The Jubilee Real Estate Law
The Jubilee (yovel), described in Lev 25:8-55, is one of the most remarkable pieces of biblical legislation. It describes a theology of the land of Israel, in which land belongs to God, with the Israelites merely tenants on it. This is described using two different metaphors: In v. 23, the Israelites are depicted as “strangers resident with Me,” while v. 55 states “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I the LORD your God.” These metaphorical relationships have legal implications: At the Jubilee, namely every fiftieth year, the land returns to the original ownership established by God; in the words of v. 13: “In this year of Jubilee, each of you shall return to his holding.”
This law is unique to Leviticus—even though the legislation of Deuteronomy is usually seen as the most humanitarian of the Torah, that book does not recognize the institution of the Jubilee. Modern scholars debate the practicality of the legislation of the Jubilee, and most agree that it was an ideal only, and never practiced; such ideal laws are known from elsewhere in the ancient Near Eastern world. Whether real or ideal, laws are set against a certain reality. Examining a law within its context helps us understand its intentions and meaning. In this case, it appears that archaeology helps clarify certain details within the Jubilee law.
Two Types of Dwellings
During the Jubilee year, all the land is returned to its original owners and the Hebrew slaves are freed (Lev 25:8-17, 23-56; 27: 16-25; Num 36:4). Within periods between Jubilee years, redemption of land by individuals is also possible. Toward the end, the law (Lev 25: 29-31) refers to the redemption of individual houses:
29 If someone sells a dwelling in a walled city (ir choma), he has one year after the date of sale in which to redeem it. For a full year he will have the right of redemption; 30 but if he has not redeemed the dwelling in the walled city within the year, then title in perpetuity passes to the buyer through all his generations; it will not revert in the Jubilee. 31However, houses in chatzerim not surrounded by walls are to be dealt with like the fields in the countryside – they may be redeemed [before the Jubilee], and they revert in the Jubilee.
This passage refers to two types of houses: houses of the chatzerim (usually translated as “villages”) are released in the Jubilee, while houses in walled cities are not. Owners who were forced to sell these latter houses can only redeem them during the year after the sale; otherwise, they permanently revert to the buyers and will not be released in the Jubilee.
But what exactly are “houses of the chatzerim” as opposed to “houses in walled cities”?
Interpretation 1 – Cities vs. Villages
The dichotomy presented suggests that chatzerim are un-walled villages, in contradistinction to those in walled cities. This interpretation is characteristic of both traditional rabbinic commentators as well as modern critical scholars. Onkelos, for example, followed by Rashi, translates the term as “unwalled place” (פצחיא). Targum Pseudo-Jonathan translates it as villages (כופרניא). Modern scholars such as Baruch Levine and Jacob Milgrom also assume that the term refers to un-walled villages. For most scholars, then, the law differentiates between the rural sector (villages and hamlets) and the fortified urban sector, with the houses in each of these sectors having a different fate.
Following this understanding, the existence of a city-wall is seen as the most important legal element determining the fate of the house, and such cities would be differentiated not only from rural areas, but even from un-walled towns.
Defining and Contrasting the Biblical term עיר (ir)
This interpretation, however, suffers from several drawbacks. Most significantly, it derives from a mistranslation of the word עיר (ir). Unlike its meaning in Modern Hebrew, Biblical Hebrew uses the word to define a settlement – any settlement.The word does not differentiate between a city and a village, but between a settlement and something that is not a settlement. In the present context, the entity which is not a settlement is called a chatzer. Both a city and a village fall within the category of “a settlement” (ir), in contrast to a chatzer.
A similar, though not identical, dichotomy, can be seen in Deut. 28:3: “Blessed should you be in the city (ir), and blessed shall you be in the field.” And also in verse 16 (same chapter): “Cursed shall you be in the city (ir), and cursed shall you be in the field.” These verses contrast the ir (translated as city) with the field\land. The real contrast is, of course, between the settlement – cities and villages alike– and the field. Though these verses do not speak about the chatzer, they dichotomize the settlement with anything that is outside the settlement – as we will see below, this is what the chatzer is part of.
But why haven’t scholars and interpreters treated the dichotomy as between settlements and non-settlements, and instead, quite consistently contrasted cities and villages? Apparently, this was a result of the content of the verses, which differentiates between a walled ir and an un-walled chatzer. The fact that, in most periods, cities were walled and fortified while villages were not reinforced the impression that the distinction is between cities and villages. In short, since the verses made the existence of a wall a major factor in the dichotomy, the distinction between a city and a village seemed self-evident. An examination of the detailed archaeological record we possess, however, shows that this is not the case, and that there is one period in which all the pieces of the puzzle fit-in very nicely, and it can, therefore, serve as a background on which the law was crafted.
The Archaeological Evidence
During the early part of the Iron Age II there were very few rural settlements. The countryside was resettled mainly in the 8th-7th centuries BCE (slightly earlier in the north), before being devastated at the time of Nebuchadnezzar. The accumulating data suggests that in this period, three types of rural sites existed: large villages, small villages\hamlets, and farmsteads. What is striking, however, is that during the Iron II period, virtually all of the villages excavated thus far were found to have been surrounded by a boundary wall!
Interpretation 2 – Settlements vs. Non-Settlements
This sheds new light on the distinction between an ir with a defensive or boundary wall and places like a chatzer that have no walls. When all the settlements, urban and rural alike, are surrounded by a boundary wall, there is no reason to assume that the phrase “walled settlement” differentiates between cities and villages. The dichotomy is between any walled settlement – cities and villages alike, as both were surrounded by a wall – and the chatzerim, which are neither settlements nor walled. In other words, the reference to the wall is not a legal criterion, but refers to the reality that all settlements were walled. Thus, verse 29 should be translated as “if anyone sells a dwelling house in a walled settlement (or simply “a settlement,” as the word “walled” was added just for descriptive purposes), it may be redeemed until a year has elapsed since its sale…”
The exceptions to the law are the houses in the chatzerim, because chatzerim are not regarded as settlements. But if both cities and villages are considered settlements, what are chatzerim?
Chatzerim as Farmsteads
Chatzerim refer to isolated farmsteads in which only a family, and not a community, dwelt. These were isolated structures located within a family group’s agricultural inheritance, amidst fields, agricultural installations, cisterns, terraces, etc. This, I believe, is what the Torah envisions when it describes houses of chatzerim, which are not settlements, and have no walls. Thus, the archaeological evidence from the Iron Age II clearly explains the settlement reality assumed by the law: there are walled or enclosed settlements (ir choma), along with isolated farmhouses scattered in the countryside (chatzerim), and the houses in each have a different law.
Moreover, such an understanding results not only from reconstructing the settlement system on the basis of the archaeological evidence, but from the language of the verses as well. After all, this was precisely the rationale given for the special law regarding the houses of thechatzerim. The verse specifically states that these houses “shall be classed as open country” (or, more accurately, “shall be classed as agricultural fields”) and this is the reason why “they may be redeemed, and they revert in the Jubilee.” Unlike houses in settlements (villages included), the farmhouses – which are isolated structures located in the agricultural fields – cannot be separated from the agricultural lands on which they stand, and of which they are just a small part. It is impossible to separate the house from the field in which it is embedded, and to have a different law for it. The house is part of the fields, and thus it shares the same fate.
The archaeological evidence sheds light on the biblical terminology, allowing us to understand the law properly. The law of the Jubilee deals with returning land to its original owner in the fiftieth year. The agricultural land is what the law is all about, and verses 29-31 are simply a qualification of sorts, explicitly stating that the law does not apply to houses. The status of the houses in settlements (any settlement!) is different. Such houses can be bought and sold, and their transaction is final (after a year) because each house stands by itself and is not dependent on agricultural land (which is the focus of the law of the Jubilee). The last verse (31) is meant to qualify the qualification, and to clarify that farmhouses, although technically houses, have the same status as the land, from which they are inseparable. They, therefore, revert to the original owner in the yovel, because they are part of the fields.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
May 5, 2014
April 3, 2020
Professor Avraham (Avi) Faust is Professor of archaeology at the Martin (Szusz) department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology Bar-Ilan University and thethe director of its excavations at Tel ‘Eton. He holds a Ph.D. in archaeology from Bar Ilan University. Among his many publications are Israel’s Ethnogenesis: Settlement, Interaction, Expansion and Resistance, The Archaeology of the Israelite Society in the Iron Age II, and Judah in the Neo-Babylonian Period: The Archaeology of Desolation.
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series