By Rabbi Nancy Morris, May 14, 2009

“It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family” Leviticus 25:11

The laws of the jubilee year were more than likely a glorious failure, probably never practised. Release of the land from hard labour, release of all debts, return of all landholdings to their original owner in the fiftieth year, especially immediately following the 49th, sabbatical, year — evidence is scant to prove it was ever followed.

Many modern critics conclude, according to Rabbi Gunther Plaut, “that the jubilee law was the proposal of a high-minded theorist whose notions were admirable, but impracticable”. Impracticable perhaps, but surely grounded by sound social and ethical concerns.

Numerous commentaries provide explanations for the jubilee and sabbatical laws: practical (benefit of allowing land to periodically lie fallow), philanthropic (freeing slaves, cancelling debts, restoring land to impoverished former owners), spiritual/religious (remembering the land is “owned” ultimately only by God), political (ensuring the land of Israel remains solely in the hands of the Jewish people). The Jewish National Fund was founded on the idea that land should not be the subject of speculation or the means for aggrandising individual wealth.

These laws have long inspired those with a passionate impulse for social justice. For them, jubilee was a means of ensuring that it was impossible for “unconscionable wealth and unbearable poverty” to exist side by side in a just society. The biblical concept of Jubilee inspired the 19th-century social reformer Henry George, who sought to eliminate profit from the mere ownership of land without abolishing private enterprise.

Given our current situation, the implications for the economy and the environment of this sublime insight is as fresh as it has ever been.

Last updated: 12:13pm, May 14 2009