“The Incredible Yovel–The Jubilee Year”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Behar, we learn about the Yovel, the Jewish Jubilee year, which was celebrated every fiftieth year of the sabbatical cycle.

In Leviticus 25:8, the Torah declares, “V’sah’far’tah l’chah shevah shabtot shan’im, shevah shanim, shevah p’ah’mim,” You shall count for yourself seven cycles of sabbatical years, seven years, seven times. The Torah then instructs the people to proclaim the fiftieth year with the blast of the shofar horn (verse 9) to hallow the year (verse 10) and not to sow or reap even that which grows of itself (verse 11). The Torah also informs the Jewish nation that the land not be sold in perpetuity (verse 23) and that redemption be granted to the land (verse 24). It is in parashat Behar that we read the famous verse inscribed on the American Liberty Bell from Leviticus 25:10: “Ook’rah’tem dror b’aretz l’chol yosh’veh’ha,” Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.

Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) states that all the laws of Shemitah (the sabbatical year) and Yovel (the Jubilee) are intended to train the Jew in compassion, charity, and justice. The commentators insist that it is as important for a Jew to find favor in the eyes of fellow human beings as it is for the Jew to find favor in the eyes of G-d. Clearly, they argue, the best way to pay homage to G-d is by first showing compassion to all of G-d’s creatures.

The Jubilee year was marked every fiftieth year of the sabbatical cycle. On Rosh Hashana, the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of Jewish law, proclaimed the Yovel. All Jewish slaves immediately stopped working. Ten days later, on Yom Kippur, the shofar was again sounded–the same shofar was used and the same number of blasts were sounded as on Rosh Hashana. In addition to the shofar that was sounded by the court, every individual Jew was to sound the shofar as well. This was a signal that all Hebrew slaves and servants were free to return to their homes and that all plots of land were to revert back to their original owners. Even land that had been resold several times since it was first purchased, was returned to its original tribal owner. It was through the Jubilee that poor people were given hope that they could regain their ancestral patrimony and resurrect their lives despite their previous bad fortune.

The Jubilee was an extreme exercise of faith and trust in G-d. Since the 49th year was always a sabbatical year, the people had to have faith that G-d would provide sustenance during the two year period that followed when no sowing, reaping, or harvesting was permitted.

According to many commentators, including the Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) and the Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator), the term “eternity” can only be applied to G-d, not to human beings. Human beings cannot truly possess land since all land belongs to G-d, who apportioned it to Israel and the tribes. Even though citizens may purchase land and own it for as long as fifty years, it eventually returns to its original owners. It is this negation of perpetual ownership that is underscored every seventh year through the sabbatical Shemitah, when even the owner cannot use the land for his personal advantage during that year.

Chief Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz describes the revolutionary qualities of the Jubilee in his comments to the Pentateuch and Haftaras:

The Jubilee institution was a marvelous safeguard against deadening poverty. By it, houses and lands were kept from accumulating into the hands of the few. Pauperism was prevented and a race of independent free-holders assured. It represented such a rare and striking introduction of morals into economics, that many have been inclined to question whether this wonderful institution was ever enforced.

According to the Talmud, the law of the Jubilee was observed as long as the Holy Land was inhabited by Israelites. When a portion of the tribes went into exile, the law lapsed. The prophet Ezekiel (46:17) refers to the Jubilee as “Sh’nat ha’dror,” the year of liberty. The fact that the prophet speaks of the non-observance of the Jubilee is regarded as proof that it must have been observed before that time.

The great social and economic reformer, Henry George, sang the praises of the Jubilee concept in his famous lecture entitled “Moses” (1878):

And by practical legislation, by regulations to which he [Moses] gave the highest sanctions, he tried to guard against the wrong that converted ancient civilizations into despotism–the wrong that in after centuries ate out the heart of Rome, that produced the imbruting serfdom of Poland, and the gaunt misery of Ireland, the wrong that is today crowding families into single rooms in this very city and fulfilling our new states on the other side of the Atlantic with tramps. He not only provided for the fair division of the land among the people and for making it fallow and common every seventh year, but by the institution of the Jubilee, he provided for a redistribution of the land every fifty years and made monopoly impossible.

In Meditations on the Torah, B.S. Jacobson finds the lessons of Shemitah and Yovel to be extremely relevant even today. Writes Jacobson:

In this faithful era [of the reestablishment of the State of Israel], it is very timely to meditate upon the precepts of the Sabbatical and Jubilee year and their purpose. In this era of our national rebirth and regaining of independence and sovereignty, when we are set to rebuild our national life on a high moral level, may the tenets implied in these precepts and their purpose serve as guiding principles for our leaders and legislators!

While few of the practices and values of the Yovel have been introduced in the workings of the modern State of Israel, it would be a great tragedy for the Jewish people to give up hope of one day seeing these utopian ideas fulfilled and implemented.

May you be blessed.