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Behar-Bechukotai: The Lessons of the Jubilee Year

May 11, 2023

This week’s Torah portion includes the rules for the Jubilee Year. As we read in this passage, the Torah commands that every fifty years, two laws would take effect. All Israelite slaves would be freed, and all lands would be redistributed back to their original tribal owners. In other words, anyone who had sold his land since the last jubilee regains full ownership of the land at the jubilee. 

At first glance, this seems unfair to the purchaser of the land. Why should this person have to surrender land that was legally purchased? To solve this problem the Torah lays out a system for purchasing land according to the years of the jubilee. 

“According to the number of years after the jubilee shall you purchase land from your neighbor; according to the number of produce years he shall sell it to you. Based on the abundance of years, you shall increase its purchase price and based on the lack of years you shall decrease its purchase price, since it is the number of produce seasons that he is selling to you.” (Leviticus 25:15-16)

When land is sold, the price is calculated based on the amount of time that the land will be owned by the purchaser – until the next jubilee. Essentially, all land purchases in Israel are to be leases rather than actual purchases. According to the Jewish sages, even if one were to attempt to sell land permanently, the transaction would be invalid. Land is forever owned by the family to whom it was allotted after the original conquest of the land. However, even if these guidelines were not followed, the land would still return to its original owner. No financial recompense would be made to the purchaser of the land. The original owner gets the land back free of charge.

At first glance, the redistribution of land to its original owners appears to be consistent with socialist policies of redistribution of wealth familiar to us in modern times. The ability of certain individuals to build empires by continually acquiring more and more land is obviously curtailed. At the same time, the impoverished who have lost everything get a fresh start.

A closer look reveals the jubilee system to be different from modern redistributionist policies in a number of important ways.

One of the main complaints against policies that call for a redistribution of wealth is that it is not fair and hard to make a living being forced to support someone who was too lazy to work. It is unfair.

On the other hand, proponents of redistribution argue that without redistribution, there is scarcely a chance for the poorer elements in society to get on their feet. Once they have no significant assets and are at the mercy of the wealthy, there is no way out.

The jubilee system solves both of these concerns. The 20th-century French economist Bertrand de Jouvenel, in his Ethics of Redistribution, points out that the Biblical jubilee system does not advocate a redistribution of product or profit. Rather, it is a redistribution of resources. As such, the injustice of taking profit from those who worked for it and giving to those who did not is absent. On the other hand, by redistributing valuable resources – land – every citizen is given a fair chance to make the most of his assets and begin to build independent wealth. 

Let’s consider a person who would see his ancestral family plot of land in an agrarian society such as Biblical Israel. He probably experienced some kind of financial hardship that led him to sell this land that was passed down to him through the generations leading back to the original distribution of the land in the days of Joshua. Upon the arrival of the jubilee year, he regains ownership and control of his land. He gets a fresh start.

Free of charge, he is now able to work the land, mortgage it, sell it until the following jubilee year; he can use this valuable asset to generate wealth.

The Torah believes in fairness and freedom. In admittedly very simplistic terms, modern socialism advocates fairness at the expense of freedom. Unbridled free market capitalism advocates freedom at the expense of fairness. The Torah’s economic system treats all citizens as equals while rewarding those who worked hard with the full fruits of their labor.

But there is more to these laws than economics. Allow me to explain.

Throughout the centuries of persecution, one of the most common restrictions placed on Jews in the lands of exile was the prohibition from owning land. Even today, there are Arab countries that forbid Jews from owning land. To own land is to be a full citizen – to be free. Ownership of land is critical to national identification. To be forbidden from owning land is to be excluded – to be forever a foreigner.

The rules of land ownership and the jubilee teach us a profound lesson. All Jews are landowners forever. There are no serfs. In fact, each and every Jew alive today has a plot of land that actually belongs to him by patrimonial birthright. If the laws of jubilee were in effect today, the land owned by my family would return to us. It has always been ours. 

Throughout the centuries of our exile, the same Jews who were being denied rights of land ownership in the lands of the dispersion, were, at the same time, owners of land in Israel forever.

Seen this way, the connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is not only a religious or historical connection. Wherever we are, it remains our birthright and our literal home.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast

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