OPINION: How a seventh year of rest could be society’s safety net

OPINION: How a seventh year of rest could be society’s safety net

The Shmitta Summit at JHub
The Shmitta Summit at JHub
Rabbi David Mason
Rabbi David Mason

By Rabbi David MASON, Muswell Hill Synagogue

William Beveridge, later Lord Beveridge, was a British economist who was born in 1879 and passed away in 1963. He put together a report on the state of the welfare system and on systems of social insurance in Britain, which remains known as a watershed moment in this country’s economic and political system. It’s the report that led to the setting up of the NHS.

Many say it is the Beveridge report, completed in 1942, which brought about the fall of Winston Churchill in the 1946 elections. Churchill delayed acting on the report; the Labour party voted overwhelmingly in 1943 to move towards legislation. And the rest is history.

Not all of the Beveridge report came to fruition in parliamentary legislation. But a key part of its ethos was building a steady and consistent safety net in the economic fabric of our society.

People should find work. Idleness was to be opposed. But there needed to be a system to support those who could not find jobs or access healthcare.

The idea of a safety net in society continues to be extremely relevant today. We live in a world in which the idea of a market economy and its society of competition are accepted.

We are living in a world that is more centred on the individual and the rights of individual claims, rather than the responsibilities one has to be part of a society.

Now granting freedom to the individual may not be an immoral proposition. But there are costs to this as well.

Competition has its winners and its losers. Inequality is inevitable. The revisionist Zionist thinker Zeev Jabotinsky, often reviled for his political thought, built a fascinating theory of liberal economic existence and he based it on ideas drawn from the Bible.

One of these biblical concepts was the Sabbatical year, or the Shmitta year.

This was a command that every seven years, two things would happen within the economy.

First, in the seventh year, no work or labour would be permitted on agricultural land. In fact, land would be considered belonging to everyone “so the poor of your people may eat”.

Second, loans would be cancelled. Jabotinsky understood that competition meant struggle. But struggle should not be allowed to last forever: ‘It is necessary only to pad the fighting ring with soft grass, so the loser won’t hurt himself too much when he falls. This padding is the Shmitta…’

The Shmitta Summit at JHub
The Shmitta Summit at JHub

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains it clearly in his book Dignity of Difference: “That is why periodic debt release is necessary. It enables people to begin again, freed of the burdens of the past.”

So the Sabbatical year is part of a biblical safety net, which is cyclical in nature. There are constant elements to this safety net, such as leaving the corners of fields or the system of tithes.

However, the Shmitta year is a stronger release from the inequalities of a free market system. It resets the system, so to speak, before competition begins again in earnest.

This week I’m attending Siach Shmita Summit Training for Educators at JHub, which will host some expert educators in the area of shmitta and its application to social justice.

We will be looking at Shmitta and the values underpinning it to develop ideas that can be taken into Jewish communities in the UK. There are plenty of issues and challenges thrown up by the Shmitta year that are halachic in nature and that sprout from the existence of our state, Medinat Yisrael.

We in the UK are also affected by this as much of Israeli produce finds its way into our supermarkets. So it is important to be aware that the original biblical command not to work the land in the seventh year applies in some form still today, when we work the land of Israel and export much produce.

But it is also clear Shmitta is underpinned by a desire to address inequality within society. Shmitta is, in effect, part of an ancient welfare system.

In a Jewish year (5765) in which there will be a UK general election and where the economic welfare of the UK population will be of critical importance; the lessons of Shmitta and the opportunity to deepen our knowledge of the thinking behind it is a great chance to engage in the challenges facing our society.

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