Jubilee addresses contentious land issue

  • Rabbi Sa'ar Shaked HOME
The book of Leviticus, which we have just finished reading, reviews a sequence of ordinances and sacred rituals. Toward its end, we are presented with two sets of regulations defining the shemita (seventh year) and the yovel, the jubilee or 50th anniversary.
by Rabbi Sa'ar Shaked, Beit Emanuel Progressive Synagogue | May 30, 2019

These two concepts complete the sacred temporal cycle: from the weekly Shabbat, to the sanctification of the lunar month, to the festivals of a single year. Then come seven groups of seven years each, re-enacting the shemita, and finally the yovel as the fiftieth year of jubilee.

The yovel is described as liberating in its effect: U’kra’atem dror ba’aretz (And you shall declare liberty in the land for all its inhabitants; it is a jubilee for you) (25:10). This means that people who had been uprooted are entitled to return to their families on their original ancestral land.

Land ownership is a contentious topic in contemporary South Africa, but let’s try to understand the original background of these commandments. The borders between the different ancestral domains of the tribes of Israel are discussed at length, mainly in the Book of Joshua.

After the dramatic achievements of the generation who took possession of the land, we observe an Israelite presence in the shape of a loose confederation of twelve tribes, based in the central hill country on both sides of the Jordan Valley. The conditions were hard. In addition to the usual harshness of agricultural life, the Israelites had to face external enemies such as the Philistines from the coastal plain, the economically and culturally developed Canaanite city-dwellers, and the inhabitants of the dangerous desert frontier. Nomadic tribes, such as the Midianites, might charge in on their camels, spreading terror and threatening the seasonal crops.

Under these difficult conditions, one can understand how the passing of generations led to the division of a family’s inheritance into smaller and smaller plots. If this process was compounded by misfortune, farmers might become destitute and be forced to sell their land. This would have constituted an act of despair. Once the land was no longer theirs, they had lost the principal means of production. Farmers were obliged to become hired workers, and if that arrangement failed, slaves to their fellow-Israelites.

The prophets repeatedly rebuke their society for taking advantage of the poor, and treating them as though they lacked dignity. They were particularly concerned with people who had lost their land. However, the system of shemita and the yovel was meant to serve as a remedy for such suffering. Slaves were to be freed in the seventh year. The land had to return to its original owners every fiftieth year. Poverty was not to become a lasting burden from generation to generation.

This is perhaps the reason for the Book of Numbers opening with a comprehensive census in which all members of the tribes are counted and acknowledged. They are all given a place within the community of Israel. The Torah uses an interesting word: vayityaldu (they counted the generations to ensure that everyone was recognised by the Eternal). This notion is highlighted in the words of Hosea in the Haftarah: they shall all be called b’nei el chai, (children of the living G-d).

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