Yovel: a radical social-religious experiment

In a phenomenal attempt to engineer an artificially egalitarian economic system, the Torah describes in this week’s Parsha (Behar-Behukotai) the culmination of the seven-year Shemitah cycle known as Yovel (Jubilee). In this fiftieth year of the cycle (as in the seventh), fields lie fallow, debts are forgiven, slaves and indentured servants are released, and all land returns to its originally designated familial ownership. It’s like clicking the ultimate reset button.

But it didn’t work. We first see the evidence in Deuteronomy, when the Israelites are commanded not to take the approaching seventh year into account when deciding whether or not to lend to someone in need. Human nature being what it is, why should I lend you something if I know that your debt will be canceled in the next year or so? Well, Deuteronomy answers, because G-d wants you to be kind and caring towards your neighbors, and because you will cursed if you hold back your loan for this (perfectly reasonable) reason.

Hundreds of years later, it still isn’t working. How do we know? Because in the Mishnah we learn about Hillel the Elder’s attempt to fix the broken system by inventing a contract known as a prosbol, and it explains that Jews were indeed going explicitly against the Deutoronomic injunction not to withhold loans close to the Shmitah (seventh) year. Hillel, returning to the intent of the law described in the Torah, ruled that both parties could sign on the dotted line and thereby nullify the nullification of the debt! What?! He went in direct contradiction of the letter of the law (that debts are canceled every Shmitah year), because he understood that the intent was to ensure that those in need would receive aid, and that wasn’t happening.

I’m sure that his amendment caused other unintended consequences, because that’s what happens with experiments – you try it out, and when you figure out what worked and what didn’t, you try to tweak the broken part without breaking something else. This process is still in action today, in both the American and Jewish legal systems, and it is inherently flawed and imperfect, but still the best system in existence. The moral of the story is surely to be moral, and to make sure that our societies strive to care for the needy no matter what.

This Shabbat, I encourage you to ask your children how they think your family takes care of those in need, and what else they think you might be able to do to ensure that our society pursues justice.

Shabbat Shalom,