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Has the Time Come For a Jubilee Year?

 Mati Kirschenbaum

In this week’s Torah portion, Behar, we find the description of the laws of a jubilee year, a year in which property returns to its previous owners. The practise of a jubilee year is described as follows:

And you shall count seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years; and there shall be to you the days of seven sabbaths of years, exactly forty and nine years.  Then you shall make a proclamation with the blast of the horn on the tenth day of the seventh month; in the day of atonement you shall make proclamation with the horn throughout all your land. And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a jubilee for you; and you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man to his family.

(Leviticus 25:8-10)

The description of the jubilee seems to suggest that every forty nine years Israelite society went through a social ‘reboot’, during which property which previously changed hands came back to its previous owner. This idea might make many of us deeply uncomfortable. After all, in the world of long lifespans, a jubilee every 50 years is an event that almost all of us would live through during their lifetime. I also believe that most of us would not be happy if, for instance, our flat, bought with the help of a mortgage for 35 years, returned to its previous owner just because the jubilee year has come.

This feeling of discomfort stems from our estrangement from biblical reality. We function in a skills-based economy, in which we earn our livelihood selling our skills and not the fruit of our land. In contrast, biblical society was mostly agricultural – most Israelites worked as shepherds and farmers. For them, selling their land to someone else meant a transformation into a hired labourer, a social class only one notch above slaves. When such hired labourers fell into debt, they sold their freedom, and became slaves. Both the act of selling one’s land and that of selling one’s freedom were made null and void during the jubilee year, when the land was returned to its original owner and the slave was freed and returned to his family. What was the reason for it? Why would Torah annul transactions that were part and parcel of economic life in the ancient Middle East?

Traditional commentaries gave differing answers to those questions. One explanation found in the Sifra, commentary on the book of Leviticus, stipulated that the return of lands to their original owners was supposed to maintain land ownership of Israelite tribes, thus securing peace between them. Sifra also states that Israelite slaves were released because being enslaved made it impossible to serve their ultimate master – God – with full, unrestricted devotion. Medieval Spanish commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra emphasised the importance of personal freedom by comparing a person deprived of freedom to a bird in a cage which, ultimately, loses its will to live.

It seems that the laws of the jubilee years were supposed to secure both  individual freedom and societal harmony in the ancient Israelite society. But how are they relevant to our lives in the modern Western world, where slavery is a thing of the past? What do they mean in democratic society, which respects the inviolability of property rights?

I think we should look at the laws of the jubilee year through the prism of inequalities that threaten the stability of our world. One of them is the ever growing inequality between the global rich and the global poor of today. For instance, in 2018 the richest 1% of world’s population controlled 45% of global worth, while 64% of world’s population owned only 2% of world’s worth. This inequality is even more glaring if we look at the skyrocketing growth of the wealth of the world’s richest individuals. In 2009, the combined wealth of world’s 380 richest people matched the wealth of the bottom half of world’s population. In 2017, the wealth of only 42 richest individuals was enough to equal the value of the assets of the bottom half. The inequality has grown markedly.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t advocate a communist revolution as a cure to rising inequality. I only want to point out that today’s excessive inequality is as harmful to the society as it was in the biblical times. Nationally, it weakens social cohesion, antagonises different segments of society, and fosters the development of right-wing populist movements looking for a scapegoat. Globally, disproportionate wealth disparity leads to the growth of fundamentalism in societies that feel colonised, sparks civil wars, and motivates people to dramatic, often deadly, attempts to get to developed countries.

The consequences of income and opportunity inequality are acutely felt in our society, and result in its deep political division. This Shabbat, the Shabbat before the European Parliament Elections, I encourage you to look beyond mutual recriminations of our politicians and to ask yourself the following questions: which party, which policy can lead to a more equal, less divided society? What can I do to bring about a modern jubilee year so need today in this country, in Europe, in the world. Shabbat Shalom!

Mati Kirschenbaum