By Rabbi Lee Moore
In the book of Leviticus Yovel or ‘The Jubilee” is presented as the “sabbath of sabbatical years.” The sabbatical year, shmittah, comes every 7 years and mandates both a rest for the land (soil is not used for production) and a rest for economic strife (all debts are released). Yovel comes with the 7th of these 7-year cycles and is either the 49th or 50th year (there is a dispute about which, of course). It is similar to shmittah in that it is a time of social and economic release.
On the day of Yom Kippur during the Yovel year, the ram’s horn was blown to ‘proclaim freedom’ throughout the entire land. ‘Freedom’ in this case meant not only forgiveness of debt as in the shmittah year, but also the release of all slaves into freedom and radical land reform.
When we think about ‘freedom,’ the release of slaves is logical, albeit a radical idea. But, land reform — in what way is land reform an act enabling ‘freedom for all’?
For the ancient Israelites, agriculture was the primary means for self-sustenance and economic opportunity. Returning land in Yovel would cause a massive overhaul of the economic system, one that enables those who may have lost their land, lost their home, in the previous 50 years a ‘fresh start’ at making a living and having a basic modicum of security.
In this way, Yovel is a systematic renewal for the relationship between humans (adam), and the land (adamah) — in other words, the economy. Accumulation of land/resources by some can persist for a period of time, but not indefinitely. Yovel checks it with a break. By regulating the allocation of wealth once in each generation, Yovel ensures that gross imbalances of resource distribution do not undercut the fabric of society or the health of the natural environment.
As Danny Hillis, inventor of a clock that chimes once every 10,000 years, says, “there are problems that are impossible if you think about them in two-year terms – which everyone does – but they’re easy if you think in fifty-year terms.” Occurring at the long rhythm of one year in fifty, Yovel invites us to think generationally. A typical human lifetime includes just one Yovel. Yovel teaches that some rhythms may be long from the human perspective, but are still important to observe.
The Hebrew term ‘yovel’ came to mean the year, but it literally refers to that blast of the trumpets that announces that year. In fact, its first appearance in the Torah is at the foot of Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:13), the horn blow that invites the Israelites to approach Mt. Sinai just before a massive revelation. Bible translator Everett Fox renders it as ‘home-bringing.’ He cites cognates in other ancient near eastern languages that refer to a specific kind of blow of the horn – one that is intended to bring the flock home at the end of the day – and image that aptly describes the Israelites as a flock just before the moment of receiving the Torah, and when every person is guaranteed a home.
Forgiveness of debts in itself is a radical notion beyond many of us to conceive, let alone periodic re-assignment of land ownership. We are so tied to the idea that money is real that if we owe something, we owe something. Yet, in any economy, larger forces are at play. GDP does not reflect the social injustices or environmental exploitation that may be contributing to a country’s ‘success.’
Like the shmittah, it is unclear whether, or how, or if Yovel was ever practiced. These two ideas nevertheless provide an inspiring paradigm for how we might think about what it means to ‘own land,’ to be free and to ‘come home.’