The Uniform Series text for Sunday, May 20 is Leviticus 25:1-12, the Levitical description of the Sabbatical (or Shemitah) and Jubilee years. The commandment to allow the land to rest is found in brief form in Exodus 23:10-11, and a commandment about remission of debts is also found in Deuteronomy 15:1-18. Here in Leviticus 25, which is the beginning of the last stage of Sinaitic lawgiving according to rabbinic interpretation, is the fullest account of the Jubilee command. This is the first part of Torah portion Behar, which came around a couple of weeks ago (May 5). Here are my notes on this text:

Background and Context

The Israelites are still encamped around Mt. Sinai, but the actual giving of the law is almost over. So these instructions about what to do with the land have to do with the future. (They won’t become difficult to implement until later, when people have to face the practical consequences of the sabbatical and jubilee years. A snippet of rabbinic commentary on Leviticus says Psalm 103:20, which talks about “the mighty in strength that fulfill His word,” refers to those who are willing to observe the Year of Release.

In the way of the world, a man may be willing to observe a commandment for a day, a week, a month, but is he likely to continue to do so through the remaining days of the year? But [throughout that year] this [mighty] man sees his field declared ownerless, his trees declared ownerless, his fences broken down, and his produce consumed by others, yet he continues to give up his produce without saying a word. Can you conceive a person mightier than such as he? (Sefer Ha-Aggadah, 456:502)

This might be why there’s no record of the Jubilee ever actually having been observed in ancient times. The commandment evidently raises practical dilemmas in the State of Israel today.)

Closer Reading

This is a commandment speech, so most of the verbs pertain to “you (all).” God (YHWH) speaks to Moses, and assigns land to Israel. “You” on the other hand, has a lot to do: enter the land, sow, prune, gather in, and then NOT sow, prune, reap and gather in during the Sabbatical and Jubilee years.

In addition, You needs to mark off the Jubilee year by sounding the shofar (v9), loud, and having the shofar sounded. It seems significant that this emphatic trumpet blasting coincides with the Day of Atonement – a day-long fast – since in a real sense the Jubilee year is a year-long fast of a sort. People can eat, and if we look ahead to vv21-22, God insists there will be enough to eat in this year. But we might anticipate that people are not going to be overeating during the second year in a row that there has been no ploughing and sowing and agricultural cultivation. It’s also a “fast” from the luxury of having other people do your chores, since your indentured servants and people who are working off their debts are released to return to their ancestral lands (v13). The sounding of the shofar announces a “holy” time (v12).

The term “jubilee,” in Hebrew yovel, is another word for trumpet, or ram’s horn. We think of it as happy because it was translated into Latin with the verb jubilate, which had connotations of shouting in celebration, after having the Hebrew translated into Greek as aphesios sēmasia, in essence “a trumpet blast of liberty.” In Hebrew, it’s not really about happiness – except as a consequence, perhaps; it’s more about recognizing who the real owner of the land is: YHWH.

The procedure of “counting off seven weeks of years – seven times seven years – so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years” (v8) is reminiscent of the procedure of counting off seven weeks of days following the elevation of the sheaf (which we looked at last week) to arrive at Shavu’ot/Pentecost (which, btw, begins Saturday night, and will also be celebrated in Christian churches on Sunday). In that sense, the Jubilee year is the analog in years of the annual celebration of Pentecost, which seems to have been an annual celebration of the completion of the barley harvest. From that, to a non-rabbinical and non-agricultural reader like me, Jubilee seems in a somewhat funny way to be a celebration of some kind of harvest, or maybe like a particular kind of harvest rest, or a kind of super-harvest: a great big rest after a whole lot of working and gathering.

Also maybe something like a final exam. (As in, “So, what have you learned after all this time?”) Skipping the observance of the Jubilee year, then, if we think of it that way, is something like skipping the final. (In my class, if you skip the final, you’re almost guaranteed to fail the class. That feels a little ominous to me.)

V10 specifically mentions that “each of you … shall return to his family.” In the context of ancient Israel, that presumably (a) meant something like “return to your family land,” something like our “going back to your home town” and (b) presumably sounded like a good thing. In our own times, though, I wonder about that. There are plenty of ways to imagine it sounding something like, if not a punishment, then at least like something we wouldn’t want to do. (It all depends on what you mean by “family,” maybe, and what your experience of that has been. Like “Home is the place where when you have to go there they have to take you in” vs. “something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”) It just makes me think that there could be an undercurrent of calling for reconciliation in this commandment, as well.


A couple of related links:
on The Sabbatical Year (from the 1950s)
Shmita Revolution: The Reclamation and Reinvention of the Sabbatical Year (a long article on the Sabbatical Year and environmentalism today)

Torah scroll