Tzedakah: The More Things Change, The More They Remain The Same

May 27th: Behar
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

I began my education in political economics when I was on the high school debate team. Not only did we research and argue the issues of national policy with our teammates and opponents, but also we had great discussions with the parents who were inclined to chaperone our debate team trips. I remember, in particular, the political opinions of one mother—an oil-country Republican—who challenged mightily my liberal-minded heart. Most of the discussions—on the bus and in lobbies and auditoriums—centered around the proper role of government in the economy and in solving human problems. There were the Liberals who spoke of compassion and the need for the government to step in and help people. There were the Conservatives who spoke of the inevitable problems with government bureaucracies and how interventions in the free market create more problems than they solve. These debates were as stimulating and illuminating as the more formal competitions.

What strikes me today, almost five decades later, is how little the argument has changed: how the same questions and the same answers bounce back and forth like ping pong balls on an eternal table. If it weren’t for my baby-boomer conceit that our experience is particularly and uniquely unique and special, I would suspect that the argument hasn’t changed for centuries (since Adam Smith in the 1700s)—and maybe not even in millennia! Look at the Bible and how it addresses questions of ownership and assistance. Look, in particular, at the way the Torah addresses the plight of the poor and vulnerable and how the prosperous are commanded to help them.

In this week’s Torah portion, the subject of what we now call economic justice is approached in the two rather curious customs of the sabbatical year and the jubilee year. The sabbatical year is every seventh year, and it is one in which no agricultural work is allowed. Fields are to lie fallow, owners are only able to harvest what they can eat themselves, and the rest of the unharvested produce is available to anyone who wants to come and get it (for their own personal consumption). It is a Sabbath for the land dedicated to the Lord—Producer and ultimate Owner of the land. It is also a time for debts to be cancelled. If someone cannot pay back a debt after six years of trying, the system says that the creditor should simply write it off, leaving the debtor free to start afresh and hopefully have a better go at it this time around. All in all, the year is an exercise in building empathy and appreciation among the people and in grounding their sensibilities in the Divine Source of both their blessings and their moral code.

The jubilee year (Yovel) is the fiftieth year and comes after the seventh of seven sabbatical years. The Torah stipulates that all land should revert back to the original owners (or their families) and provides a kind of long-term economic stability and renewal of opportunity. No matter how much disaster or poor decisions have devastated one’s financial situation, there is a chance for a clean slate. It also minimizes the drama of land speculation. Whatever one determines to be valuable, there is a limited amount of time to reap its benefits. Again, underlying the whole system is the awareness that the real Owner of the land—and the Source of all blessings—is the Lord God. Grounding, humility, empathy, and appreciation are the “produce” of this jubilee year.

Some scholars think that the jubilee year was never actually practiced—that it was more an idea of an ideal society that proved too difficult and too problematic to practice. The sabbatical year, on the other hand, was practiced, and the Talmud discusses cases both theoretical and actual in re the various needs and adjustments for this complex of mitzvot.

Do these ancient Biblical prescriptions prescribe modern solutions to our economic and political problems? Not really. I think it would be manipulative to try to identify any modern policy with what the Bible says, but I do think it important to recognize that the Bible does instruct us to help the poor and the vulnerable. Whether it is with government programs, infrastructure development, higher or lower doses of capitalism and free enterprise, or lots and lots of charitable giving, the bottom line of Jewish morality is that “the bottom line is not the bottom line.” In addition to our economic pursuits, we should pay attention to the less successful among us and help them with the basics of a decent and safe life.

If you are interested in studying some of the Talmudic texts that get specific about helping the poor, you may want to consider the OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) course I’ll be teaching next Fall. Among the passages we’ll be considering is Tractate Ketubot 67b-68a from the Babylonian Talmud. How far does our obligation to help the poor go? How much is enough? How much help is enough? What do the poor deserve? Look for the OLLI catalogue on line ( or in the mail to see about the offerings.