The mandate of yovel is well placed at the end of Leviticus, a book of contradictions containing many of the most resonant justice principles as well as, for many contemporary Jews, some of the most antiquated and painful biblical laws. Leviticus also originates the concept of teshuvah, the possibility of atoning and re-entering the camp.
“Yovel,” most commonly translated as “Jubilee,” is introduced with poetic and cyclical language emphasizing the act of counting. “You should count seven weeks of years: seven years, seven times; the days of seven weeks of years: 49 years.” While the biblical text is ambiguous about whether the yovel is the 49th year or the 50th year, the Talmud asserts that it is the 50th year. Isaac Abravanel, a fifteenth-century commentator, explains that we count in order to remember the preciousness of life and time, so we may “achieve wholeness.” Yovel impresses upon us a sense of urgency, compelling us to learn from each day and spend our time carefully.
Yovel is primarily understood as a profound communal principle of social and economic justice. It demonstrates the necessity of creating a societal corrective, offering those who are locked in poverty the chance to start again. A biblically prescribed “reset” button, it helps to prevent debt and homelessness from becoming an inheritance to be passed on to the next generation. Yovel also challenges the notion that human structures and institutions are at the center of the world. The land belongs to God: “You may not sell land in perpetuity, for the land belongs to Me. You are strangers and temporary dwellers to Me.” (Leviticus 25:23)
The yovel begins on Yom Kippur, rooting it in the notion of teshuvah, return and repentance. Yovel provides for physical return, or homecoming, but also for liberation and return in the spiritual sense. It is as if the economic system itself is doing teshuvah, and inviting those who have been alienated and disenfranchised to return.
Examining yovel in 2017 is both deeply fraught and profoundly resonant. This year marks 50 years since 1967 and the Six-Day War, a milestone that will be marked with much celebration and jubilation and much concern and protest. For many, the Six-Day War and Israel’s sovereignty over all of Jerusalem heralded a Jewish homecoming and a restoration of divine justice over the Land of Israel. For others, that same moment is most significant for its displacement of Palestinians and the beginning of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. For them, this anniversary is not a time to celebrate, but a time to organize.
Within biblical yovel are themes of reunification and homecoming — but also the theme of dislocation. In the Torah, if the land goes back to its owners, someone has to evacuate that land. If enslaved people become free, someone’s household equilibrium is fundamentally disrupted. The Torah is not a literal roadmap for contemporary politics. Efforts to use it as such have led to the doctrine of “Greater Israel,” rejecting any Palestinian (and indeed, most Arab) territorial claims. Yet, exploring the values behind yovel can open our eyes to new possibilities and invite us to consider the impetus for radical change.
What kind of 50th year will this be? Inherent in yovel is the notion that, even after 50 years, it is not too late to redeem a system that seems ossified in injustice. In fact, by drawing awareness to the passage of time, yovel demands a moral accounting and urges us to action. Fifty years of occupation, with laws and policies and settlement expansion to reinforce the status quo, does not mean that the occupation is permanent. The Torah describes the land returning to God, not transferring from one owner to another or one sovereign power to another. The lesson of yovel teaches that our attachment to particular borders is neither more important nor more lasting than our commitment to justice.