How can Judaism's shmita idea solve modern problems? - review

Let people draw on their social benefits cyclically – to retrain, to go back to school, or to relieve debt instead of waiting for retirement and only starting to collect social benefits then.

 BUYING KOSHER produce in central Jerusalem during the shmita sabbatical year, 2000. (photo credit: REUTERS)
BUYING KOSHER produce in central Jerusalem during the shmita sabbatical year, 2000.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

During the year 5782 that just ended on the Jewish calendar – and once every seven years – a set of complicated Jewish laws apply in the Land of Israel. Called the shmita, or sabbatical year, these restrictions often lead to a sense of relief when it is over. But one religious Jew, Rabbi Aharon Ariel Lavi, encourages us to make the ideas behind the shmita year (as opposed to the laws themselves) a permanent part of the social and economic fabric of society.

Seven: Shmita Inspired Social and Economic Ideals is his second book about economics and Judaism. In it, Lavi gives a solid summary of how observance of the laws of the shmita year has changed over the centuries. 

Debts must be forgiven at the end of the shmita year (Deuteronomy 15:1-11), a law that almost no one follows today. Very few Jews in Israel are farmers – and very few of those who are refrain from working the land during the shmita year (Exodus 23:10-11 and Leviticus 25:1-6), relying instead on a variety of workaround solutions. The Bible explains that both these laws were designed to benefit the poor (Exodus 23:11 and Deuteronomy 15:7). 

The modern shmita

But the way the shmita year is now observed by the few who observe it – by refraining from eating certain produce – provides no relief to the poor. As Avi Sagi and Yedidya Stern have written (as quoted in this book), “the Israeli shmita [as currently observed] is a depressing experience of missing a potential moment of grace in our national lives.”

“The Israeli shmita [as currently observed] is a depressing experience of missing a potential moment of grace in our national lives.”

Avi Sagi and Yedidya Stern

Lavi surveys a variety of ideas proposed by Israeli rabbis and thinkers to make the shmita year relevant again. Since according to the Bible, the land lies fallow during the shmita year, many have suggested redoubling our commitment to the environment once every seven years.

The shmita (sabbatical) year comes once every seven years. The Torah commands us to stop working the land and let it lie fallow, leaving its yield to any man or animal. (credit: THEOPHILOS PAPADOPOULOS/FLICKR)The shmita (sabbatical) year comes once every seven years. The Torah commands us to stop working the land and let it lie fallow, leaving its yield to any man or animal. (credit: THEOPHILOS PAPADOPOULOS/FLICKR)

The author reports on other creative proposals – that people should suspend their Facebook accounts during the shmita year or that academics should not travel to conferences in order to lower carbon emissions. The irony in this last suggestion is that some of the classical rabbis believed that refraining from agricultural work during the shmita year was to allow people more opportunities to come together for communal study.

Lavi has his own thoughts on how to make the ideas behind shmita relevant. He argues that the agricultural restrictions create a planned cyclical crisis. He suggests that we might have done a better job of dealing with the unexpected crisis of COVID-19 had we learned from the shmita year about how to deal with such crises.

This is interesting, but the book, a translation/adaptation from one originally published in Hebrew, can be hard going for English readers. Some of the detailed discussions of Jewish law are difficult to follow in English. Some of the locutions simply are not standard English (e.g. “...tells his close friend about the conquers he intends to pursue”). And some of the translations are poor. For example, mistranslating the Hebrew mitzvat shevi’it, (i.e. the commandment to observe the shmita year), as a reference to the “seventh commandment,” can only confuse an English reader.

This is truly unfortunate, since Lavi’s thoughts about the economy and classical Jewish concepts are innovative and deserve attention.

UNLIKE THE agricultural restrictions, the debt release laws of the shmita year do not create a crisis but rather alleviate one, removing the burden of spiraling debt. Lavi argues that the biblical idea of forgiving debts every seven years is neither as radical nor as impractical as many imagine. Throughout the ancient world, personal debts were forgiven from time to time. Even today, wealthy countries often forgive the escalating debts of weaker countries, deciding that it is better to avoid the instability that could result from a country defaulting on its debts.

Why should personal debt be different, Lavi asks? Why do we assume that people’s fortunes naturally increase in a linear manner and “that any debt is repayable eventually?” Isn’t it more accurate to think of fortunes as being cyclical?

Lavi takes into account two recent social changes. First, the number of people who stay in the same job until retirement is dwindling. Secondly, for the first time in history, people are living many years beyond “traditional” retirement ages and are quickly depleting the funds in social welfare systems, such as Bituah Leumi (National Insurance) or Social Security.

He suggests an economic restructuring: Let people draw on their social benefits cyclically – to retrain, to go back to school, or to relieve debt instead of waiting for retirement and only starting to collect social benefits then.

It’s encouraging to see a religious thinker who, rather than trying to develop ways to get around traditions that might seem out of place in a modern society, adapts the ideas behind the ancient texts to try to solve modern problems. 

Seven: Shmita Inspired Social and Economic IdealsBy Aharon Ariel LaviThe Keter Institute for Torah-Based Economics/Contento Now350 pages; $24.50