Rosh Hashanah 9

The eternal shofar.

As we learned on yesterday’s daf, the Torah teaches that every 50 years we should observe the jubilee yearor yovel, which serves as both a sabbatical year in which we refrain from working the land and an opportunity for a reset: Those who are working off debts as indentured servants are freed from their service and land rights that have been transferred during the previous 49 years revert to their original owners. 

But because the 50th year follows the 49th, which is a sabbatical (shmita) year, its observance requires that farmland lie fallow for two years in a row, creating economic challenges and limiting the food supply chain. The rabbis explore the possibility that if we are unable to perform the practices that are unique to a jubilee year, we can be freed of the land use restrictions during the jubilee year as well, relieving us of the burden of two consecutive years in which land can’t be cultivated. Questions about how to manage the laws of shmita continue to emerge in Israel.

Part of the rabbinic discussion about this question focuses upon a specific phrase from Leviticus 25:10, which states: “It shall be a jubilee for you.” Rabbi Yosei suggests that the verse might mean that the 50th year is a jubilee and the shmita rules apply no matter what.

“It shall be a jubilee” — even though they did not release (property to its original owners, and) even though they did not send (free the slaves). 

Here, Rabbi Yosei suggests that the verse is telling us that even if the jubilee rituals are not observed, it’s still a jubilee year. But then in classic talmudic fashion, he also suggests another read:

One might have thought that although they did not sound the shofar, it is also still a jubilee year. Therefore, the verse states: “It shall be.”

Now, Rabbi Yosei is saying that the phrase “it shall be” tells us that since it is the 50th year, it is the jubilee regardless, and so we are obligated to ensure that at least one of its practices is observed. Further, he holds that the blowing of shofar should be that practice because our ability to blow shofar will not go away. He explains his choice this way: 

Because it is possible that there would be no sending free of slaves but it is impossible that there would be no sounding of the shofar. 

In other words, Rabbi Yosei is certain that there will never come a time when we are unable to blow the shofar on Yom Kippur at the start of the jubilee, but he can imagine the possibility that someday there will be no people working in servitude — and as a result no one to release. Therefore, he picks the former to exemplify the required ritual.

As we saw yesterday, the verse from Leviticus about proclaiming liberty was an inspiration to early American leaders, who inscribed it on the Liberty Bell, linking biblical ideals to American ones. But while this verse inspires me, Rabbi Yosei inspires me more.

Whereas the Torah charges us to provide relief to those who need it, Rabbi Yosei envisions a world in which no one needs relief. May we all see the day when his vision becomes a reality.

Read all of Rosh Hashanah 9 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 18th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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