Redemption All Around

Instructions on freeing Israelites from debt and enslavement--so they can be slaves to God only


This week's Torah portion,


is suffused with redemption. The portion legislates how land, houses, monies, and selves can be divested and then reclaimed. Almost nothing can be lost permanently, since every 50th year society reverts to ground zero. All fields return to their original owners, all debts are forgiven, and all Israelite slaves are freed. Society is given the chance to regroup, recharge, and begin again.

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(portion) begins by first detailing the laws of the


(sabbatical year). Every seven years, the land must be given a rest. Nothing may be planted or harvested during the shemittah year, and instead the fields are left open so that owners, slaves, hired workers, strangers, and animals can gather and graze at will (Leviticus 25:4-7). After seven cycles of seven years, the shofar is blown on Yom Kippur, and the Jubilee year is proclaimed (Leviticus 25:10). In the Jubilee year, as in the shemittah year, all working of the land is prohibited. Yet the social impact of the Jubilee is far more radical. Each person returns to his or her own estate at the Jubilee, and so land is never sold permanently. The Torah warns that the Jubilee must be factored into the selling price of the land, so that both buyer and seller are aware that it is but a temporary transfer of ownership (Leviticus 25: 14-17). In addition, those who sell their fields maintain the right to buy back their property before the Jubilee, and if the original owner cannot afford to redeem the land, other family members are required to provide assistance. If all else fails, the land returns at the Jubilee.

If an Israelite man--Israelite girls cannot be slaves once they reach puberty--becomes impoverished and is sold as a slave, he is freed at the Jubilee. Should he become enslaved to non-Israelites, it is the duty of his relatives to redeem him, and if that fails, he too is redeemed at the Jubilee (Leviticus 25: 47-54). (Ibn Ezra explains that the man has become enslaved in one of two ways--either he has sold himself or he has stolen an item and has not been able to repay it, so the court has sold him.)

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