If a man sells a house in a walled city, it may be redeemed until a year has elapsed…. If it is not redeemed…it shall not be released in the jubilee. But houses in villages that have no encircling walls…shall be released through the jubilee. (Lev. 25: 29-31)
Let’s imagine two societies. One values individual enterprise, hard work, resourcefulness and pluck. In that society, property and other forms of wealth are both rewards for and signs of enterprise and initiative, and are valued for that reason. Of course, people who have worked hard and acquired wealth also want to pass down that wealth to their children. And why shouldn’t they? They earned it and should be allowed to do with it as they please. It’s only fair.
In the other society, enterprise and pluck aren’t disdained – but there’s little reason to use them to acquire land and property. That’s because this society was set up based on an egalitarian distribution of land and property, and periodically – let’s say every 50 years – all such assets revert to their original owners. After all, why should your kids get a break in life just because you’ve worked hard, or been lucky? Life is tough, and we’re all in it together. It’s only fair.
The laws of the yovel, or jubilee year, which we read in Parashat Behar, capture these two competing conceptions of how society should be organized. For the most part, the second conception seems to be ascendant: the God of Israel is a socialist, at least as far as His chosen people are concerned. But then why do the rules change for property within walled cities? Translate this to terms we’re familiar with, and you’ll see the problem: why should investment bankers and other London fat cats get to keep their two-million-pound homes in the fiftieth year while farmers out in Nowhereville who’ve been building up a business for two generations have to go back to square one?
The broader discussion of the yovel focuses mainly on the release of (Israelite) indentured servants. During the yovel, both property and persons revert to their original status. The Jewish Study Bible suggests that the two go together: people are more likely to lose their property if they fall on hard times . Regardless, both sets of laws justify massive social engineering on the basis of the same theological idea – both the land and the people ultimately belong to God. “The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Lev. 25: 23).
Against this backdrop, how should we view the exception for property within walled cities? It could be that, as professor of Hebrew Robert Alter points out, in an agrarian economy, property in the countryside would have been a source of livelihood, whereas urban property would have been only for living in. Or perhaps it was accepted that the economic activity in cities required certain concessions. Or maybe it reflects a recognition that in an advanced economy, based on industry and trade and services, socialism just doesn’t work, however noble its values.
These verses highlight the tension between two competing, and equally appealing, views about fairness and social justice. They raise a question to which there is no single “right” answer. This is something we should all remember.
(Thanks to Rabbi Joel Levy for sparking these ideas in a session at Limmud several years ago.)
Meira Ben-Gad is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue