Freedom or Under New Management?

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Behar

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: What happens if a master refuses to free his slaves during the Jubilee (50th) year?

You shall count off seven weeks of years—seven times seven years—so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month—the Day of Atonement—you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family. (Leviticus 25:8-10)

Why does the Torah appear to repeat itself: Once liberty is proclaimed in the Jubilee (Yovel) year for all Jewish slaves would it not be implicit that they may now return to their families? Not only is the Biblical passage puzzling, but the elaboration of the Sages in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 9b) raises a further confounding element:

Our Rabbis taught: It is a Jubilee — ‘A Jubilee even though they did not observe the release of fields, even though they did not observe the blowing of the trumpet. I might say [that it is still a Jubilee] even though they did not observe the dismissal of slaves. Therefore it says, ‘it is’. So R. Yehudah. R. Yosi said: ‘It is a Jubilee’, — ‘A Jubilee even though they did not release fields, even though they did not dismiss slaves. I might think [that it is still a Jubilee] even if they did not blow the trumpet…R. Chiya bar Abba said in the name of R. Yochanan: The views given above are those of R. Yehudah and R. Yosi, but the Sages say that [the neglect of] any of these three ceremonies renders the Jubilee inoperative.

According to the normative ruling of the Sages, the Jubilee necessitates the freeing of slaves, returning of fields, and the sounding of the shofar. Absent these three prerequisites the Jubilee year will not go into effect. However, it is puzzling that the Jubilee year would hinge on the act of freeing one’s slaves – after all do the slaves not go free automatically?

(A) The Tzafnas Paneiach (Terumos 2:10, p. 39) infers from this Gemara that a master may not simply allow his slaves to go free but must actively transfer ownership to the slaves themselves. This is akin to those, such as the Yeraim (no. 164), who also believe that during the Sabbatical year it is incumbent upon the lender to actively forgive the borrowers’ debt.

(B) However, the Minchas Chinuch (42:27) argues that the slaves automatically go free during the Jubilee year even without the masters’ consent. In fact, any master who illegally retains his slaves would be in violation of “do not steal” and would consequently owe compensation to any subsequent labor that the slave performed! The Minchas Chinuch (335:2) further argues that if the freedom of slaves was not automatic, then those who are exempt from fulfilling commandments, such as one who has mental-communicative limitations (chereish and shoteh) or a child, would never be required to fulfill the mitzvah of freeing their slaves. Thus, there is no positive mitzvah for one to free their slaves, rather it is an afkasa d’Malka, negation of ownership decreed by God

If the Minchas Chinuch is correct, how would the Gemara frame the freeing of slaves as a prerequisite to the Jubilee year if it will happen independent of whether any master performs the formal act of dismissal?

(C) Perhaps the two positions above are not mutually exclusive. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 8b) provides the following Tannaitic teaching:

It is taught in a baraisa: What is the meaning of the verse: “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year”? Since it is stated [that the shofar is blown] “on Yom Kippur,” one might have thought that [the year] is sanctified only from Yom Kippur and onward. Therefore, the verse states: “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year,” which teaches that the year is sanctified from its beginning onward. From here, Rabbi Yishmael, son of Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Beroka, said: From Rosh HaShanah until Yom Kippur [of the Jubilee Year, Hebrew] slaves were not released to their homes. And they were not enslaved to their masters. Rather, they would eat, drink, and rejoice, and [they would wear] their crowns on their heads. Once Yom Kippur arrived, the court would sound the shofar, slaves would be released to their houses, and fields [that were sold would be] returned to their [original] owners.

The Gemara describes that there are two stages: From the beginning of the year, the slaves automatically be absolved from their duties, and from Yom Kippur the masters would be obligated to actively set them free.

R. Mordechai Carlebach, based on R. Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, explains that this is precisely what is indicated by the phraseology employed in the Biblical verses: “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants” refers to the automatic absolvement of those who are in servitude, while “It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family” refers to second stage of actively sending the slaves free. 

It is also worth noting that this dual-nature approach to the freedom of slaves in the Jubilee year would appear to have been incorporated by the Rambam in his Mishneh Torah (Hilchos Avadim 2:12): 

It is a mitzvah to tell a servant: “Go out,” at the time of his release. Nevertheless, even if his master does not tell him this, the servant attains his freedom without any cost. 

According to the Rambam, there is a mitzvah to free one’s slaves, but the slaves would still go free automatically (presumably as long as someone else performed the mitzvah and initiated the Jubilee year). 

The dual-natured approach to the freedom of slaves is also reflected in the rationales attributed to the mitzvah. Rambam writes in his Guide for the Perplexed (3:39):

As to the precepts enumerated in the laws concerning the year of release and the jubilee (Hilkot shemittah ve-yohel) some of them imply sympathy with our fellow-men, and promote the well-being of mankind; for in reference to these Precepts it is stated in the Law, “That the poor of thy people may eat” (Exod. 23:11); and besides, the land will also increase its produce and improve when it remains fallow for some time. Other precepts of this class prescribe kindness to servants and to the poor, by renouncing any claims to debts [in the year of release] and relieving the slaves of their bondage [in the seventh year].

For the Rambam, the freeing of slaves is portrayed as an act of benevolence by the master. Whereas according to the Sefer HaChinuch (no. 330) the main purpose is to demonstrate God’s dominion over His world:

It is from the roots of the commandment from the angle of the simple understanding that God, may He be blessed, wanted to inform His nation that everything is His; and in the end everything will return to those to whom He wanted to give it at first – for the earth is His, as it is written (Exodus 19:5), “for all the earth is Mine.”

The rationales espoused by the Rambam and Sefer HaChinuch are not in conflict with each other. Rather each one chose to emphasize one of the two aspects of the nature of the Jubilee year. There is a positive mitzvah for the master to sympathize and bestow kindness upon his slaves by actively setting them free. And at the same time, the slaves will automatically attain their freedom irrespective of their masters’ wishes, because that is the will of the Master of all masters. Of course, in that sense it is important to conclude with the treasured teaching in Avos (6:2): “There is no free man but one that occupies himself with the study of the Torah.” While one may be freed from their earthly master, we must remember that there always remains one true Master whom we always serve.

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria,, Mechon Mamre, and my  own. Contact: [email protected] 

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

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