The Law of the Sabbatical Year

B'har, Leviticus 25:1-26:2

D'Var Torah By: Dr. Carol Ochs

What does it mean to lie fallow? How do we distinguish fallowness from sterility? What will nourish us during this time of no creativity? When will we bloom again?

Before we can make any sense of the Sabbatical year, we need to look at the role of time in Judaism, the first historical religion, and its offspring, Christianity and Islam, the other two historical religions. The rest of the worlds' religions are soteriological, that is, focusing on "salvation," and are, as such, ahistorical. That does not mean that Buddha never lived or that the events in the Upanishads never occurred. It means that for Buddhists and Hindus, the focus is on a process forever unfolding in the individual's heart or soul.

Analogously, a historical religion is not one that is verified by archeology. Rather, it is a religion that takes time seriously and has time itself as a major character in the understanding of our relationship to God. The fourth day of Creation has the creation of the sun, moon, and stars first and foremost: "to separate day from night; to be markers for sacred seasons, for days and years; and to be lights in the expanse of the sky, spilling light upon the earth."(Genesis 1:14-16). So the first function of the heavenly bodies is to distinguish and mark times and seasons.

Genesis 2 gives us the first warrant for a concept of Sabbath: "Completed now were heaven and the earth and all their host. On the seventh day, God had completed the work that had been done, ceasing then on the seventh day from all the work that [God] had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, and ceased from all the work of creative work that God [had chosen] to do" (Genesis 2:1-4).

Sabbath, as it is first explained to us, is related to completion of work and stepping back to rest, reflect, and bless the completion. But does anyone except God ever complete the work they set out to do? Consider the fourth of the ten words, "Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Eternal your God: you shall not do any work. . . " (Exodus 20:8-10). Here we are not required to have completed our work; we are simply to refrain from engaging in it on the seventh day. The concept is to rest on the seventh day in imitation of God who rested on the seventh day.

When this teaching is repeated in Deuteronomy 5:12-15 the emphasis is that we should, "Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Eternalyour God freed us from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Eternalyour God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day." Sabbath reminds us that we are not slaves. Any work that must be carried on nonstop enslaves us. We must pause, reflect, be renewed, and bless.

Time becomes the medium through which we create. We create meaning and value, unlike spring and fall, which are natural phenomena caused by the orbit of the earth around the sun. Sabbath is something we create that has no basis in the lights created on the fourth day. The sabbatical year has even less grounding in any phenomenon in the astronomical world. But it has a special grounding in the psychological and spiritual world of people whose days are numbered and who try to live their lives as fully as possible within these fleeting years.

What does it really mean not to work? It means that our illusion of control is broken. We believe that we make, we supply, we are in charge. And once a week-and later once every seven years-we experience that even when we are not in control, the world is not uncontrolled. This posture underlines our utter dependence on the mercy of God. It also provides reassurance. It puts us in touch with marvelous images like these from Psalm 27:5: "He will shelter me in His pavilion . . . raise me high upon a rock."

We are accustomed to striving. We are repeatedly told, "no pain, no gain." But B'har is giving the amazingly counter-cultural message that we are commanded to not strive-or as the psalmist reminds us:

In vain do you rise early
and stay up late,
you who toil for the bread you eat;
God provides as much for God's loved ones
while they sleep. (Psalm 127:1-2)

We fight against time: we feel rushed and race against time; we feel bored and "kill time." B'har invites us to experience time as neither a master nor an enemy, but as one of God's creations. Weekly, and later-every seventh year-it is a creation we indeed have dominion over by experiencing time outside of time in the peace and blessedness of the Sabbath.

We return to the question asked at the start: What does it mean to lie fallow? How do we distinguish sterility from fallowness? What will nourish us during this time of uncreativity? When will we bloom again? The psalmist answers: "Be patient and wait for Adonai" (Psalm 37:7). We are told to trust God (Psalm 4:6), and that our youth will be renewed like the eagle's (Psalm 103:5).

The closing words of B'har are "You shall keep My sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary, Mine, the Eternal's" (Leviticus 26:2). The instruction to keep, observe, and remember the Sabbath, is repeated more than any other instruction, throughout the Torah. Somehow the renewal of the experience of Sabbath: weekly, every seventh year, every seven weeks of years (that is, every forty-ninth year, the Jubilee year) is a way of refreshing and nurturing the essential relationship that underlies all of living and creating. It is the relationship that nourishes us, that overcomes sterility, and as we stand in that relationship we do bloom again.

Dr. Carol Ochs is director of Graduate Studies and adjunct professor of Jewish Religious Thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

The Gift of Shabbat

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Laura Geller

In his book The Gifts of the Jews, the non-Jewish author, Thomas Cahill, explains that the idea of the Sabbath was a gift that transformed civilization (New York: Knopf Publishing Group, 1999). Without a time of rest and renewal, human beings are like animals, slaves to work. As Dr. Ochs observes, "Sabbath reminds us that we are not slaves. Any work that must be carried on nonstop enslaves us."

The idea that people are not slaves to their work is central to much that we take for granted. For example, we believe that every human being is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and that laws should regulate safety in the work place. This idea seems so obvious that we don't even notice it.

Remembering the Sabbath also should be obvious. But it isn't any more. Even non-Jewish clergy are concerned about what has happened to the Sabbath in our culture. In Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, Wayne Miller argues, "In the relentless busyness of modern life, we have lost the rhythm between work and rest" ([New York: Bantam Books, 1999], p. 3). He quotes Thomas Merton, "There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence. . . overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of violence."

Rabbi Eric Yoffie spoke about this at the Biennial in December, 2007:

For our stressed-out, sleep-deprived families, the Torah's mandate to rest looks relevant and sensible. Our tradition does not instruct us to stop working altogether on Shabbat; after all, it takes a certain amount of effort to study, pray, and go to synagogue. But we are asked to abstain from the work that we do to earn a living, and instead to reflect, to enjoy and to take a stroll through the neighborhood. We are asked to put aside those Blackberries and stop gathering information, just as the ancient Israelites stopped gathering wood. We are asked to stop running around long enough to see what God is doing.

It sounds easy but we all know it is so hard. At Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, we've begun the conversation about where to begin. For me there's a new resolution: Friday afternoon I put an away message on my e-mail that says: "I am unable to respond to your message until after Shabbat."

Then, I take a breath and notice that I, too, am a part of God's sanctuary.

Rabbi Laura Geller is senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, California.

Reference Materials

"B’har, Leviticus 25:1-26:2
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 940-957; Revised Edition, pp. 849-860; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 747-764"

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