A Sabbatical For The Land And Loans

A Sabbatical For The Land And Loans

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:49 p.m.
Torah reading:
Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17
Haftarah: Isaiah 44:11-45:5
Shabbat ends: 8:51 p.m.


It isn’t what we have, it’s what we do with it.

The biblical portion of Re’eh contains many laws — ritual and ethical — but with a marked emphasis on the ethical, especially in terms of interpersonal relationships and finances. In this context, our portion includes the law of the Sabbatical year requiring the Israelites to leave their land fallow every seventh year, neither sowing nor pruning nor reaping nor harvesting. The land is allowed to rest and restore itself, fruits and vegetables are left “free for all takers” and the clear lesson is that “no land may be sold (or owned) in perpetuity, for the land (even land that God gave to Israel) is Mine (God’s); you (human occupants) are merely strangers and residents with Me (on My land)” [Leviticus 25:23]. 

Re’eh adds one critical nuance: Not only must all landowners relinquish (shmita) their ownership of the land by not “working” it and by allowing every passerby to benefit from its produce, but they must likewise release their debtors from repaying their loans at the end of this seventh year. “This is the matter of the remission: every creditor must remit his authority over what he has lent his fellow; he may not press his fellow or his brother for repayment, since a shmita has been proclaimed for the Lord” [Deuteronomy 15:2]. 

Many modern biblical scholars maintain that the Bible is merely calling for an extension, and not a cancellation, of loans; after all, if the farmer cannot harvest and sell his excess produce, how can he be expected to repay a loan? Therefore, the creditor must wait until the end of the eighth year, after the following harvest, to press for repayment. However, the sages did not interpret shmita as merely a temporary suspension of the loan, but rather as a complete cancellation, an opportunity for every debtor to start afresh, to gain a new lease on life, emerging from the sabbatical year with a clean slate. Indeed, the very next passage enjoins the Israelite to open his hand to his destitute brother, to freely lend him whatever he requires and to beware “lest there be a malevolent thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the debtor-release year, is approaching,’ and you will look meanly upon your destitute and you will not give him a loan; he may then appeal against you before the Lord, and it will be accounted to you as a sin. You must give, yes give him … and, in return, God will bless you in all your deeds and in your every undertaking” [Deut. 15:9,10]. 

But is this really fair? Can the Bible expect creditors to wipe out their IOU receivables in the sabbatical year? The fact is, when society changed from an agrarian to an industrial system, and individuals began making business rather than personal loans, the sages allowed for a prozbul, wherein loans were to be made through the religious court and therefore would not have to be rescinded on the seventh year [B.T. Gittin 36-37]. Nevertheless, the biblical law would certainly require, even today, well-to-do creditors to cancel personal loans, especially to indigent debtors.

What is the basis for this requirement? I believe the answer is to be found in a literal reading of the passage which forbids taking interest on loans: “If you (have surplus funds, and therefore are in a position to) lend to My nation, (understand that) God has given the money which should have gone to the poor to you (in trust); do not press him in an overbearing way, and do not charge him interest” since you are only returning to him what should have gone to him in the first place [Exodus 22:24], in accordance with the interpretation of the Ohr HaChaim, R. Chaim ben-Attar.

Not only our land but also our funds really belong to God, and He expects us to distribute those funds fairly! It is not what we have which is significant, but who we are, and who we are depends in great measure on what we give — to others, to society. 

I heard a beautiful story from a very special Jew, Victor Alhadeff, who together with his gracious wife Suzie is a leader of the Seattle Jewish community: Eight extremely wealthy, but nonobservant Jews took a trip to Israel for the first time. As was to be expected, they were hounded by donation seekers, all of whom left them unimpressed. Then they were taken to a haredi yeshiva, whose representative promised that they would be taught Torah in the central study hall for only one hour by English-speaking students — and there would be no appeal for funds.

After a fascinating hour, the elderly yeshiva head, stricken with Parkinson’s, rose to address them: “I am old, and have lived my life. You are young and have much to accomplish. I know you are busy, and have no patience for long speeches. You have visited our yeshiva and studied with our students — all very dedicated, all very poor, living from hand to mouth. Permit me to leave you with one thought. I spent the Holocaust in a concentration camp. We were eight people in one bunk who were cruelly pushed to work with rigor and almost without food for 16 hours a day. We came back at night to a freezing room with only one blanket. What did we, what could we do? We shared!”

The old yeshiva head sat down. His lesson was clear, as is the lesson of the Bible. We must all share! 

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, and chief rabbi of Efrat.


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