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B'har: Liberty and the Jubilee

Leviticus 25:1–26:2

This week's reading, though little more than a single chapter, deals with two separate topics: first, the sabbatical year; second, the obligations of family members to a relative in economic distress.  What links them is a focus, unusual for the Torah, on macroeconomics.

The first half of the chapter adds a unique twist to the commandment to observe the Sabbath. According to our reading, not only you, and not only your slaves, and not only your animals must rest, but every seventh year the land itself must rest.  That is, the Israelites must refrain from working the land for an entire year at a time, permitting it to observe "a sabbath for the Lord" (25:10).

Next week's reading will describe what happens if the Israelites fail to give the land its scheduled opportunity to rest for one year out of every seven: they will be expelled from it and not permitted to return until the land will have made up for all the missed sabbatical years (Leviticus 26:34-35). A passage in the second book of Chronicles (36:21) confirms that this prediction did indeed come to pass. The seven decades of exile in Babylonia were just long enough to let the land make up its full amount of missed rest.

Even more special than each sabbatical year is every seventh such year, capping the period of seven times seven with a second sabbatical year in a row.  In this 50th year of the cycle-the jubilee year-not only does the land continue its rest, but something even more amazing happens.  "It shall be a jubilee for you.  Each of you shall return to his original holding" (25:10).  After seven rounds of economic activity, each lasting for six years punctuated by a seventh marked by a cessation of agriculture, it is game over.  Whatever financial imbalances have occurred during the course of a half-century are zeroed out, and the players return to their original positions on the economic gameboard that is the Land of Israel.

The second half of the chapter takes a closer look at what is going on while the free market operates during the 49-year periods between jubilee years.  If, say, you are at age forty when a jubilee year comes, it would be cold comfort to know that everything would be set right again when you reached ninety-especially since, as the book of Psalms has it, "the years of our lives are 70 or, at most, 80" ( 90:10).  But the Torah explains that if economic difficulties should force you to sell your land, the fact of a coming jubilee will still benefit you. Since the purchaser will eventually have to give up his new property anyway, he is considered merely to have rented the land from you, and you can regain it by returning his money, and on a pro-rated basis. Each additional year that he possesses the land reduces the price you must pay to regain it (25: 25-28).

It is here that family obligations come into play.  Someone forced by economic circumstances to sell his land will certainly not be able to buy it back immediately, and most likely not for quite a long time.  So his wealthier relatives are instructed to come and "redeem" his land for him right away.  (That, in fact, is what "redemption" means in biblical terms: restoring someone to his rightful place.)  His relatives are even supposed to buy him back on a pro-rated basis if he has been forced to sell himself into slavery.

The jubilee year is the thread that connects both halves of the chapter. It, too, is a sabbatical year, a year when the land must rest, and as such it is the culmination of the 50-year sabbatical cycle.  Meanwhile, the fact that it resets the economy to Square One defines the prices stipulated in the second half of the chapter:  Property depreciates by an equal amount every year as the jubilee approaches-and that includes human property, in the person of a slave.  That is why American slaves celebrated their freedom by singing about "The Year of Jubilo."

But the jubilee functions to unite the two halves of the chapter more than just structurally.  It functions conceptually. They say "cash is king," but Leviticus 25 denies it.  God is king, and both the land and its people belong to Him.  The underlying idea appears to be that the free market, allowed to run untrammeled, will eventually knock things out of kilter; the function of the jubilee is to apply the brakes and, by redistributing the land every 50 years, start things over again from a position of radical equality. 

"The jubilee is for you," the chapter insists in verse 10, explaining that true freedom depends on reversing the distortions of a free-market economy. The same verse proceeds to formulate this redistribution in terms that, centuries ago, Americans made their own: "Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof."  In this week's reading, the Torah conceives of the freedom proclaimed on the Liberty Bell as freedom from, not for, the market.

Michael Carasik is the creator of The Commentators' Bible and of the Torah Talk podcastHe teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.



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