“A vacation won’t solve the problem, you need a real break” insists a website promoting career-break travel. The site unpacks the word “sabbatical”, interpreting it as the “ancient human need to build periods of rest and rejuvenation into a lifetime”.
That ancient human need is addressed throughout the Torah, but nowhere as much as in the first part of this week’s double portion, Behar-Bechukotai:
God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving to you, the land shall have a rest period, a sabbath unto God. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyard and harvest your crops. But the seventh year is a sabbath of complete rest (Shabbat Shabbaton). It is God’s sabbath during which you may not plant your field or prune your vineyard.
With this, the Torah introduces the revolutionary concept of shmitta, the sabbatical year, in which land is allowed a complete rest after six years of intensive farming. It’s a rest for the land, but also, on closer examination, for it’s owner, who needs to relinquish control, and open up the farmland for servants, workers, poor people, resident strangers (refugees?) and even animals to roam and eat the naturally-growing produce.
“For six years we’re capitalists”, as one of my teachers put it, and for the seventh,”we’re communists”. According to Maimonides, fences around fields should be taken down and vineyards unlocked. The produce is as open to the poor as it is to the farmer’s own family: “he must declare it all ownerless so that anyone may lay equal claim to it”.
This utopian break from the profit-driven norm is not an anomaly in Judaism. It is a much bigger version of our weekly Shabbat, and a microcosm of the Jubilee year, which takes place every seven shmitta years. The Torah describes counting up the Jubilee so beautifully: “seven weeks of years—seven times seven years—so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years”. The repetition of sevens reminds us of the natural counting we build into our Jewish cycles, and the structures that are imposed. Structures, which I would argue, free us.
This is explained with stunning poetry by the 15th century Spanish scholar, Rabbi Yitzhak Arama, in his work, the Akeidat Yitzhak:
[The purpose of the sabbatical year] is to open our ears and to arouse our hearts by erecting for us great and awesome markers [of time]. How easily are our eyes blinded by the blandishments of this world, its deceits and futilities, which cause us to sell our souls into eternal servitude…
It is so easy for us to get swept into the daily grind, to get absorbed by the endless churn of deadlines, assignments, exams, applications - or for the farmer, the continuous turn of seasons, planting times, watering, tending, harvesting, ploughing and starting again. It takes something really radical, like shmitta or Shabbat to snap us out of it and force us to stop. The Akeidat Yitzhak’s language reminds me of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s inspiring words:
Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals…
It’s sometimes hard work to step into our “cathedrals”. Shabbat and the sabbatical year are not straightforward 3D spaces in which you can stop for a think. It requires moving yourself into a fourth dimension - a different quality of time and a radical break from normality.
Of all times in life, I think being a student is one of the hardest times to apply this principle. Without Monday-Friday, 9-5 working hours, work and play blend throughout the student week. While the rest of the world sleeps, students are pulling all-nighters, and when offices are filled with industrious workers, students could just as easily be at play as they could be in lectures. When exams come around, revision and Shabbat can be in tough competition, and that’s without the inevitable annual clash between exams and Shavuot.
Reading about the sabbatical year, and by extension our weekly sabbatical, Shabbat, is an invitation to translate a philosophical construct into a concrete reality. Throughout our lives we become enslaved to working for greater and greater productivity, greater enjoyment of the “fruits” of our labours. We aspire to own land and property and to keep what we have away from others. The sabbaths structured into our time are opportunities to let go, to give back, to open our doors to share what we have and to level out inequality in our society. The mantra “a vacation won’t solve the problem, you need a real break” is right - and thank God for those real breaks that Judaism offers us.
Miriam is a European Leadership Fellow at the Pardes Centre for Jewish Educators. She has worked for Cambridge University's Inter-faith Programme, & read Theology at Cambridge. She is a graduate of the Susi Bradfield Fellowship & the Adam Science Leadership Programme, & is co founder of the Borehamwood Partnership Minyan. You can visit her blog at miriammuses.com
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