'If You Sell...If You Buy...'

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD

Professor, Rabbinic Studies
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and former Chair of the Department of Rabbinics for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She also enjoys serving as the Ziegler School’s faculty advisor for “InterSem,” a dialogue program for students training for religious leadership at Jewish and Christian seminaries around the Los Angeles area. Dr. Labovitz formerly taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Prior to joining the faculty at AJU, Dr. Labovitz worked as the Senior Research Analyst in Judaism for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and as the Coordinator for the Jewish Women’s Research Group, a project of the Women’s Studies Program at JTS. Rabbi Labovitz is also preparing a teshuva (rabbinic responsum) for consideration by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on whether a person who is unable to fast for medical reasons may nonetheless serve as a leader of communal prayer on Yom Kippur.

posted on May 13, 2012
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

I don’t have a fully formed and set process for deciding what to write about when it is my week to contribute the drasha for the ZSRS site, but almost always one step is to go to the work of one of the great scholars of Bible and of parshanut, traditional commentary of the medieval and early modern periods. I am blessed to own a set of Nehama Leibowitz’s 'Studies in...' series (given to me by my grandmother many years ago), and for each weekly parashah, Leibowitz always finds at least three and as many as six or seven topics to explore in essays of about 5-7 pages each. But one needn’t even follow the whole progression of an entry to glean amazing nuggets of wisdom and insight; sometimes just one of the commentaries she cites, or a question she asks, or her own interspersed reflections on the texts of both the bible and the commentaries are enough to inspire my thoughts and show me a topic worthy of consideration. This week, I was especially struck by her comments on a series of verses in Parashat B’har, the first part of the double parashah we read this week (and, as it so happens, the parashah of the week of our daughter’s bat mitzvah celebration), together with B’hukotai.

First, some background. B’har is one of those parshiot that actually centers almost exclusively on a single topic and theme: the cycle of the sabbatical years that lead to the jubilee year, in which slaves are freed and various forms of property (particularly real estate) revert to their original owners. One aspect of this practice is that it mandates that the Land lay fallow on a regular schedule, and that the Israelites will be forbidden to actively sow or tend to their fields and vineyards in any way during the seventh year; they must subsist only on their stores or whatever grows of itself. From one perspective, this is a measure that is no doubt motivated by a desire to preserve and protect the fertility and productivity of the soil, and to keep it from being overworked. But the meaning of the sabbatical cycle goes deeper. Among its other effects are to create a state of social equalization (an effect also of the freeing of slaves and reversion of land to original owners), as the commentary in the Etz Hayim humash notes: 'Sometimes the wealthy don’t believe that poor people are actually suffering, suspecting that they are just too lazy to provide for themselves. Let the wealthy undergo the experience of not knowing whether there will be enough to eat, and their attitudes will change' (739). Moreover, it may be noted that the second verse of the parashah, Lev. 25:2, states that these laws are to take effect when 'you enter the Land that I give to you'; the point is even clearer in 25:23, in which God emphasizes that 'the Land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.' Human ownership of land, of resources, the Torah tells us, is ultimately an illusion; practicing the sabbatical and jubilee laws reminds us that only God is the true Owner of all that we see around us and make use of during our short time on earth.

To all this, Leibowitz adds one more significant insight about the message and purpose of the sabbatical system. Her source is a series of verses that consider what should happen when a sale of land takes place between jubilee years, when both buyer and seller are aware that at some point in the future, the sale will be cancelled and the land will revert to its original owner:

יד) וכי תמכרו ממכר לעמיתך או קנה מיד עמיתך אל תונו איש את אחיו 
טו) במספר שנים אחר היובל תקנה מאת עמיתך במספר שני תבואת ימכר לך 
טז) לפי רב השנים תרבה מקנתו ולפי מעט השנים תמעיט מקנתו כי מספר תבואת הוא מכר לך 
יז) ולא תונו איש את עמיתו ויראת מאלהיך כי אני ה‘ אלהיכם

14) And if you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from the hand of your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.
15) According to the number of years since the jubilee you shall buy of your neighbor, and according to the number of years of crops he shall sell to you.
16) According to more (such) years, you shall increase its price, and according to fewer years, you shall decrease its price, for it is the number of crops that he is selling to you.
17) And do not wrong each other, but fear your God, for I am the Lord your God.

What Leibowitz notes about these verses is that they address the listener as either/both seller or buyer: 'If you sell...or buy...you shall buy...you (seller) shall increase its price...' Following from this observation, she writes:

In each of the verses quoted, both parties to the transaction are addressed by the Torah. In other words, the Torah is not concerned with exclusively protecting the interests of the purchaser to save him from exploitation, or those of the vendor, who has been forced to by his straightened circumstances to sell his ancestral field. But both parties are equally admonished to abide by the principles of justice and honesty, which alone should reign in the world and which should not be crowded out by man’s selfish greed. (Studies in Leviticus, 267)

What I thought about almost right away when I read this the first time was a Talmud class I taught several semesters ago. I had chosen as our text for the semester the beginning of Chapter 6 of the tractate Bava Metzia, the 'Middle Gate.'

The 'Bavas' (as the three tractates Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia, and Bava Batra are sometimes affectionately known) are the key repository of rabbinic civil law – laws of torts (who is responsible if my ox fell into the pit you dug), property (how are sales transacted and made binding), business relations and labor. At issue in the material my class and I studied was labor contracts; the opening mishnah of the chapter begins with this statement:

One who hires laborers, and they deceived each other, they have nothing against each other but grounds for complaint.

That is, there is no legal liability, no actionable claim of one party against the other; as I somewhat light-heartedly explained in class, the mishnah is essentially saying that the only recourse the 'injured' party has is to write a letter to the Better Business Bureau. But questions abound: What exactly happened here? Who deceived who, and how? Why is there no legal liability? As my class and I delved into these issues via the Talmudic commentary to the mishnah, we considered many scenarios of miscommunication and worse between employers, laborers, middlemen. What we came to see over the course of a semester is that the Talmud is trying to balance the rights and needs of each party to the work contract. Is it okay for the employer (or the employer’s contractor) to pay the workers below market rate if they willingly accept such an offer? What if the going rate went up or down during the time of the contracted work: may the employer fire the workers unless they take reduced pay, may the employees quit unless they are given higher wages? In short, an employer has certain rights to expect that contracted labor will be done, especially if the work is time sensitive and there might be a significant financial loss if it does not happen on schedule and there is no one else to hire. But otherwise, the employee has an absolute right to quit even in the middle of a job (taking, of course, only the pro-rated pay for what had already been done). In fact, the proof-text for this workers’ right is taken also from B’har, from 25:55 (a similar sentiment also appears in v42): 'For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants.' That is, as the rabbis understand it, an Israelite is not a servant to his or her employer simply because s/he has agreed to a work contract; the employer does not 'own' the employee, because it is God, and not another human being, who ultimately owns the Israelite who happens to be a worker.

In this light, it is perhaps serendipitous that the following suggestion appeared in an article by William Deresiewicz in the New York Times this past Sunday, May 13 (SundayReview, p5). Leaving aside the larger argument of the piece, which is not my topic of concern, I was struck by this:

...if entrepreneurs are job creators, workers are wealth creators. Entrepreneurs use wealth to create jobs for workers. Workers use labor to create wealth for entrepreneurs... It’s neither party’s goal to benefit the other, but that’s what happens nonetheless.

And this is what I wish to take away from Nehama Leibowitz’ reading of this aspect of the sabbatical laws. There are many underlying reasons that can be presented for their presence in the Torah, but surely this is one of them: for a society to function and be just, it may not need to demand absolute equality of circumstances between its members – some will be sellers and some in a position to buy, some will be employers and some will be laborers, some will be wealthier than others – but it does demand recognition that each is equally human in the eyes of God and is entitled to equal human dignity. There must be fairness if not strict equivalence. Whatever our varying statuses, we are all interconnected and the success of one should not come at the cost of the deliberate degradation or exploitation of the other. Moreover, the place we find ourselves in now may not be the place we find ourselves in tomorrow. The Torah speaks to us with the knowledge that any one of us could as easily be the seller as the buyer, the hired field hand as the land owner. Neither party to a transaction should seek to take advantage of the other; both have rights that are entitled to be honored. And what anchors the imperative to create and perpetuate our communities according to these guidelines? As it says in v18, this is no less than what being God’s people demands of us: 'fear your God, for I am the Lord your God'

Shabbat shalom.