The Torah establishes a theological principle with widespread implications with its introduction of the laws pertaining to Yovel. Two of the Mitzvot associated with Yovel are the return of land to its original owner and the return of Hebrew slaves to their respective families – “VeShavtem Ish El Achuzato VeIsh El Mishpachto Tashuvu” (VaYikra 25:10). Interestingly, the Torah itself provides the underlying rationale for each injunction. Concerning Yovel’s termination of most sales of land, the Torah reasons, “Ki Li HaAretz Ki Geirim VeToshavim Atem Imadi,” “For the land is Mine, for you are strangers and settlers with Me” (25:23). Similarly, the Torah argues that the restoration of all Hebrew slaves during the Yovel year is attributable to Hashem’s prior claim on the individual – “Ki Avaday Heim Asher Hotzeiti Otam MeiEretz Mitzrayim,” “For they are My servants whom I have brought out of the land of Egypt” (25:42). Rashi (25:42 s.v. Ki Avaday Heim) comments that the phrase “Ki Avaday Heim” is Hashem’s legal argument in which He claims that “Shetaray Kodem,” My document of acquisition preceded the current owner’s acquisition. In each instance, Hashem lays claim to our land and to our physical bodies and insists on the restoration of both during the Yovel year.
The imperative to return land to its original owner is reinforced by a later precaution – “VeHaAretz Lo Timacheir LiTzmitut,” “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity.” According to Rashi (25:23 s.v. VeHaAretz Lo Timacheir), the Pasuk strengthens the imperative to return all land by placing an additional negative commandment on the buyer to not squat on the land and withhold it from the original owner. Rambam (Hilchot Shemitah VeYovel 11:1) disagrees and defines the negative prohibition as addressing the seller and purchaser alike to not sell the land indefinitely, despite the ineffectiveness of their actions, were they to try. Ramban (VaYikra 25:23 s.v. VeHaAretz Lo Timacheir LiTzmitut), in his commentary on the Torah, raises an additional possibility that the prohibition rests upon the seller alone or on both the seller and the buyer to not sell the land with explicit terms for a permanent, indefinite sale. Although such terms add a measure of seriousness and substance to the sale from a psychological perspective, they will eventually create a formidable barrier when the time comes for the buyer to return the land during the Yovel year.
Ramban concludes his comments with the viewpoint that the Pasuk, in truth, does not represent an actual prohibition, but rather a note of encouragement. The observance of the laws of Yovel should not be difficult in an individual’s eyes because he is not the primary landholder; instead, “Geirim VeToshavim Atem Imadi.” In a similar fashion, he cites Hasagot LeSefer HaMitzvot (Lo Ta’aseh no. 227), the perspective of Behag, that the Pasuk is a description rather than a restriction: “The land cannot be sold in perpetuity” instead of “the land shall not be sold in perpetuity.” The rationale for a seller’s inability to permanently sell the land is due to the fact “SheEinah SheLachem,” that it does not belong to the seller in the absolute sense, and, as a result, he is incapable of violating the wishes of the true owner. As the Torat Kohanim interprets the spirit of the Pasuk, “Al Ta’asu Atzmichem Ikar,” “do not make yourselves primary.”
The release of Hebrew slaves is likewise reinforced by a negative commandment – “Lo Yimachru MiMekeret Aved,” “They shall not be sold as slaves” (VaYikra 25:42). The precise focus of this prohibition and the exact quality of “a sale of slaves” which the Torah is seeking to forbid is not immediately clear. Rashi (25:42 s.v. Lo Yimachru MiMekeret Aved) explains the Pasuk as prohibiting a public sale of the individual, one which would make a public spectacle of the person and publicly announce that he is for sale. Others, though, relate the prohibition to the permanent duration of the sale based on the context of the preceding Pasuk – “VeYatza MeiImach Hu UVanav Imo VeShav El Mishpachto,” “He shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and he shall return to his family” (25:41). Although one might have expected that an individual’s personal autonomy would enable a permanent sale of himself, Seforno (25:42 s.v. Ki Avaday Heim) justifies the restriction due to Hashem’s ultimate claim on a person’s body – “nonetheless, since he is My slave, he is incapable of selling himself as a permanent slave.”
The return of land and the restoration of Hebrew slaves both underscore Hashem’s claim to that which human nature purports as belonging to the individual. We are reminded that our monetary possessions, even our physical bodies, belong to Hashem. The spirit of Yovel is captured in a Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (3:7), in which Rabi Elazar Ish Bartuta teaches, “Give to Him from that which is His, because you and that which belongs to you are His.” The Mishnah supports the teaching with a Pasuk (Divrei HaYamim I 29:14) in which David rationalizes how the Jewish people were able to dedicate materials and money so generously and extensively toward the construction of the Beit HaMikdash – “Ki Mimecha HaKol UMiYadecha Natanu Lach,” “For all things come from You, and from Your own we have given to You.” The perspective that the Yovel year seeks to ingrain within us is relevant not only during the fiftieth year, but at all times. Our physical bodies, our personal strengths, our time, and our financial resources belong to Hashem, and “of Your own we have given to You.” Rabbeinu Yonah (Avot 3:7 s.v. SheAtah) explains that the mentality of “SheAtah VeSheLach SheLo” affects how we invest our time, energy, and resources, and the spirit with which we do so. By investing ourselves fully, generously, and joyfully in the service of Hashem, broadly speaking, we recognize that “all things come from You, and from Your own we have given to You.”