May 6, 2021
by Bettijane Eisenpreis
“Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month – the Day of Atonement – you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” — Leviticus 25:9-10
On first reading, I almost missed the passage above, because the JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh (Torah), which we use in temple, translates that second sentence as, “You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants,” while the version I learned in Sunday School is the one on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof.” I emailed Rabbi Andrue Kahn, who confirmed that the Hebrew word deror could be translated either as “release” or “liberty.”
The laws of the Jubilee are many and complicated. The Hebrews were instructed to let their fields lie fallow every seventh year. They were also instructed to count seven seven-year cycles for a total of 49 years, and the 50th year would be the Jubilee, when all debts would be canceled and all Hebrew slaves freed.
Whether this ever really happened is doubtful, but the symbolism is powerful. The Bible maintains that everything – land, money, people – really belongs to God. The Jubilee was a time of reckoning when the land went back to the original owner and all Hebrew slaves would be freed.
Those words on the Liberty Bell sound wonderful, but did the signers of the Declaration of Independence really mean them? They were talking about liberty from a British government that subjected the colonies to harsh taxes. It was freedom for white males of a certain socioeconomic group, many of whom were slaveholders. So, too, the writers of the Bible were not referring to liberty for all. Hebrew slaves were to be set free; slaves taken in war with neighboring nations were passed on from parents to children.
Why were Hebrews being kept as slaves in the first place? After all, it was a relatively small group. Doesn’t it sound cruel for one member of a nation recently escaped from slavery in Egypt to hold another in bondage? Of course it does, but human nature is not always benevolent. Often, a Hebrew who had fallen into debt had to sell off his land, and then his labor, and if that was not enough, himself. As citizens of a nation with a history of slavery and lynching, a nation that only granted the vote to women in 1920, we can’t turn up our noses at our ancient ancestors. They were just starting to figure out how to live as free people themselves. The remarkable thing is that they even got as close as they did.
No, the Jubilee year probably never happened. But anyone who has been to Philadelphia and seen that bell must be inspired. The idea conceived all those millennia ago lives on. We must continue to fight for that day when liberty can truly be proclaimed, not only throughout the land but throughout the world!