Balancing Social Responsibility with Market Economics
In the United States’ Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson declares that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” In a sense, Leviticus 25 is also about an Israelite’s inalienable rights, but while Jefferson guarantees life and liberty without providing financial capital or a family holding from which to support oneself and one’s family, Leviticus 25 grants the Israelites freedom from permanent debtor slavery by virtue of a promised return of their land which is their basic economic capital.
Moreover, Leviticus 25 guarantees Israelites the inalienable claim to ownership of their ancestral lands even if they are temporarily “leased” to another. Each brother in Israel sees in that holding a guarantee of their dignity as an equal, a fellow land owner. It is his title to a piece of the God-given land as Israel’s patrimony that connects him to the foundational event of the Crossing of the Jordan and the Conquest that complete the narrative of the Exodus that defines Jewish identity (Josh 4:6-7).
Thus, the grand narrative of God’s liberation of Hebrew slaves from Egypt (Lev 25: 55) and God’s gift of the land of Canaan to the people Israel (Lev 25:38) is translated by the legislation of Leviticus 25 into a social welfare society that not only maintains but rehabilitates its failing members without eviscerating the dynamics of a market economy.
In other words, Leviticus 25 intervenes in the free market by establishing “unalienable rights” exempted from the rules of a market, and designed in theory so that no Israelite can become a member of a permanent economic underclass. The system further encourages generous interventions by family members to reverse or soften the economic losses and the psychological suffering.
Isn’t the alienation of man primarily the fact of having no home? … The triumph of justice is the possibility of a society in which everyone has his home, returns home and to himself, and sees the face of the other. —Emanuel Levinas, “Judaism and Revolution”
Leviticus 25 lays out the principle that every fifty years, in a cyclic fashion, all land is returned to the original owners and all people are free to return to their ancestral land:
ויקרא כה:י וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּם אֵת שְׁנַת הַחֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה וּקְרָאתֶם דְּרוֹר בָּאָרֶץ לְכָל יֹשְׁבֶיהָ יוֹבֵל הִוא תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם וְשַׁבְתֶּם אִישׁ אֶל אֲחֻזָּתוֹ וְאִישׁ אֶל מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ תָּשֻׁבוּ.
Lev 25:10 And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, proclaiming liberty/release (dror) throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee (yovel) for you, when each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.
The phrase “his holding” (אֲחֻזָּתוֹ) refers back to the foundational divine land grant described in Numbers, in which each Israelite male was allotted a plot of land suitable to the size of his household based on the census Moses conducts in the wilderness (Num 26:53), and whose distribution following the entrance into the land, is reported in the book of Joshua (13:7 to 19:51).
The working assumption of Leviticus 25 is that each family holds this ancestral plot of land in perpetuity, and that, no matter what happens with market fluctuations, debts and the family’s “sale” of its property, this plot returns to the family’s possession automatically on the jubilee year every fiftieth year. Though many scholars assume that this law was more of an ideal than a real enactment, its conception of economic equality and rootedness in the land educates the people to understand distribution of property in a unique way.
The Downward Spiral of Poverty: The “Sale” of One’s Land
In the ideal world imagined by this chapter, individual families—each with its own ancestral holding—are thought of as self-sufficient economic units dependent on their own productive labor and their own fertile land, though presumably they also rely on God’s seasonal, fructifying rain (Deut 11:11–12). More than economic units, these household plots are a social unit giving its owner a dignified standing as a freeholder and head of a family.
And yet, Leviticus 25 is aware that in a market economy, families rise and fall economically, thus creating socio-economic inequality and financial dependence on those who are supposed to see themselves as equal brothers. (The term “brother” appears innumerable times in this chapter.) Under stress the owner of an ancestral holding can be coerced by market conditions to sell his land, presumably, in order to feed himself and his family or to pay back his debts.
In a buyers’ market where the sellers are in distress, the buyers are instructed not to take wrongful advantage in paying below market prices, but to pay for the land’s use according to its crop years until the next Jubilee, while at the same time, the seller is exhorted not to overcharge either:
ויקרא כה:יד וְכִי תִמְכְּרוּ מִמְכָּר לַעֲמִיתֶךָ אוֹ קָנֹה מִיַּד עֲמִיתֶךָ אַל תּוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו. כה:טו בְּמִסְפַּר שָׁנִים אַחַר הַיּוֹבֵל תִּקְנֶה מֵאֵת עֲמִיתֶךָ בְּמִסְפַּר שְׁנֵי תְבוּאֹת יִמְכָּר לָךְ.כה:טז לְפִי רֹב הַשָּׁנִים תַּרְבֶּה מִקְנָתוֹ וּלְפִי מְעֹט הַשָּׁנִים תַּמְעִיט מִקְנָתוֹ כִּי מִסְפַּר תְּבוּאֹת הוּא מֹכֵר לָךְ.
Lev 25:14 When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. 25:15 In buying from your neighbor, you shall deduct only for the number of years since the jubilee; and in selling to you, he shall charge you only for the remaining crop years: 25:16 the more such years, the higher the price you pay; the fewer such years, the lower the price; for what he is selling you is a number of harvests.
Legally speaking the land is not being sold at all, for it is God’s, and God commands that it be returned to the original owner at the culmination of each jubilee cycle. The produce of a certain number of years may be sold, nonetheless. (Even before the jubilee, the legal bond between the first owner and his holding is not severed completely, for, as we will discuss in the next part, he or his close relatives can redeem it by the right of repurchase at a fair price.)
Further Downward Spiral: Bankruptcy and “Sale” as an Indentured Servitude
The de facto sale of land is a temporary windfall with which one can pay off debts or feed the family for a period, but it does not extract a person from his fundamental food insecurity. In an agricultural economy once a person no longer possesses land to cultivate, he must reside elsewhere and work on other people’s land as a seasonal farm worker or borrow more money often at scalper’s interest rates to make ends meet.
To preempt that spiral into deeper dependence and eventually into debtor slavery, a fellow Hebrew described as a generic brother of the impoverished Israelite is exhorted to provide financial support and take him in to reside with him. Nevertheless, the text is aware that even such largesse may not be enough to save someone drowning in debt, and thus it turns to the discussion of what happens when the person’s financial collapse is total:
ויקרא כה:לט וְכִי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ וְנִמְכַּר לָךְ לֹא תַעֲבֹד בּוֹ עֲבֹדַת עָבֶד. כה:מ כְּשָׂכִיר כְּתוֹשָׁב יִהְיֶה עִמָּךְ עַד שְׁנַת הַיֹּבֵל יַעֲבֹד עִמָּךְ.כה:מא וְיָצָא מֵעִמָּךְ הוּא וּבָנָיו עִמּוֹ וְשָׁב אֶל מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ וְאֶל אֲחֻזַּת אֲבֹתָיו יָשׁוּב.
Lev 25:39 If your brother, being (further) impoverished with you is sold to you, do not make him work as a slave. 25:40 He shall remain with you as a resident hireling; he shall work with you until the jubilee year. 25:41 Then he and his children with him shall be released from you; he shall return to his kin group and return to his ancestral holding.
When no one is willing or able to support the destitute further, then a Hebrew is permitted to buy a brother and use him as a laborer who is indentured keep him until the jubilee. Like the legal fiction that calls the “sale” of land a sale of the crops grown on the holding, the “sale” and redemption of a Hebrew slave is calculated in terms of the annual cost of his wages as if he were a free wage-earner (Lev 25:52–53).
Beyond the euphemistic terminology, economic dependence and legal loss of freedom may not justify humiliation of one’s brother. The purchaser may not treat a brother in a demeaning fashion as one treats a slave at a market or as a harsh overseer tyrannizes over a slave laborer. One must treat him as if he were a hired laborer, as if he had a choice to work for you, though he has no legal choice.
Perhaps since the disciplining of a slave in one’s household is hidden from public scrutiny, the fear of God’s ubiquitous surveillance is invoked to awe the purchaser into refraining from humiliating his new acquisition and treating a brother as a means rather than an end. Thus, the chapter ends with a reiteration of the grand theological narrative of God’s redemption from Egypt but would a new twist:
ויקרא כה:מב כִּי עֲבָדַי הֵם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם לֹא יִמָּכְרוּ מִמְכֶּרֶת עָבֶד. ויקרא כה:מג לֹא תִרְדֶּה בוֹ בְּפָרֶךְ וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ.
Lev 25:42 For they are my slaves, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves are sold.25:43 You shall not rule over him with harshness; you shall fear your God.
The theological rationale of Leviticus 25 is founded on two paradoxes. First, God took the Hebrews out of Egypt and thus gave them their freedom, yet God keeps them as his own permanent slaves. Second, God gave the Israelites the land, even dividing it into family plots, but God also owns the land and is merely leasing it to them. The point seems to be that Israel experiences their freedom as landowners while at the same time they must recognize that really they are God’s and so is their land.
Thus, Leviticus 25 claims, since each Israelite’s own freedom and his own holding belong de jure to God, the Hebrew and his land cannot be sold but only hired or rented. Moreover, no one may treat him disrespectfully as a slave because his true owner, God, forbids it.
Beyond rhetoric, the market pressures have de facto, though not de jure, made one’s brother into a slave, though one must treat him with greater empathy and delicacy than Pharaoh who commanded his overseers to engage in ruthless בְּפֶרֶךְ enslavement of the children of Israel in order to torment them (Exod 1:11, 13–14).
Periodic Resets: Avoiding the Creation of Permanent Classes
Leviticus 25 allows great latitude to the interests and rights of financially successful Israelites who can buy their brothers as slaves and buy up their ancestral holdings up to 49 years. The purchaser of an ancestral patrimony and a Hebrew slave is not regarded negatively by Leviticus 25. Unlike the passionate prophet Amos, there is no moral critique of the market as a tool enabling the rich to exploit the destitute (Amos 8:4–7).
As long as they do not cheat and do not take unfair advantage of their economic prerogatives, or humiliate their brothers, they serve a positive function by allowing the impoverished to pay their debts and to find a job as an indentured servant in which their families have food and a residence.
Even so, while for Leviticus 25 nothing is illegal or immoral about market forces that lead to buying and selling labor and land, commodifying human labor and ancestral land tends over time to undermine broadly distributed private ownership of the means of production. This is the basic tension between the ideal “original” division of land depicted under Moses and Joshua, and the realities of individual economic trajectories of given landowners over time.
In each jubilee cycle, a differentiated distribution of wealth inevitably develops due to changes resulting from an individual’s luck, effort, and skill and the vagaries of an agricultural market society greatly dependent on weather. To avoid Israelite society becoming rigidly divided by permanent barriers between classes—rich and poor, landowners and landless, masters and slaves—the jubilee cycle restores the “original” distribution of lands and cancels all debts, functioning as a kind of social and economic reset, somewhat akin to leveling the playing field and starting over with the same bank allotment in a new game of Monopoly, for the next 49 years.
In short, whereas in a truly laissez faire market society, economic gains may congeal into permanent landlessness and then slavery, in Leviticus 25 economic “class” is meant to be a temporary status, not a basic stratification of Hebrew brothers. Its mechanisms for aiding the needy aim not only to provide a safety net of social insurance for individuals but also to build an egalitarian society of male Hebrew brothers blessed with political-economic solidarity among its Hebrew citizens.
Samson Raphael Hirsch: Breaking out of the Dead-End Cycle of Poverty
The system of support for the needy in Leviticus 25 is not about maintenance, such as we see in other places for the Levite, widow, orphan, and resident alien, without resolving their fundamental vulnerability. Instead, the laws are designed to rehabilitate the former landowner, and to return him to productive existence. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888) notes in his commentary on Leviticus (25:34):
Striking is the effect which the automatic reversion in the Jubilee of all landed property to the original owners or their heirs must have in the prevention of complete permanent poverty of some families by the side of overpowering accumulation of property in the hands of a few. Never can a clique of so called great landowners build itself up in the midst of a landless, and therefore dependent, pauperism when every fiftieth year the whole land reverts to its original division, and the richest goes back to the original acres of his heritage, and the poorest is given back the acres of his.
In short, the system in Leviticus 25 offers a pattern for coherent and total overhaul of the economic system, not merely palliative loans or handouts. Sooner or later, but assuredly, these integrated mechanisms bail out, when necessary, Hebrew citizens from the consequences of economic failure and then return to them the capital and the freedom to become independent again.
Redemption (Geulah) and Familial Responsibility
Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. I should have called it something you somehow haven’t to deserve. —Robert Frost, “The Death of the Hired Man”
Land Redemption before the Jubilee
The jubilee is supposed to restart the system with basic equality, but what happens in the meantime during 49 years of market activity? It is difficult to rehabilitate people who lived as indentured servants for decades, and so long an establishment of new market distributions of wealth cannot be erased easily after fifty years. Therefore, the chapter adds the redemption laws as another mechanism for freeing the poverty-stricken person’s ancestral land.
The primary form of redemption is through next-of-kin redeemers:
ויקרא כה:כה כִּי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָכַר מֵאֲחֻזָּתוֹ וּבָא גֹאֲלוֹ הַקָּרֹב אֵלָיו וְגָאַל אֵת מִמְכַּר אָחִיו.
Lev 25:25 When your brother (Israelite) becomes impoverished and has to sell part of his holding, his closest redeemer shall come and redeem the sold property of his brother.
A famous example of such a redeemer—though based on different legal assumptions to those in Leviticus 25—is Boaz, a relative of Ruth’s deceased husband Machlon, who buys back his land for the family (Ruth 3:12-13; 4:1-10). Alternatively, if the man has no family able or willing to redeem him, Leviticus 25 permits the original owner to reverse his act of selling off his ancestral holding. The purchaser is expected to agree to sell the property back to the original owner at any point the owner has acquired enough capital with which to buy it back:
ויקרא כה:כו וְאִישׁ כִּי לֹא יִהְיֶה לּוֹ גֹּאֵל וְהִשִּׂיגָה יָדוֹ וּמָצָא כְּדֵי גְאֻלָּתוֹ. כה:כז וְחִשַּׁב אֶת שְׁנֵי מִמְכָּרוֹ וְהֵשִׁיב אֶת הָעֹדֵף לָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר מָכַר לוֹ וְשָׁב לַאֲחֻזָּתוֹ.
Lev 25:26 If a man has no redeemer but prospers and acquires enough for his redemption, 25:27 he shall compute the years since its sale, refund the difference to the man to whom he sold it, and return to his holding.
According to the redemption law, the price is fixed by the value of crop years, so the original owner does not suffer from the rise of real estate prices after his sale. In short, the volatile market mechanisms are hobbled to make repurchase more accessible. Only if both of these options prove to be impossible, does the original owner need to wait till the jubilee year, when the property automatically reverts to its true owner (Lev 25:28).
Redemption from Non-Israelite Owners
The text does not bring up the redemption option for Israelites sold as slaves to other Israelites, and commentators discuss why this is. Jacob Milgrom, in his Leviticus commentary, suggests:
The answer is that the Israelite slave is not a slave…; he is sakir, a “hireling”… whose work amortizes the principal—a status to which redemption does not apply. The wages he earns may even provide him a surplus with which to free himself of his debt and status…. Thus it is preposterous to deduce categorically from the absence of a redemption provision that “the one who sold himself into debt bondage remains in service until the jubilee.”
And yet, Milgrom adds, “To be sure, his family has no obligation to redeem him.” Contrast this with the acute, even shrill anxiety reflected in the ratcheting up of the rhetoric of suasion for familial redemption when the purchaser is a resident alien, i.e., a non-Israelite who lives among the Israelites and keeps some of their laws. Here, every brother, uncle, first cousin or blood relative being urged to redeem this Hebrew long before the jubilee:
ויקרא כה:מז וְכִי תַשִּׂיג יַד גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב עִמָּךְ וּמָךְ אָחִיךָ עִמּוֹ וְנִמְכַּר לְגֵר תּוֹשָׁב עִמָּךְ אוֹ לְעֵקֶר מִשְׁפַּחַת גֵּר. כה:מח אַחֲרֵי נִמְכַּר גְּאֻלָּה תִּהְיֶה לּוֹ אֶחָד מֵאֶחָיו יִגְאָלֶנּוּ.כה:מט אוֹ דֹדוֹ אוֹ בֶן דֹּדוֹ יִגְאָלֶנּוּ אוֹ מִשְּׁאֵר בְּשָׂרוֹ מִמִּשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ יִגְאָלֶנּוּ אוֹ הִשִּׂיגָה יָדוֹ וְנִגְאָל.
Lev 25:47 If a resident alien among you has prospered, and your kinsman being in straits, comes under his authority and gives himself over to the resident alien among you, or to an offshoot of an alien’s family,25:48 he shall have the right of redemption even after he has given himself over. One of his kinsmen shall redeem him, 25:49 or his uncle or his uncle’s son shall redeem him, or anyone of his family who is of his own flesh shall redeem him; or, if he prospers, he may redeem himself.
The rabbis suggest that the Torah’s fear is assimilation, though I suggest that Leviticus 25 fears that the alien will treat the Hebrew he has acquired as an actual slave or he will not consent to set him free on the jubilee. Perhaps the legal subjection of a Hebrew citizen to a “mere” resident alien, however prosperous, is itself intolerably demeaning to the whole Hebrew brotherhood.
Assuming no redemption proves feasible, the chapter reiterates an admonition to the Hebrew band of brothers not to permit the resident alien master to treat the Hebrew slave ruthlessly:
ויקרא כה:נג כִּשְׂכִיר שָׁנָה בְּשָׁנָה יִהְיֶה עִמּוֹ לֹא יִרְדֶּנּוּ בְּפֶרֶךְ לְעֵינֶיךָ.
Lev 25:53 He shall be under his authority as a laborer hired by the year; he shall not rule ruthlessly over him in your sight.
Finally, the Israelites must make sure the resident alien, like the Israelite master of any unredeemed Israelite indentured servant, release his indentured servant at the jubilee even without compensation.
ויקרא כה:נד וְאִם לֹא יִגָּאֵל בְּאֵלֶּה וְיָצָא בִּשְׁנַת הַיֹּבֵל הוּא וּבָנָיו עִמּוֹ.
Lev 25:54 If he has not been redeemed in any of those ways, he and his children with him shall go free in the jubilee year.
At the risk of overreading the language of the legislation, it seems that the negative report, “if he is not redeemed in any of these diverse ways” is meant as a criticism, implying moral as well as economic bankruptcy. Even so, the basic rule is that Israelite family members are not expected to bankrupt themselves to support their relatives, but affluent family members must redeem their relatives’ property.
Your Brother’s Keeper: Biblical Social Security
This “web of brothers” ideal, in which extended family are expected to pay out of their own pockets in order to redeem their relative’s property or person functions as a corrective to an unregulated market economy that leaves any given member vulnerable. The ethos of the extended family’s responsibility for one another differs from that of the pure market-driven society, in which distribution of goods is supposed to reflect the “just deserts” of an individual’s talents and efforts. The family is a structure founded on the interdependence of unequal members who, nonetheless, see themselves as a whole.
The “brother as go’el” gives new meaning to Cain’s rhetorical question, הֲשֹׁמֵר אָחִי אָנֹכִי, Am I my brother’s keeper? (Gen 4: 9). For the responsibility to be a guardian means not only protection from external enemies but also aid when one’s own failures make one vulnerable. Brothers are mutual guarantors, which is the rationale of responsibility articulated by Judah to his father when, to make up for past failures in protecting Joseph and Simeon, he urges his father to place his brother Benjamin’s well-being in his (Judah’s) hands:
בראשית מג:ט אָנֹכִי אֶעֶרְבֶנּוּ מִיָּדִי תְּבַקְשֶׁנּוּ אִם לֹא הֲבִיאֹתִיו אֵלֶיךָ וְהִצַּגְתִּיו לְפָנֶיךָ וְחָטָאתִי לְךָ כָּל הַיָּמִים.
Gen 43:9 I myself will be a surety for him, you may hold me responsible, if I do not bring him to you and present him before you, otherwise I will be “guilty before you all of my days.
In fact, the brother-redeemers who provide social security can expect their temporarily distressed brothers to reciprocate after they have succeeded in the rehabilitative process. The rationale of a web of co-responsible brothers is not radically utopian, rather it reflects the way some traditional families share resources and provide a safety net. Rav Hirsch makes this same point in his commentary using highly speculative etymologies (Lev 25:36):
The Torah says: the life of your brother is with you (Lev. 25:36), i.e. the whole of the development of his life, the fulfillment of the mission of his life is closely bound up with you and yours. You are not there only for yourself, and you do not earn only for yourself. Although, in the first instance, you have to look after yourself in order to acquire the means which enable you to accomplish the mission in life which God has set for you, part of this mission in life is to acquire also the means which enable you to help the brother who is socially connected with you to achieve the mission of his life. What you earn you earn for yourself and for him. His life is bound up with you and with what you possess. This im = ‘with’ [from the life of your brother is with you] makes you into an am = nation.”
In sum, the redemption system envisions the ideal Hebrew society as a balance between individual, financially independent, self-sufficient landowners who are sovereign to buy and sell their labor and capital at will within a dynamic agricultural market society and a web of organically related brothers individuals who are interdependent and co-responsible to save their relatives from the disastrous effects of an economic crisis without blaming them.
Non-Slavery and Protection in Leviticus 25
The consistent legal euphemism of Leviticus 25 is never to call the Hebrew slave “a slave,” and that too maintains his dignity. In essence, de jure, he is a landowning freeman, regardless of the market transaction by which he is indentured. This is not simply a transparent euphemism, a humane face concealing – with a wink and a nod – a rapacious capitalist slave owner.
The Hebrew slave knows that he is not a slave in perpetuity for he and his temporary owner and his relatives know he will eventually be liberated at the jubilee. Moreover, the slave and his relatives still has a legal right to redeem himself and his land at any point that becomes feasible. All these rights anchor the poor’s self-consciousness within a collective social and legal consciousness that maintains a self-image of human dignity, equality and freedom as one’s true status.
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Noam Zion is senior faculty and curriculum writer for the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem (1978-2019). He holds an M.A. in philosophy from Columbia University, and among his books are A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah (1997); Jewish Giving in Comparative Perspectives: Tzedakah, Charity and Greek Philanthropy (2013); Talmudic Marital Dramas (2018) and Foundations of Family Conflict and Reconciliation in Genesis (multidisciplinary study guides for educators).
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