“The Revolutionary Nature of Shemita and Yovel
(updated and revised from Behar-Bechukotai 5764-2004)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Behar, the first of this week’s two parshiot, Behar-Bechukotai, we encounter the remarkable laws of שְּׁמִטָּהShemita–the Sabbatical year, and יוֹבֵלYovel–the Jubilee celebration.

In Leviticus 25:1-2, the Al-mighty instructs Moses to speak to the people of Israel and to tell them: כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם, וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַהשם, When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Sabbath unto the L-rd.

Just as G-d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, and just as the Jewish people are instructed to rest on the Sabbath day, so too, must the land of Israel, upon which the Jewish people dwell, rest in its seventh year. This remarkable and revolutionary law of Shemita, called for the cessation of planting in every seventh year of the Sabbatical cycle. Only that which grows wild may be eaten by the farmer. As a result, the concept of ownership of land vanishes during this year. Consequently, at any time, a needy person may enter a field and remove enough food to feed himself and his family.

Some scholars point to this law as the earliest form of the agricultural process that is today known as “crop rotation.” The land is allowed to rest, its nutrients restored, enabling the land to become more fertile and productive in the future years.

The seventh year was not merely a respite from work, it was, in fact, a national educational exercise that culminated in a massive educational celebration for both men and women, as well as children. According to Maimonides Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Chagigah 3:3, this massive educational assemblage, took place on the first day of the intermediate days of Sukkot, on the year following the Shemita observance. As the Torah in Deuteronomy 31:10-13, commands, the people of Israel would gather together in Jerusalem for what was known as הַקְהֵלHakhel. In a most impressive ceremony, the King of Israel (not the priests or the rabbis!) would take out a Torah scroll and begin to teach the people. Even resident aliens were taught the teachings and duties of the Torah at this Hakhel gathering.

The Hertz Bible commentary cites the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus who notes that most ancient societies kept intellectual knowledge restricted to the elite. Moses and the Jewish people, in effect, revolutionized education by disclosing the great ideas of the Torah to the entire people of Israel, men, women and children, thus exposing the full nation to knowledge. Hertz proudly cites F. Verinder, a non-Jewish English scholar, who expressed his amazement at the Jewish Sabbatical year practice, declaring that it is the equivalent of sending the English worker once every seven years to a year’s course at a university to learn science, law, literature, and theology.

Not everyone was so favorably impressed by this practice. The Roman historian Tacitus (55-117 C.E.) ridiculed the observance of the Sabbatical year, attributing it to laziness on the part of the Jewish people. On the other hand, Alexander the Great (356 B.C.E.-323 B.C.E.) and even the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar (100 B.C.E.-44 B.C.E.) relieved the Jews from paying some of their taxes during the seventh year when they did not work their fields.

Just as the land lay fallow every seven years, every fiftieth year, with the arrival of Jubilee–the Yovel, the land returned to its original owners.

Modern scholars speculate about the origin of the word “Yovel,” suggesting that it might have originally meant “ram,” because of the ram’s horn that was sounded ushering in the Jubilee. Others say that it has to do with the root of the Hebrew word for “release.” The Ramban says that the word means “to transport,” because at Yovel everything is returned to its original independence and to its original root, which is, of course, G-d Al-mighty.

In the Yovel year, as in the Shemita, the land again lies fallow. All Hebrew servants receive their liberty, but most importantly, all landed property that had been sold by its original owners during the previous 49 years, reverted back to those owners, allowing families that received those tribal lands when the land was first apportioned during the conquest of Canaan by Joshua, to return to their original patrimony. According to the rabbis, this restoration reflected the powerful message recorded in Psalms 24:1: לַהשם הָאָרֶץ וּמְלוֹאָהּ, תֵּבֵל וְיֹשְׁבֵי בָהּ, The earth and its fullness belong to G-d, the world and its inhabitants.

The Yovel represents one of Judaism’s most revolutionary contributions to humanity. Its implementation and practice meant that no person was destined to be poor forever. If a person’s fate had taken a turn for the worse, and due to business and agricultural reversals had to sell his real estate, there was always the hope and anticipation that, come Yovel, the land would be restored to the original owner. Furthermore, the descendants of the person who had become poor, now enjoyed the same advantages along with all the other land owners, receiving a new start with the return of their ancestral family estate.

So highly regarded was the practice of Yovel by Henry George, the great American social reformer, 1839-1897, that he acknowledged his indebtedness to the laws of the Jubilee as one of the sources for his lifelong passion to eliminate inequities in his contemporary economic system. Writes George,

It is not the protection of property, but the protection of humanity, that is the aim of the Mosaic code. Its Sabbath day and Sabbath year secure even the lowliest, rest and leisure. With a blast of the Jubilee trumpets, the slave goes free, and the redivision of the land secures again to the poorest his fair share in the bounty of the common Creator.

Once again, we see how the Torah is truly “light years” ahead of its time. Judaism’s understanding and deep appreciation of the need for universal education, the necessity to set aside sacred time for family and for study, and the farsighted vision of a system that allowed for a more equitable distribution of wealth among all the inhabitants of the lands, is nothing short of revolutionary!

May You Be Blessed.

Please note: The festival of Lag Ba’Omer (literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start on Monday night, May 8th, and continue all day Tuesday, May 9, 2023. The Omer period extends for 49 days from the second night of Passover through the day before the festival of Shavuot. The 33rd day is considered a special day because, on that day, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying and marks, as well, the anniversary of the passing of great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.