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"For Instruction shall come forth from Zion, The word of the L-rd from Jerusalem." -- Isaiah 2:3


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LEVITICUS — 25:10 jubilee

This special year, with its laws, truly gave people a chance to begin economic life anew. When the Jews came into the land of Israel, the land was apportioned to each family by tribes. During each fifty-year cycle land was bought and sold as in any real estate market in a capitalistic society. However, everyone knew that the end of the fifty-year cycle the land would return to the original owners [this verse]. Of course, the price of land would be affected according to how close it was to the Yovel year [Leviticus 25:15-16]. But a much more important psychological benefit occurred under this system. Each person, no matter how poor and no matter how much in debt, knew that as the Yovel year came, he and his family would have a chance to start over. This is indicated in the Torah itself [Leviticus 25:39-41] where it clearly implies that Judaism does not desire anyone to become too indebted to another man. Therefore, in addition to all land returning to the original owners, all Jewish servants also went free at the Yovel year. In a similar manner, all the people that became very wealthy in real estate transactions by using business acumen also knew that as Yovel came, the wealth from landownership would disappear. And since the land was the main occupation of the people of that society, no one could become too rich for too long of a period. This clearly was G-d's goal in setting up this system. The Torah specifically says [Leviticus 25:23] that the land shall not be sold in perpetuity because people should realize that the land belongs to G-d, not to them. They are only sojourners with G-d, that is, the connection with the land (and with life in general) is only temporary. There are many more details of this economic program, but the essentials outlined here help us to understand how, in essence, the Torah's economic society tries to combine the best of both economic systems. The Torah does encourage competition and initiative to try to become wealthy. Judaism has a positive outlook upon accumulation of wealth (See the chapter about "Money in Wealth"). Thus, the Torah does essentially advocate a capitalistic society. However, the Torah also recognizes the dangers in letting the capitalistic society continue unchecked, leading to a society where a general insensitivity to the worker can develop and where a real possibility exists that many people will wind up in inescapable poverty. Therefore, certain brakes were put on the system to prevent the poor from becoming too poor too quickly (the severing of loans every seven years) and gave every person the ability to break the inevitability of remaining poor without hope (by giving a person a chance to begin again with land at Yovel). This system attempts to have a moral impact as well, by "forcing" everyone to stop for a year to explore interests that are not economic and to realize that everything essentially depends upon G-d's will. In addition, the rich will realize sooner than later how easily one can lose an accumulated fortune.

LEVITICUS — 25:10 liberty

So relevant does this vision remain that the international movement for debt relief for Third World countries by the year 2000 was called Jubilee 2000, an explicit reference to the principle set out in this parasha. Three things are worth noting about the Torah's social and economic programme. First, it is more concerned with human freedom than with a narrow focus on economic equality. Losing your land or becoming trapped by debt are real constraints on freedom. [This is the argument set out by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen in his book, Development as Freedom (Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 2001).] Fundamental to a Jewish understanding of the moral dimension of economics is the idea of independence, "each person under his own vine and fig tree," as the prophet Micah put it (Mic. 4:4). We pray in the Grace after Meals, "Do not make us dependent on the gifts or loans of other people… so that we may suffer neither shame nor humiliation." There is something profoundly degrading in losing your independence and being forced to depend on the goodwill of others. Hence the provisions of Behar are directed not at equality but at restoring people's capacity to earn their own livelihood as free and independent agents. Next, it takes this entire system out of the hands of human legislators. It rest on two fundamental ideas about capital and labor. First, the land belongs to G-d: "The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is Mine and you reside in My land as strangers and temporary residents" (Leviticus 25:23). Second, the same applies to people: "Because the Israelites are My servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves" (Leviticus 25:42). This means that personal and economic liberty are not open to political negotiation. They are inalienable, G-d-given rights. Third, it tells us that economics is, and must remain, a discipline that rests on moral foundations. What matters to the Torah is not simply technical indices such as the rate of growth or absolute standards of wealth but the quality and texture of relationships: people's independence and sense of dignity, the ways in which the system allows people to recover from misfortune, and the extent to which it allows the members of a society to live the truth that "when you eat from the labor of your hands that you will be happy and it will be well with you" (Ps. 128:2).

LEVITICUS — 25:10 release

In Jewish terms, there are three words to describe different kinds of freedom.  The first word is chofesh.  This is the lowest form of freedom.  In modern Hebrew, this word means vacation.  Like the modern meaning, the Torah uses this word to mean a stoppage of physical work.  When a servant went free, the Torah called this chofesh (Exodus 21:2) Thus, all that chofesh implies is a cessation of physical toil, which has nothing to do with morality and spirituality.   The second Torah reference to freedom is the word dror.  This word is also the name for a bird.  Like the bird who is free and migrates to a warmer climate in winter and returns in summer, this type of freedom refers to a return to a freer status.  That is why the context for this type of freedom is the Jubilee year when all people return to their land at the end of the fifty-year period [this verse]. … The highest type of freedom is Judaism is cherut.  This implies spiritual freedom, not merely a cessation from work or a chance to start over, but a feeling of freedom and a higher purpose of life.  … this is why Passover is called Zeman Cherutainu, the holiday of freedom.  This is not merely the freedom from the bondage of Egypt … but the Jewish people becoming a people…a nation with its own culture and religion.  Pesach is a celebration of spiritual freedom not mere physical freedom. …  Only on Shavuot did the Jews truly become free.  By accepting a new lifestyle (Exodus 24:7) that gave them a moral set of laws to live by, they achieved cherut, true freedom …. To understand this phenomenon with the Jews, one has only to look at the history of the black people in the United States.  In the 1860s they received their legal freedom through Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  The fourteenth amendment to the Constitution gave blacks the legal right to vote.  But that did not make the black Americans feel free.  They began to feel free only in the 1960s when the marches and leaders inspired black pride, black studies, and a feeling of belonging to something special.  This is the freedom that approximates cherut.

LEVITICUS — 25:11 jubilee

This cry for social justice is heard throughout the prophetic writings. It was the demand of Isaiah (v. 8) and the lack of it was condemned by Amos (viii. 4). The Book of Proverbs (xi. 26) imposes curses upon him who withholds the corn from the people in need. Judaism laid the foundations of a higher justice not satisfied with the mitigation of misery by pittances but insisted on a readjustment of the social conditions that create poverty. If the rest of the world has become more philosophically-minded, it is due in great measure to the "Poor Laws" of the Torah, to its institutions of Shemitah (Deut. xv. 1-6) and Yovel [this verse], and to its provisions for the release of debts in the restoration of fields and houses to those forced to sell what had once been their patrimony. These human regulations aimed at preventing the tyranny of wealth from becoming a permanent source of oppression. From them arose all efforts in modern times to alleviate the lot of the poor and check the causes of corruption in the social organism. Jewish Social Ethics seek not only to alleviate but to cure; not only to serve as a panacea for many ills but as a prophylactic; not only to add to the happiness of mankind but to arm the good instincts inherent in society and in man that they may overcome the evil rampant in the world. Justice demands a consciousness of individual responsibility and an interdependence of one man on another. In Jewish ethics, virtue is not a sedative, but a stimulus; not a dope, but a dynamic.

LEVITICUS — 25:14 deceive

Ona'at mammon (price deception or price fraud) is a very important prohibition that teaches us that we have to "play fair." The concept is related to theft, although unlike geneivat da'at (deception), ona'at mammon is a specific provision found in the Torah [this verse]. The Mishnah articulates very specific guidelines as to what constitutes price fraud: selling an object for more than 1/6 above what it is "really" worth. Interestingly--and very much at odds with our normally accepted ideas about fairness in pricing--it is equally forbidden to underpay. Paying more than 1/6 below the real price is also forbidden, and such a transaction can be legally nullified. A reasonable profit is allowed, and some variation in pricing is acceptable, but overall prices should be "fair." One of the biggest problems in applying this principle is determining what constitutes the "same product." Two stores may be selling what appears to be the same product, but one store might provide a better warranty, or have different payment terms, or offer much better customer service, and so on, all of which could be sufficient to say that the product is not exactly the same and a price differential greater than 1/6 is justified.

LEVITICUS — 25:14 neighbor

Where a Jew has something to sell, and both a Jew and a non-Jew wish to buy it, he should sell to the Jew, and the same preference is followed in buying. So Scripture ordained [this verse]: "And if you sell ought to your neighbor, or buy from your neighbor's hand." Here the Sifra elucidates: "If you sell, sell to your neighbor, the Israelite. And if you buy, buy from your neighbor, the Israelite." Obviously, the same rule applies to the renting of an article or tool. It is better to rent from a Jew if the renter will derive equal benefit from either one.

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