Sabbatical: Of Crops and Teachers (Including Rabbis)

Posted on January 9, 2019 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck

Among the many revolutionary ideas of the Torah is the practice of the sabbatical year — an extrapolation of the weekly Sabbath day as a time for renewal and rejuvenation. The Torah’s vision of the sabbatical is a year in which the land is allowed to lie fallow so that it can regain its vitality and fertility. It is a time in which farmers relinquish mastery over their fields and simultaneously liberate themselves from the hard work of tilling and tending.

The sabbatical year magnifies the scope of the Sabbath day. Going beyond the weekly respite from physical labor, the sabbatical declares that there is more to life than work, and that the value of life is intrinsic and transcends what we are able to produce. In this spirit, the laws of the sabbatical year enter into the realm of social and commercial relationships. All debts are cancelled and all indentured servants are released in the seventh year, making it a time to rebalance the scales of justice that tilt toward inequality.

Over time, the commercial aspects of the sabbatical year became impractical and ceased to be observed. But they remain on the books, as it were, and the rabbis teach us that their role is to inspire us to internalize the spirit of the sabbatical and integrate it into our lives. This we accomplish by seeing our weekly celebration of Shabbat in light of these teachings and by seeking to practice their vision of justice in our social and commercial relations during the other six days of the week. In Israel, observant Jews still follow the agricultural aspects of the seventh year by refraining from consuming the produce raised on the Land of Israel. Instead, they eat stored grain and produce raised outside the Land of Israel.

In modern times, the concept of the sabbatical has been extended to teachers and rabbis as a time to focus on scholarship. In academic settings, a sabbatical can encompass a semester or an entire academic year, offering professors an opportunity to engage in new areas of scholarship or writing, freed from their regular teaching schedule and administrative duties.

For contemporary rabbis, the length of time allotted for a sabbatical is largely circumstantial, often making possible a shorter period of time dedicated to a focused project or course of study. Some rabbis travel to Israel, as I have done in the past. Others will spend time at a seminary or other academy of learning. Some devote time to writing or another form of creative effort.

This January and February, I will be taking the fourth sabbatical of my 28-year tenure as the rabbi of Temple Beth-El. Two of my previous sabbaticals were spent in Israel, where I engaged in independent study at the Reform movement’s seminary, HUC-JIR, in Jerusalem. During my third sabbatical, I studied Talmud locally, under the guidance of a retired professor from the Jewish Theological Seminary. During this sabbatical, I will be working on a new version of our Temple Beth-El siddur, the prayer book that we have been using since 2010. I also look forward to visiting other synagogues to experience their services and liturgical traditions. It is rare for a congregational rabbi to be able to participate in worship at other synagogues, so I am looking forward to this.

I am grateful to the leadership of our congregation and to my senior staff colleagues for making it possible for me to take this time away. I am especially appreciative of Cantor Pincus, who will be assuming responsibility for the pulpit, with the support of extremely capable and devoted lay leaders. (Cantor Pincus will also be responsible for pastoral care, so if a pastoral emergency arises, please contact her directly.) Were it not for her great talent and devotion to our congregation, this sabbatical time would not be possible.

I look forward to my sabbatical and to returning in March refreshed and renewed, having made significant progress on a new siddur that will enrich the ritual life of our congregation.


Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck

Originally published in the January-February 2019 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.