Sabbatical Year and Jubilee in Twenty-First-Century America

Painting of hands reaching out.

Heeding the Torah’s call for a Sabbatical Year would bring us one step closer to truly caring for the earth. Credit: Sharon Gilbertson (

This section of Tikkun on “Jubilee and Debt Abolition” is meant to function as a thought experiment, opening up conceptual space for thinking afresh about our world. By envisioning what it would be like to implement the periodic Sabbatical Year and Jubilee called for within the Torah’s laws on debt, we can experience the true tension between the way the world is and how it should be.

So start by stretching your imagination.

Imagine that every seventh year, most workplaces are closed so that nearly everyone in your society has a year of freedom and the earth itself is given a year for regeneration. The Torah calls this the Sabbatical Year. During this year, your basic needs for food and shelter will be adequately met. How will you spend your time and energy? What are you currently not able to participate in because you don’t have the time?

Now imagine that all debts are forgiven every seven years. This is another aspect of the Torah-mandated Sabbatical Year. Will you avoid paying an outstanding debt before the end of the seven years? Or do you feel a commitment to pay back your loans as part of your desire to live with integrity? Do you feel differently about different kinds of debt?

At this very moment we are in the middle of a Sabbatical Year. The Jewish year 5775, which began in September, 2014, and runs through September 13, 2015, is, according to Orthodox Jews, who have kept track of this for the past 2,000-plus years, a Sabbatical Year. But currently the practices associated with the Sabbatical Year only apply to agriculture grown in Israel. Imagine if they were part of Western societies and applied to all work.

Next, join me in imagining that every fifty years, the wealth of individuals and nations will be redistributed to ensure that everyone has a roughly equal share. This is what it means to have a Jubilee. Now that you know about this periodic redistribution, will you feel less motivated to create, produce, and innovate, even if your work gives you opportunities to be creative and serve the common good? Don’t answer according to what the media have told you other people would do—answer for yourself.

This thought experiment is useful because right now our society is created in a way that plays to our smallest, most fearful, and pettiest selves. It plays to our fear that there is not enough and urges us to hoard resources such as money, food, and land. In our current system, some of these fears are well founded: a few people in our society have way more than they need, while many others are not able to obtain what they need. To protect themselves, the few on the top create systems and structures that perpetuate existing inequalities.

What if we created a world based not on our fears but instead on the desires of our highest, idealized selves? What if, as the Torah prescribes, we forgave all debts every seven years, observed a Sabbatical Year every seven years, and redistributed wealth every fifty years? These practices would play to our most generous, loving, and compassionate selves, rather than to our fearful selves.

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