Shemitah and the Jewish Economy
-Rabbi Moshe Bigel-
On social justice in a competitive world
In the financial world there are two primary socioeconomic philosophies:
First: the socialist doctrine, whereby all property is considered part of the public estate and all of the citizens of the state receive equal treatment and services (in Israel the kibbutz movement was founded on this premise). This system has its merits, both from a social and a religious perspective. The system creates a society in which everyone is equal and that does not have any members who are poor, weak or destitute. The highest level of charity is to provide a poor person with a place of work so that he may make an honorable living. This is what the socialist system strives for. The belief in one creator who created all living creatures also lends its support to a system that defines everyone as being equal.
The weakness of this system is that it is most often impractical since people by nature lack ambition and the will to further themselves, and the competitive drive that is so necessary for the development of the world, “the jealousy of scribes increases wisdom,” is lacking. Therefore, for this reason, entire social structures around the world, including the kibbutzim in Israel, have collapsed.
The second approach is American capitalism, which supports a free and open market. In this system, people are driven by their will to succeed and the resulting competition causes societies that adhere to this system to develop and further themselves. The virtue of this system is that it produces people who are personally driven to succeed and achieve their ambitions, thus furthering society and mankind at large, in realization of the adage “the jealousy of scribes increases wisdom.”
The weakness of this system is that it produces inequality between its members. The weak, disabled and poor are left alone behind the rest, without assistance and any chance at success. The wealthy are not aware of the needs of the weak and the poor, and thus the latter are relegated to a life of destitution and degradation. This social system is also currently experiencing socioeconomic turmoil as we witness the collapse of large and powerful companies around the world, with many destitute remains being left behind. Sometimes even the owners of such companies join the ranks of the poor, thus becoming part of a group that they did not even truly know existed beforehand.
Thus, each system carries with it certain weak points that make it inefficient and unjust. We must wonder, then, if there is a socioeconomic system that the Torah throws its weight behind. Can it be that the Torah, which contains the guidebook to all of life, which provides answers to all of the most difficult questions, does not offer guidance in this regard? In our parasha, which includes the chapters that deal with the Shemitah (sabbatical year), the Torah instructs us to implement a socioeconomic system that combines within it the best of the two systems described above.
In the ancient agricultural societies, the wealthy were the landowners and the poor were the indentured servants. The farmer lived within a competitive society and free market for six years, as evident from the following verse: “You may sow your field for six years, and for six years you may prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce.”
The fields and the property belong to man, and he has the drive and the ambition to succeed and further himself by working his land for six years within a competitive society in which everyone else is doing the same. This produces a society that succeeds and develops.
Once every seven years, there is a Shemitah year: “And [the produce of] the Sabbath of the land shall be yours to eat for you, for your male and female slaves, and for your hired worker and resident who live with you. And all of its produce may be eaten [also] by your domestic animals and by the beasts that are in your land.”
The land is temporarily assigned to the public (to the court), which cares for the trees and plants, collects the produce and distributes it equally to everyone. This economic system combines within it the positive elements of the competitive race to success that is the hallmark of the American system, as the landowner spends six of every seven years working to enhance his production and personal gain, with the advantages of the socialist system that governs the seventh year of every cycle.
Moreover, on the seventh year, during which everyone is equal, the landowner has the opportunity to experience the lifestyle of the poor person. The landowner is forbidden from eating a larger portion of the produce of his own land than is distributed to all others. He waits in line with everyone else for the court administrators to distribute the produce and thus experiences the hardship and feelings of insecurity and humbleness of the poor.
Following the Shemitah year, after he has had the opportunity to truly absorb these feelings of what it means to be destitute, he returns to his land and to the competitive race of a success based society. Life ostensibly returns to normal in the first year of the next seven year cycle, but this is not truly the case. A new and remade man returns to the free market, one who has experienced first-hand what it means not to have financial security and to be penniless. When the harvest season comes to a close and the landowner will be required to separate the corner of his field for the poor (pe’ah), he shall do so willingly and generously. When he has the opportunity to give charity from his profits he will give more liberally than someone who never experienced what it means to be poor. In this way, society returns to function as a free and competitive market but with different members, as the people who function within it have acquired new feelings and perspectives with respect to providing assistance and a helping hand to those in need. Thus, when the landowner renews his race to success in the free market, he does so with a deep understanding and empathy for what it means to be weak and destitute and with a special sensitivity to the personal dignity and needs of the poor. Over the years, it is possible that the constant competition dulls the sensitivities acquired during the Shemitah year, and this is why the Torah instituted a regular cycle, so that such feelings are renewed time and again.
In addition to the Shemitah cycle, every fifty years (approximately once in the lifetime of every person) all of the land returns to its original owners and the entire society resets itself economically and socially upon even terms for all its members. In our times, when the western free market driven world is searching for its way in the darkness of the worldwide financial downturn, and with the socialist system having already experienced total collapse, the State of Israel and the people of the book are presented with the opportunity to be a beacon unto the nations, to teach the entire world the socioeconomic system prescribed by the Torah in order to establish a world under the kingdom of Hashem.
Moshe Bigel is the community rabbi of Meitar and a member of the kashrut committee of Tzohar