Ottoman-era Land of Israel. In response, they developed two other solutions to these fears: prozbul, instituted by Hillel the Elder circa 30 BCE to 10 CE (see page 8 for definition), and heter mechirah, first introduced by several rabbis in the Ottoman-controlled Land of Israel in the 1888-1889 shmitah year (see page 17 for definition).The discourse that surrounds these rabbinic enactments provides a fascinating view of the competing forces within Jewish law.
In the narrative below, learn about prozbul and heter mechirah as ways of thinking about the interplay between the letter and the spirit of the law, and between the biblical injunctions and how later generations contend with them. Use the development of prozbul and heter mechirah as a lens through which to view both the process and the objectives of halakhah, or Jewish law.
In the Midrash Leviticus Rabbah, the Rabbis acknowledge how difficult it is to keep all of the laws of the shmitah year, and suggest that he who follows these laws is stronger than anyone else, because he sees his hard work destroyed day after day for an entire year, and still follows the law:
“The mighty in strength that fulfill His word” (Psalms 103:20). To whom does the Scripture refer? Rabbi Isaac said,” To those who are willing to observe the shmitah year. In the way of the world, a man may be willing to observe a commandment for a day, a week, a month, but is he likely to continue to do so through the remaining days of the year? But throughout that year this mighty man sees his field declared ownerless, his fences broken down, and his produce consumed by others, yet he continues to give up his produce without saying a word. Can you conceive a person mightier than such as he?”
—Leviticus Rabbah, 1:1
One solution to the problem of loan forgiveness is for people to voluntarily repay their debts, despite their cancellation. This is the advice given by Abbaye to Rav Abba in the following Talmudic passage:
“Abba bar Marta, who owed Rabbah money, brought it to Rabbah’s house in the seventh year. Rabbah said: ‘I cancel the debt.’ So Abba bar Marta took his money and went away. Subsequently, Abbaye, seeing that Rabbah looked sad, asked him,’ So, why are you sad?’ Rabbah told him what had happened. So Abbaye went to Abba bar Marta and asked him, ‘Did you offer money to Rabbah?’ Rav Abba replied, ‘Yes.’Abbaye: ‘And what did he say to you?’ Rav Abba: ‘I cancel the debt.’Abbaye: ‘And did you say to him, “Nevertheless, take it?” Rav Abba: ‘No.’Abbaye said to him,’ If you had said to him, “Nevertheless, take it, he would have taken it. At any rate, go now, and offer it to him.” Rav Abba went and offered it to Rabbah, saying, “Nevertheless, take it.” Rabbah took it from him and said,’ Until now, this disciple of the wise did not know what to do!’”
—Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gittin, 37b
Even though Rav Abba was the disciple of the wise, he did not understand that if one has the money, one should voluntarily repay even a cancelled loan. Abbaye understood this delicate social and financial balancing act, and gave good counsel to Rav Abba.
This voluntary repayment of loans was not, however, ultimately enough. To understand why it was necessary for loans not to be forgiven during shmitah, it is helpful to read Deuteronomy 23:20: “You shall not deduct interest from loans to your countrymen, whether in money or food or anything else that can be deducted as interest.”
Because no interest was allowed, loans existed mainly as a short-term way to aid the poor between the periods of planting and harvesting crops. Most loans were given to poor people the lenders personally knew.
The combination of interest-free loans and loan forgiveness ended up hurting the very people it was designed to help; the law no longer fulfilled its stated purpose because the wealthy stopped lending their money out. In doing so, they violated an explicit prohibition in the Torah:
“Beware lest you harbor the base thought,’ The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,’ so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing…”
Hillel the Elder therefore opted for a change to the legal system itself, called a prozbul, rather than relying on voluntary repayment of cancelled loans.
The Mishnah in Tractate Shevi’it (10:3) reports: “When [Hillel the Elder] saw that people refrained from giving loans one to another and transgressed what is written in the Law,’ Beware lest you harbor the base thought…’ Hillel ordained the prozbul.”
What is a prozbul? The prozbul is a method by which people transfer their personal loans to the beit din, or Jewish legal court. The beit din, because of special powers granted to it to redistribute property, is then able to authorize people to collect their loans even during or after the shmitah, when loans are normally abrogated. This “legal fiction” provided a way around loan forgiveness and restored the Torah’s goal of helping, rather than hurting, the poor.
While this may seem like a loophole designed to help wealthy people get their loans repaid, it was really a way to encourage people to continue offering interest-free loans to the poor. Thus, a Mishnah in Tractate Gittin (5:3) adds that the prozbul was established by Hillel the Elder “to repair the world.” In Hebrew, this is called tikkun olam.There are only a few instances of older laws being superseded by later laws in order to achieve tikkun olam.This is a phrase that speaks to the highest level of ethical and moral considerations.
In addition to changes made to find ways around the shmitah loan forgiveness law, changes were made, throughout history, that affected the law about letting fields lie fallow so that the land could rest during the seventh year.
Rabbi Judah the Prince, the editor of the Mishnah, began this process by limiting areas of the Land of Israel in which agricultural laws, including shmitah and tithing, had to be observed. The Jerusalem Talmud (D’mai 2:1) reports:
“Rabbi [Judah the Prince] permitted Beit She’an; Rabbi permitted Caesarea; Rabbi permitted Beit Guvrin; Rabbi permitted Kfar Zemah.…”
Those around him were uncomfortable with his permitting what they felt that the Torah prohibited. In response, Rabbi Judah the Prince shared a parable about a verse from II Kings:
“Rabbi, thereupon, expounded to them the following verse: ‘[Hezekiah] also broke into pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it.’ Now, is it at all likely that Asa did not destroy it? Or that Jehoshaphat did not destroy it? Surely Asa and Jehoshaphat destroyed every form of idolatry in the world! It must therefore be that his ancestors left something undone in order that [Hezekiah] might distinguish himself. So, too, in my case, my ancestors left something undone for me to distinguish myself.”
—Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Hulin 6b-7a
Still, how was Rabbi Judah the Prince able to say that Beit Shean was not part of the Land of Israel, in order that it be excluded from the agricultural laws of shmitah and tithing? The Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Hulin 7a) continues:
“To this, Judah, son of Rabbi Simeon the son of Pazzi, demurred: Is there anyone who holds the view that Beit Shean was not part of the Land of Israel? Is it not written: ‘And Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beit Shean and its towns, nor of Taanach and its towns?’ [Judges 1:27] [When he raised his objection] there must have escaped his attention the statement of Rabbi Simeon son of Eliakim who reported that Rabbi Eleazar son of Pedath in the name of Rabbi Eleazar son of Shammu’a [said as follows]: Many cities that were conquered by the Israelites who came up from Egypt were not reconquered by those who came up from Babylon…. They did not annex these cities in order that the poor might have sustenance from them during the shmitah year.”
This was not the only thing that Rabbi Judah the Prince did to ease the burden of the shmitah laws on the poor. The Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit 3:1) reports that a man who was suspected of breaking the shmitah commandment was brought before Rabbi Judah. He said to them: “What should this poor man do? He works [his land] in order to keep himself alive,” thus suggesting tacit approval, or at least acceptance, of the man’s decision to ignore the shmitah laws.
Some later commentaries, as well as the Talmud in other places, posit that the shmitah laws were no longer biblically ordained during this period, and that they were only rabbinic in nature. Thus, the Rabbis had the ability to modify them to help the poor.
Under another circumstance, Rabbi Yannai actively commanded farmers to sow the land during the shmitah year. This was during a time when the Land of Israel was under Roman occupation, and annual taxes were payable at harvest time. If there was no harvest, the taxes could not be paid and people’s lives would be endangered.
—Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 26a
Josephus tells us that the Israelites were exempt from paying taxes only during the shmitah year during the days of Caesar (Josephus, Ant. XIV, 10, 5-6). This exemption was abrogated in the year 261 CE, and the Jews had to start paying taxes every year, whether it was a shmitah year or not.
—Heinrich Graetz, History of the Jews, vol. 4, and M. Auerbach, Jahrbuch der Judisch-Literarischen Gesselschaft 5 (1907)
Between 70 CE and 1878 CE, Jews were not sowing and reaping in the Land of Israel at all. Although there were Jews living in the Land of Israel continuously during that period, they bought produce from the local Arabs. The first modern agricultural community in Israel, Petach Tikvah, was established in 1878, but it had failed by 1882, the next shmitah year.
The first time there were successful agricultural communities in the Land of Israel during a shmitah year was 1889.These included Rishon L’Zion, Rosh Pinah, Zichron Yaakov, and a reestablished Petach Tikvah.The farmers were afraid that if they stopped working the land for a year, their communities would fail. The financier who backed these communities, Baron Rothschild, threatened to withdraw economic support if the farmers let the land lie fallow for the shmitah year, and suggested they get loans from Jerusalem to stay afloat. In desperation, they wrote to Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan Spektor, the Chief Rabbi of Kovno, who was a member of the early Zionist organization, Hovevei Tzion, that had established the town of Rishon L’Zion.
Rabbi Spektor permitted heter mechirah, literally “the permission of selling,” by which the land that the young Jewish farming communities worked was temporarily sold to non-Jews for the shmitah year. Since the laws of shmitah only applied to land in Israel that was owned by Jews, the Jewish farmers could work this land. This controversial legal loophole was opposed by the rabbis in Jerusalem and by others. However, heter mechirah was later reaffirmed as permissible by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Chief Rabbi in the British Mandate of Palestine.
Today, there is still much controversy over the acceptability of relying on heter mechirah in Israel. Some let their fields lie fallow and just take what grows naturally from the previous year’s planting. Others rely on newer innovations of recent decades, such as hydroponic growing, permitted because the shmitah laws only apply to produce that is rooted in the land, not the water. On a similar principle, some farmers grow produce in beds that are raised above the ground during the shmitah year.
* * * * *
“The Shmitah (sabbatical) year frees the land from total human ownership. The yield of the land in that year, whatever grows without human effort, is ownerless and is available for all, including the animals of the earth. The philosophy of the interrelatedness of all life within itself and with its Creator is the seed for vital ecological and socio-ethical insights, responsibility, and promise.” —Dr. Eliezer Berkovits, Not in Heaven: The Nature and Function of Halacha (New York: Ktav, 1983)
Shmitah: Your Sabbatical Year
The new Jewish year, 5768, is a shmitah, or sabbatical, year.
In the Jewish tradition, the shmitah year is when farmers in the Land of Israel let their fields lie fallow in the seventh year after six years of planting and harvesting. Farmers let produce grow naturally from the previous season’s planting without any human intervention, and then, instead of harvesting the crops, rich and poor alike come and take what they need for their immediate use. Despite the distance that most of us have from hands-on farming, the idea of letting land rest resonates with us today, as we discuss contemporary food issues such as sustainability, organic pesticides, crop rotation, and supporting locally grown food to reduce carbon emissions. The idea of redistributing food from the wealthy landowner to the landless poor also resonates with us today, in an age when many rely on food pantries for their very subsistence.
As part of the Bible’s incremental process to eliminate slavery altogether, slaves are freed permanently from their masters during the shmitah year. In the Bible, slavery can only exist under very specific circumstances, and is only for a period of six years, which necessarily reduces permanent dependence on slaves. While slavery is an ethically perverse idea to us, what it means to treat workers fairly is a part of our daily discourse as a society.
Finally, in the seventh year, loans and debts are forgiven and some land that was sold in the intervening six years returns to its previous owner. While unbridled capitalism would reject such a stark redistribution of wealth, in our own time legislators and universities are discussing loan forgiveness programs as a way to ensure that recent college graduates who wish to pursue careers in public service are able to do so.
These three freedoms—for the land, for people, and from debt—serve to remind us that although we may feel that we are in charge of the food we eat, people we employ, and money we make, they are all beyond our ultimate control. The shmitah year is inaugurated by a public reading of the Torah, called hak’hel, the ultimate inclusive, free, public education. Hak’hel serves as a further reminder that it is text, not land, money, or employees, that we turn to in order to find meaning in our lives.
Throughout this essay, explore passages from the Bible from which we learn about the concept of shmitah. Read other texts, ancient and contemporary, that refer to our analogous struggles with these issues of land, food, work, and redistribution of wealth.
Just as a fallow period regenerates the land, the sabbatical year renews the human mind—and lays the groundwork for a richer future harvest. Celebrate shmitah by making it your year for a personal sabbatical, during which you take some time to study and reflect on Jewish texts, including the Bible, Midrash, and Talmud, short stories and films, and historical, theological, and spiritual texts.
“The mighty in strength that fulfill His word” (Psalms 103:20).To whom does the Scripture refer? R. Isaac said,“To those who are willing to observe the Year of Release. In the way of the world, a man may be willing to observe a commandment for a day, a week, a month, but is he likely to continue to do so through the remaining days of the year? But throughout that year this mighty man sees his field declared ownerless, his fences broken down, and his produce consumed by others, yet he continues to give up his produce without saying a word. Can you conceive a person mightier than such as he?”
—Midrash Leviticus Rabbah, 1:1
Freedom for the Land
“When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard 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 shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the undergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. But you may eat whatever the land during its Sabbath will produce—you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, and your cattle and the beasts in your land may eat all its yield.”
“We do not inherit this land from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”
—Native American proverb
“And should you ask, ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?’ I will ordain my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will still be eating old grain of that crop; you will be eating the old until the ninth year, until its crops come in. But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”
“If you are planning for one year, grow rice. If you are planning for twenty years, grow trees. If you are planning for centuries, grow men.”
Freedom for People
“If a fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free. When you set him free, do not let him go empty handed: Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which the Lord your God has blessed you. Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.”
“But what more oft, in nations grown corrupt, And by their voices brought to servitude, Than to love bondage more than liberty— Bondage with ease than strenuous liberty—”
—John Milton, Samson Agonistes
“What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist—the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.”
—Rose Schneiderman, garment worker and labor organizer, 1912
“Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.”
Freedom from Debt
“Every seventh year, you shall practice remission of debts. … Every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of the Lord….Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.…Beware lest you harbor the base thought, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,’ so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing….Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”
“Today, the average student leaves college with more than ,000 in student loan debt. This [is] discouraging many young people from choosing careers in fields such as teaching, social work and law enforcement— the low-paying but vital jobs that bring large benefits to our society…. The Higher Education Access Act of 2007 will… completely forgive the loans of those who enter society’s most needed professions….Our society needs more teachers, more emergency management and law enforcement professionals, more public health doctors and nurses, more social workers, more librarians, more public interest lawyers, and more early childhood teachers.… Under our bill,we’ll produce more of them, because they— and all the groups I’ve just mentioned—will be eligible for loan forgiveness.”
—Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), at a press conference on June 20, 2007
“And Moses instructed them as follows: Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities— that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching.”
“The hope of a nation lies in the proper education of its youth.”
I’ve been wanting to write a wrap-up post about my experiences in the yeshiva for awhile now, but I’ve been very busy with last-minute doctors’ appointments (health insurance in Israel for people who might theoretically have pre-existing conditions—any advice?), setting up my freelance writing and editing business (clients, anyone?), finalizing things with my subletter, and packing up my stuff (not done yet).
But here I am, in Omaha, Nebraska, waiting for a flight back to New York after my cousin’s bat mitzvah. The bat mitzvah was beautiful, and much more joyous and hopeful than I had expected. (If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you may recall this.) I also got to see my grandmother’s gravestone for the first time, which somehow felt…right. The family members who chose the inscription chose very well.
Aliza Mazor came to the yeshiva to do a wrap-up session on the last Tuesday that we met. She asked us all how we think differently about our own Jewish life as result of the experience. I hadn’t thought about it, since I was so busy learning. Once I started writing, I found that I couldn’t stop. This is the list that I made, and I think it’s safe to say that most or all of these merit their own posts. Someday, I hope!
- I feel like more of an actor or an active player in my own Jewish decisions. I would have described myself that way before the summer, but, in retrospect, I have been passively floating along for a very long time.
- I have new confidence that I have something to say and that other people want to hear what I have to say.
- I have a new feeling that egalitarianism isn’t beyond the pale religiously or sociologically.
- I have a new sense that perhaps tefillah and limmud Torah aren’t as totally separable as I previously thought they were. Perhaps you can’t honestly do one without the other.
- I have a renewed conviction that one can and should bring one's personal and emotional life to bear on one's limmud Torah.
- It’s possible to not be afraid of a challenge, even if it sometimes includes failure.
- Halacha can be relevant, interesting, and more than either an intellectual game or a sort of traditional, ethnic code of conduct that's divorced from the intellect.
And it worked out. In fact, it worked out so well that I didn’t even remember by the end that I had been (mildly) terrified before I started. It wasn’t perfect—of course. It had its attendant frustrations, which were only exacerbated by the fact that I had such high expectations. I was given a choice between two gemara shiurim [Talmud classes], and I chose to be in the one for people with slightly less experience, which may have been a mistake. I had a great chavruta in that class, though, which was amazing. (I don't know if I recognized how great it was at the time.)
I don't really have time to write more--I have a plane to catch. I just wanted to tell everyone, after this summer of relative silence, that I am glad that I made the decision to spend the summer learning, and I'm glad I decided to do it where I did it.
How about one called "סדר היום," possibly by the , מגן אברהם, aka "ר' אברהם אבלי גומבינר"?
P.S. I'm sorry for the long absence. I am still alive and kicking, now in Jerusalem. I have a bunch of blog posts up my sleeve (including a wrap-up of my summer yeshiva studies), but no time to write or finish them, since I am so gosh darn busy learning. (Also, I have no internet at home (yet), so my internet time is severely limited.)