This week’s Parsha begins by detailing the laws of S’hviit, or Shmitta, followed by a description of the Yovel, or Jubilee, year. I looked up the word Jubilee in my 1981 edition of The American Heritage Dictionary, and found no less than five entries. Number four was a description of the Yovel as it appears in our Parsha, with the critical elements being the freeing of slaves, restoration of property to its original owners and leaving land untilled. The word “jubilee”, which is usually understood as being some sort of a celebration, is, we are told, influenced by the Latin “jubilate”, to rejoice. It also comes from the Hebrew “yobhel”, a ram’s horn, referring to the shofar that was used to proclaim the beginning of the Yovel year. Interestingly, this is in fact the explanation of Rashi for the word yovel. The Ramban, on the other hand, sees the word “yovel” as relating to coming back to, in this context, coming back to freedom that was denied or land that was sold. By explaining the word in this fashion he links the concept of ‘yovel” to the idea of “dror”, generally understood as freedom. U’Kratem Dror”, the passuk tells us, you will announce freedom for this year, and in the Yovel year that freedom returns.
The link between the Yovel year and the Shmitta year is made amply clear by a number of factors. The juxtaposition in the Torah, the idea of the land lying fallow, the concept of counting to seven, all of these indicate that there is a connection between the two. There is, however, another mitzva to which Yovel is clearly related, and that is the mitzva of Sefirat HaOmer. Both Mitzvot are introduced with the word “U’sfartem/Usfarta”, and “you will count”. Both find us counting similar numbers – seven sets of seven – days and weeks in the case of Omer, years and Shmitta cycles in the case of Yovel. The one difference in the description is between the word ” lachem” (U’sfartem Lachem) in the case of Omer and the word “licha” (U’sfarta Lecha) in the case of Yovel, the difference between the plural form in describing Omer and the singular in describing Yovel.
These similarities and this distinction are not lost on Chazal. As the Midrash Torat Cohanim (B’Har 2:1) referring to the passuk “Usfartem Licha” points out, There is a mitzva to count the years between each Yovel, “beBeit Din”, in the court (Sanhedrin). This is as opposed to Sefirat HaOmer, which we all count individually. It is unclear if this counting of the Yovel is exactly parallel to the counting of the Omer. Were it to be so we would expect to find the counting being done with a bracha, as we do with Omer. The Ramban on the passuk in Parshat Emor that talks about Sefirat HaOmer (23:16) raises the possibility but leaves it as an open question. Tosafot in Ketubot (72a) and Menachot (65b) seem to take it as a given that we do. The Rambam (Hilchot Shmitta V’Yovel, 10:1) merely notes the mitzva of counting without directly relating one way or another to the question of making a bracha. The Mishna L’Melech immediately comments that this counting is with a bracha.
Whether or not Beit Din recites a bracha on the mitzva of counting Yovel, it is clear that it is important to keep an exact record of the time between Yovel to Yovel, just as it is important to keep an exact count of the days from pessach to Shavuot. (In truth, if we call it a Mitzva it is difficult to understand the Ramban’s safek, and relatively easy to see why Tosefot takes it as a given. It also explains why the Rambam might merely mention the mitzva without even referring to the bracha. As a mitzva, it is self-evident that there would be a bracha.) This is more relevant when we take into account that not every time that we count is there a mitzva involved. Sometimes, the instruction to count days is for the purpose of being aware of the count, as opposed to having an actual obligation to do so. The Ramban in Emor points to the days that a zav or zava count prior to their purification as being an example of this. In order to complete the purification process, they must count the days. If they prefer not to count the necessary week after the passing of the physical symptoms of zavut, but opt to remain zavim indefinitely, they have not failed to fulfill a mitzva. In the case of Omer and Yovel, however, the actual counting is seen as a mitzva. It is interesting to note that the Tosefot in Ketubot that we previously quoted suggests a different reason as to why the zav and zava don’t make a bracha. Since they cannot be sure that the physical symptoms of zavut will not reappear, there is a risk of saying a bracha l’vatala, an unnecessary bracha. Due to this doubt, they say no bracha at all. According to this approach it would appear that counting the days is a mitzvah in this situation as well.
In addition to the parallels in the realm of Halacha, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch finds important philosophical parallels between Omer andYovel as well. In his commentary on Parshat Emor, Rav Hirsch notes that by counting the Omer, Am Yisrael highlight a major difference between Judaism and other religions. The usual goal of an enlightened government, and the desire of each individual, is liberty and prosperity. Upon leaving Egypt, Bnai Yisrael have accomplished the first of these ambitions, and when they enter into Eretz Yisrael they will have accomplished the second. The annual celebration of Pessach would therefore seem to be the celebration of having accomplished the ultimate goals of the individual. But for Am Yisrael , this only represents the starting point, and now we begin to count forward to the true goal that we set for ourselves as individuals, receiving the Torah. In the thought of Rav Hirsch, receipt of Torah is tantamount to establishing the moral basis of the nation, independent of the material needs which are achieved through liberty and prosperity.
But this counting is not merely a countdown to Matan Torah, a simple expression of anticipation. This counting is an active attempt to prepare us for such an undertaking. This is the intention of the seven-fold reference to Shabbat. By constantly referring us back to Shabbat, we are forced to contemplate G-d’s place in the world in general and our existence in particular. We are regularly reminded of the basic message of Shabbat, the fact that G-d created the world and that He is intimately involved in its workings. Moreover, Shabbat bears the message of refraining from work, thus freeing us from the materialistic demands that the drive for prosperity places upon us.
But we count days as well as weeks. As we already mentioned above, when seeking to free oneself from the tumah brought by zavut, the afflicted individual must count the days until he can become purified. Bnai Yisrael go through a similar process, one that is multiplied seven times. Only on the fiftieth day are they, and we, completely cleansed of tuma and able to allow the acceptance of the Torah to help us achieve the moral level that characterizes Am HaShem.
The aspiration to individual greatness implicit in the counting of the Omer is paralleled on the national level by the counting of the Yovel. After fifty years, we reach a level of social perfection, characterized by the release of slaves and the return of land to its original owners. Once again, we see a seven-fold counting of Shabbat, but this time the Shabbat of Shmitta, when we acknowledge that the land is not ours but G-d’s. Once again, the emphasis is placed on disengaging ourselves from a more materialistic outlook, and focussing on building our moral status.
The message of counting, sefira, is a message that is more relevant than ever. Each night, as we count Omer, we remind ourselves of the preparation that we must make to accept the Torah anew. Our Geula is not complete with the physical freedom that we enjoy. In fact, it has only just begun.