May 21, 2022
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 the land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.
Parashah Behar contains some of the most memorable language in the Bible. The translation quoted above is the one we currently use at Temple Emanu-El. In a more familiar version, the second sentence in the above paragraph is: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.” Anyone who has been to Philadelphia or seen the movie 1776 knows it is the inscription on the Liberty Bell.
The word “jubilee,” “yovel” may have meant “ram,” since a ram’s horn was blown, but it is more commonly translated as “release.” On the Jubilee Year, in principle at least, all land is to lie fallow, all land is to revert to its original owner, and all Hebrew slaves are to be freed, that is “released.”
It’s doubtful that the first prescription was ever really carried out. Israelites were required to let the land lie fallow every seventh, or Sabbatical, year – and many actually did. But two years in a row? The Bible says that God would give such a good harvest on Year 48 that it would last for three years, but it is doubtful whether the Israelites sat around and waited for that prediction to come true. In any case, history tells us that Hillel virtually ended it with a legal device called a “prosbul.”
The idea behind the second part of the Jubilee law is that all land belongs to God and people are only the caretakers, so people should not profit outrageously by buying and selling land. Everything is figured by how many years will elapse to the Jubilee. If you buy in Year Two, you have title to the land for 48 years, so the owner is entitled to a healthy profit. But he can’t charge you the same sum if you buy in year 45, because you must give it back in five years. There is no historical evidence that the Jubilee ever was practiced, but the idea behind it continues to be a noble one – that the land belongs to God and that people should not be greedy.
The third part of this Divine order is perhaps the most significant. On the Jubilee year, all Hebrew slaves are to be freed. The Bible paints the Hebrew slave as a person who has had a stretch of bad luck. Usually, he has fallen into debt and has to sell himself and his services to satisfy that debt. If a kind (and rich) relative is willing to pay off his debt, he may be set free before the Jubilee. Or he can work off the debt during his period of servitude. But if neither of these things happen, he will be freed when the Jubilee comes.
We do not know if the Jubilee ever happened. But the idea of that great day runs through American history – not only in the inscription on the Liberty Bell but in countless spirituals, hymns that yearn for freedom. People in slavery yearned for the Jubilee, if not here on earth, then in the life to come. The Bible does not depict a society of freedom and equality, but it does contain a longing for a more perfect society to come.