An Answer of Once in a Half-Century
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
This week, we read two connected parashot – Behar and Bechukotai. Parashat Behar contains a set of very unique commandments regarding shemita and yovel. The shemita year comes once every seven years. The Torah commands us to stop working the land and let it lie fallow, leaving its yield to any man or animal. The yovel (Jubilee) year, comes at the end of fifty years, after seven cycles of seven years. The year of yovel is similar to shemita, but in addition, it is considered the year of emancipation: anyone who fell on hard times and was forced to sell his ancestors’ land – in the yovel year, he can return to it. And anyone who fell on hard times to the extent that he had to sell himself into slavery – in the yovel year, he is freed and returns to his family.
In the agricultural context in which the Torah was received, land was the main source of income and owning a lot of land was a source of wealth. As we read in the book of Numbers, the Torah instructs to divide land equally and fairly among the tribes and among the families. This instruction was implemented when the tribes entered the land of Israel, as is described in the book of Joshua, so that every family got its own land and was thus able to sustain itself.
A quick glance at the commandment of yovel may lead us to conclude that it contains a simplistic social concept: a legal system with arbitrary concern for the weak whereby once every fifty years, the rich land owners have to return the land to their first owners. The rich are seemingly fined for their ownership while taking advantage of the poor’s diminished financial status.
But if we delve deeper into the situations that caused that same poor person to sell his ancestors’ land, or worse, sell himself into slavery, we discover that the commandment of yovel carries a different message. If we try to imagine that same poor person within the modern economic system, he would not be someone who comes from a very low socio-economic level, with no horizon, that slowly deteriorates into this financial abyss. This poor person began his life with the same opportunities as everyone else. He had his own land from which he could have respectably supported himself. So, what led him to such a diminished financial state that left him with no choice but to sell his land in order to survive? We can assume this was the result of weakness over the course of many years, and lack of responsibility taken over his land and harvest. And what could have led to him selling himself into slavery? Perhaps great debts that he took upon himself without the ability to pay them back, or perhaps financial and moral deterioration that led to him stealing from others without being able to pay them back.
Now we see the yovel in a different light; a light of forgiveness and of repentance. Even that person who reached such a financial and moral abyss gets to start over once every fifty years. The financial order gets restarted and returns to the starting point.
The yovel year begins with shofar blowing throughout the land. This shofar blowing is not done on the first day of the year, but on Yom Kippur, the tenth day of the year. We can assume there is a connection between the essence of Yom Kippur and the choice of this day as one that starts off the yovel year. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the Land of Israel (1856 – 1935) wrote the following:
…a godly spirit of general forgiveness, such as the individual experiences on Yom Kippur, will arise through the holiness of the Jubilee to the general character, as the nation is enveloped in the spirit of forgiveness and repentance to repair all past distortions – “and proclaim freedom [for slaves] throughout the land for all who live on it.”
(Shabbat Haaretz, Introduction)
Yom Kippur is a day of forgiveness. The Jubilee year is similar, a year of forgiveness and repentance and repair of past distortions.