24th May 2019 • Dr. Harry Freedman • The Torah does not recognise the idea of land ownership in the way that we do today. Indeed, its attitude to land is so idealised that it seems unlikely that the system it mandates was ever put into practice.
The Torah’s approach is that the Land of Israel belongs to God, who grants its inhabitants occupation rights. The land of Israel was to be divided up, first by tribe and then by family, in proportion to their population. This land was to be the ancestral inheritance of the families, but it was not theirs to buy, sell or even own. “For the land may not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine, for you are strangers and settlers with me” (Leviticus 25:23).
Although land may not be sold, it may be leased. But every fifty years, when the Jubilee was proclaimed, all leases must come to an end and the land is to return to its ancestral owners. No lease can run for more than forty nine years.
Leases therefore have to take into account the number of years, or harvests, remaining until the Jubilee year and priced accordingly. Leaseholders who give up their lease up before the Jubilee year are entitled to a proportional discount. All calculations are to be exact and fair, there are no such things as commissions, fees or interests on a land transaction.
The only property exempt from these regulations are houses in towns and villages. They are not deemed to be land, they can be bought and sold freely.
This theological treatment of the property market appears to be unique. There were other similar systems in other ancient eastern cultures, but in these cases it was the king who owned and disbursed the land, not God.
This model, in which land cannot be owned, in which everyone, rich and poor has an eternal right to their own estate, the size of which does not depend on their wealth, and in which lease valuations are based solely on the value of future harvests, is of course idealistic. Unworkably so. There is no firm evidence that the system was ever put into operation. Even though Jeremiah (ch. 32) and Boaz (Ruth ch. 4) redeem ancestral land, suggesting that the law of inheritance still operated, the fact that Ahab offers to buy, then steals, Navot’s vineyard (I Kings ch. 21), indicates that the law as set out in the Torah was not fully observed. In none of these cases is there any suggestion that the land would have reverted in the Jubilee year.
The Torah’s regulations about land possession appear to be more aspirational than practical. They point the way to an ideal society, even if it is one which human society is not yet ready for.
And that should not surprise us. We rarely take the Torah literally; it is designed for interpretation. The Jubilee year and the associated laws of property are intended for a time when all twelve tribes of Israel have returned to their ancient, biblical land, an impossible ideal since the tribes have long dissipated. But that does not lessen their value. They help us aspire to a more equitable world, particularly when it seems so out of reach.