Project Genesis

Debts, Shemitah, and Jubilee

Question: What does it mean exactly that the debts and land are given back after 49 years ?

Answer: Debts are actually canceled every seven years, at the end of the Sabbatical year (“shemitah“)—see Deuteronomy 15:2. At that time, the Jewish court will no longer force the borrower to pay back the debt; yet, he still has a moral obligation to pay when he can. If the lender has already tried to collect the debt, by turning the debt over to the Jewish court for collection before that time (“prosbul“), he is also allowed to collect it afterwards.

Every 50th year is the Jubilee (“yovel“). At that time, everyone’s ancestral lands that had been sold go back to the original owners (as per Leviticus 25:10). Of course, anyone buying land knew about this. In truth, they were actually leasing the land until the Jubilee, rather than really buying it.

The result was that a family had a guarantee of a permanent place in the land of Israel; even economic disaster could only be temporary.

These days, we don’t have knowledge of which land is whose ancestral lands; we wouldn’t know to whom to return it. In any event, this law is not in effect until most of Israel lives in its land again.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

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