Thibble Thursday: Occupy Mount Sinai (Leviticus 25:1–26:2)

This chapter is full of interesting developments, with some very peculiar civil-justice and civil practice codes which actually some people have (if at least metaphorically) tried to make relevant today. All this is in פָּרָשַׁת בהר (“At Mount” portion). I continue to use the Fox translation and the WRJ commentary, although the first draft of this is being done based on online translations, since I was on the road, which is also what delayed this week’s wibble a bit.

The quick snarky summary: Every seven years, nobody’s supposed to do any farming. But they won’t starve anyways. In the fiftieth year you get a double-whammy with a second fallow year and a complete reset on the economy. Presumably, neither of these practices were actually observed the way they were supposed to be.


There are two extraordinary types of year with which this parsha chiefly concerns itself. Every seven years the land of Israel, like tenured academic faculty, gets a sabbatical. Many translators in fact translate the term שמיטה as “sabbatical”, although, notably, that term is not even used here, but only appears back in the original reference in Exodus 23:11. It’s formally translated as “release”, but the much more common term is שבת or שּביעת, two close cognates meaning, respectively, “Sabbath” and “seventh”, so the שמיטה year is really regarded as just the same idea as the Sabbath, writ large. However, that “writ large” is actually pretty extreme, because while nobody doing any work for a day every so often is a nuisance, nobody doing any work for a full year is an unmitigated disaster, and the text of Leviticus 25:4–7 is pretty explicit here: nobody is supposed to labor in agriculture at all, and whatever yield the uncultivated fields and orchards and vineyards produce are free for all to eat. While leaving fields fallow might well be a worthwhile thing to do occasionally, the text doesn’t suggest this is a crop-rotation scheme, but rather that every field should simultaneously lie fallow, which is a lot less sensible. Jumping forwards a bit, to Leviticus 25:20–22, the text at least addresses, if unconvincingly, the fact that this agricultural plan is highly problematic, raising the specific objection of starvation in the seventh year, and offering the reassurance that the sixth year’s harvest will be so bountiful as to last three years (through the שמיטה and the year of trying to restart the agricultural system). On the basis of this verse, I’d say that if the sixth year’s harvest was truly that outstanding, then observance of the שמיטה could be justified, but since the justification comes in advance, it’s not exactly an act of faith, is it? And as a hidebound skeptic, I’m rather dubious that sixth-year bounty actually occurred, so if the Jews did neglect this observance, really, it’s God’s own fault.

One might ask: since clearly this is completely untenable in a modern agricultural system, what do observant Jewish farmers do these days? Well, since this law is given very specifically as a practice for after they take possession of the land of Israel, Jews in the diaspora can safely ignore this, In Israel there are apparently some rather silly ownership tricks where the land is essentially sold in trust to non-Jews, taking it out from under the applicable laws. But, yes, people dodge שמיטה, and they probably had other dodges before this most recent one.

However, this observance pales in impracticality beside the fifty-year יובל, a term which may be a cognate with “ram” for the horn blown to signal it, or, as Fox suggests, a term connoting “inbringing” or “homebringing”. Other authors invariably anglicize the term as “Jubilee”, and knowing what “Jubilee” is as described in Leviticus 25:9–13 will explain why the term is getting thrown around a lot with regard to the concept of debt relief.

Broadly speaking: the יובל has the same fallow-field requirements as a שמיטה, but in addition, there are rules described both here and later in the chapter which essentially serve to undo the entire last half-century of economic development. Houses are returned to their “original owners” (whoever that may be — it seems very likely that in most cases the best people matching that description would be dead), and slaves and debtors are freed. It’s the debt-freedom that’s captured popular imagination these days, and some interesting discussion has arisen because of it, but I’m afraid that the Jubilee, as originally conceived, was a law extraordinarily hostile to any sort of economic development. Laws freely interpreted as prohibiting interest already shackled the economy by making lending extremely unappealing; the Jubilee, as described here, would further make property transfer unfeasible, leading to an incredibly stagnant economy. I can only presume that the יובל, like the שמיטה, was never actually practiced, but it doesn’t seem to have spawned the same set of rabbinic exceptions and dodges.

Much like verse 20 raises and responds to the objection that letting the land lie fallow would be unsound, verses 14–16 notes, not apparently regarding it as a problem, the fact that since property “sale” is basically a lease for no more than 50 years, the sale price of property ought to go diminish through a יובל-cycle, until at the end the purchase cost of the land is basically nothing (since the purchaser would have to give it right back anyways). The rationale given for the lack of any permanent sale is based on the premise, which is fairly axiomatic in this section of the Bible, that the land belongs to God and that people just occupy it for a while: as such, any transfer we make is reverted eventually so as to show the impermanence of our own actions (which would be a comforting ecological thought if it were true).

The rest of Chapter 25 is chiefly concerned with giving brass-tacks details on the sort of economic misfortunes the יובל was supposed to address, namely, destitute Jews selling either their land or themselves to cover debts. The social-justice principle at work here seems to be an attempt to balance the seller’s right of reclaiming their property when they can afford to against the buyer’s right to enjoy security in their purchase (at least until the next Jubilee). The first line of defense the Bible offers is avoiding the situation altogether, by having some kinsman of the pauper redeem the pledge. Otherwise, the rules become a bit complicated and divided up by cases. Farmland and property in unwalled villages can be redeemed at an appropriately depreciated price at any time, and is automatically redeemed at the Jubilee, while property in a walled town can only be redeemed in the first year after sale, and doesn’t even revert in the Jubilee. There’s presumably a historical reason for this, having to do with the population density and concepts of ownership in the more densely populated cities. The WRJ commentary suggests that it has to do with the extent to which a rural dwelling is a homestead integral to a family’s welfare, while an urban dwelling is a house, which is an interchangable part and another house would do as well.

As for debt slavery, this chapter institutes a fairly plainly inequitable rule: Israelite indentured servants had to be released in the jubilee year, but foreigners, resident aliens, or their children could be kept indefinitely. In fact, the text only grudgingly allows for the circumstance where a foreigner might keep slaves: it strongly encourages the kin of the slaves to buy them back. The very end of Chapter 25 explains this inequity: much like the Israelites are “leasing the land from God”, they are also “servants only to God”, and as such, can’t be tolerated in indefinite servitude to mere humans. Compelling logic, but I imagine the foreign-born slaves would make the same argument about Ba’al or whoever.

Two verses of Chapter 26 are shoehorned into this parsha, for reasons I don’t understand. They’re a rather predictable repetition of God’s One Big Law: don’t worship idols. They really have nothing to do with what comes before, and little to do with what comes after. But that’s for another week.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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