Friday, May 20, 2005

On Yovel (Jubilee Years)

This week's Torah reading contains a description of Yovel. In short, there are three main halachic consequences of Yovel approaching. They are:

1. Not working agriculturally (as in a Shvi'is year)
2. Freeing "slaves"
3. Returning property to it's ancestral claimants.

I was thinking about how (or if) they were observed in ancient Israel. I'm not really going to focus on the first one - it's primarily Bein Adam LaMakom: If they grew crops during Yovel, then they did - and if they didn't, then obviously God provided for them because they survived.

The second of these, freeing "slaves" requires a bit more discussion. I put "slaves" in quotation marks because the slavery that we're dealing with here is not the type of slavery that we, in the 20th and 21st centuries, have come to recognize as slavery - i.e. chattel slavery. While there was chattel slavery in ancient Israel (Cana'anite slaves were almost true slaves in the sense we understand it) they weren't affected or freed by Yovel and so are not part of this discussion. The "slaves" in question here are Avadim Ivrim (Jewish "slaves") who became slaves because they either sold themselves for a term of six years, were sold by the courts as payment for thievery for six years, or voluntarily chose to remain with their masters until Yovel. These people were not slaves in the American sense of the term - they had property rights, were not considered as chattel, etc.

I'm curious to know, of the 14 or 15 Yovlos that Israel lived in ancient Israel (from the time of the division of the land under Joshua until the exile of the Trans-Jordanian tribes) how often this release of "slaves" occured and under what conditions. I suppose that in the presence of a functioning court system, it would be fairly easy to enforce - there would be no doubt of the date of Yovel and when it passed.

The third of these consequences, the return of land to it's ancestral claimants is the most tricky to my mind.

In short, upon entering into Israel, Joshua divided the land among the tribes. Lots were given to each of the people who left Egypt. Of course, most of these people were no longer alive, having been killed during the forty years in the desert. However, their claims and lots were passed on to their children. And so the land was divided.

Of course, as time goes on, land changes hands - people buy property, sell property, put it up as collateral on a loan and then default - whatever. Under most circumstances (there are a few exceptions) when Yovel comes around, the land is to be returned to the person who originally owned it. If that person is no longer alive, then it's to be returned to his heirs.

I'm curious as to how (or if) this was implemented in ancient Israel. For starters, proving original ownership must be very difficult. Unlike today, where you can march down to City Hall and check up the land sale records for your house for the last 150 years, I doubt that there was a "city hall" that kept these records. I even doubt that the local court kept such records. More likely, a contract would be drawn up between the buyer and seller and they would each keep a copy for protection lest the other make a claim; but I doubt that they actually filed a copy in some central municipal repository.

So, figure that Re'uven buys land from Shimon shortly after Yovel. Re'uven lives on the land, raises his family there, perhaps even grows old and dies. To Re'uven's heirs, they've lived forever on the land and it's theirs. Shimon, of course, retains the right to come along after Yovel comes along and claim the land again - nothing fraudulent about it - it's clearly in the law and Re'uven was well aware of it at the time of purchase.

OK, now fast forward fifty years. Shimon has long since left this earth and possibly even left his family impovershed - the money they received from the sale long ago is long gone. Now, however, they realize that they have an opportunity to gain some new assets - after all, their father had always told them about their ancestral lands and how, after Yovel, they can reclaim them.

However, when it comes time to actually reclaim it, there are all sorts of problems - how do they prove that they are Shimon's heirs? They certainly aren't going to be doing any DNA testing? Does Shimon still have the bill of sale from 50 years ago (do YOU keep receipts that long?). Would neighbors/witnesses be able to corroborate the fact that the place was sold 50 years ago (do neighborhood memories go back that long)? It seems to me that short of a perfectly amiable handover of long-held property (and I don't know how often THAT happened), there are any number of obstacles that a family would face in trying to reclaim it's long-lost property. As such, I wonder how, or if, this policy was successfully implemented in ancient Israel.

The Wolf


Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

About the freeing of ‘avadim ‘ivriyim (Jewish indentured servants), see Yirmeyahu chapter 34.

Mis-nagid said...

Read The Economic Roots of the Jubilee by Michael Hudson in Bible Review Volume XV Number 3 June 1999.

Mis-nagid said...

Whoops. Make that February 1999 (Just checked my copy).

BrooklynWolf said...

Thanks. I'll have to check that out.

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

1. Fifty years is not so long as you make out - Reuven and Shimon are adults when the first transaction takes place, so 50 years means their children are middle-aged/old when the next Yovel comes around. Not too hard to remember.

2. It's an agrarian society - not much mobility. Shimon and his descendents have spent all this time in the nearby town.

3. A whole lot of Shimon's kinsmen are interested in this property, and maintain the memory of the sale even if they can't redeem it for Shimon. If Reuven is from another tribe or clan - he will still be a "stranger" a mere generation or 2 after the sale.