April 8, 2024
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What Is the Meaning of the Word ‘Yovel’?

At Lev. 25:10 we are told: “[This year] shall be a ‘yovel’ to you. You will each return to your land….” What is the meaning of this word “yovel”?

Rashi notes that at Lev. 25:9 there is a statement that the shofar is blown to proclaim the “yovel” year. He concludes that the year is called “yovel” based on this shofar blowing. I.e., in Rashi’s view, “yovel” means something like “year when the ram’s horn is blown.”

What is the basis for Rashi’s explanation? The word “yovel” and words based on it (e.g., ha-hovel, ba-yovel, etc.) appear 27 times in Tanach. Of course, 21 of these times the reference is to the “yovel” year without any explanation. But four times in the sixth chapter of the book of Joshua we have references to “shofarot yovlim” or “shofarot ha-yovlim.” It is clear that the word means “ram” there. It is also clear that the word means “ram” at Joshua 6:5 and Ex. 19:13.

So there is a basis for Rashi’s explanation. But Ramban asks the obvious question on Rashi: Based on various mishnayot in Masechet Rosh Hashana, we see that the shofar blown to declare the year of the “yovel” does not have to be specifically from a ram. The preferred animal for this shofar blowing is a “yael” (= goat). So why would the year be called “the year when the ram is blown”? Moreover, the “yovel” year would much more likely have a name related to its fundamental aspect as a year of “dror” (=freedom).

Therefore, Ramban takes a completely different approach to the word “yovel.” He cites verses such as Is. 23:7 (“yoviluha ragleha me-rachok lagur” =whose legs carried her off from afar to live) and Isa. 18:7 (“yuval shai”=a gift is brought) and shows that the root Y-B-L often has something to do with an object being brought. He believes that H-B-A-H (hava’ah), being brought, is the fundamental meaning of the root Y-B-L. He concludes that this better accords with the plain sense of verse 25:10: “[This year] shall be a ‘yovel’ [=being brought] to you. You will each return to your land…”

Rav S.R. Hirsch agrees with Ramban. At Lev. 25:10, in the Hirsch commentary, “yovel” is translated as “homebringer”!

Modern scholars are in rough agreement with Ramban and Rav Hirsch about this root. They view Y-B-L as fundamentally a word meaning “movement” or “flow,” but they agree that it also has the related meaning of “being brought.”

Other notable verses with the root Y-B-L are Ps. 60:11: “mi yovileini ir matzor” (=who will lead me into the fortified city?), Isa. 53:7: “ka-se la-tevach yuval” (=as a lamb is led to the slaughter), and Isa. 55:12: “u-ve-shalom tuvalun” (=and you will be led out with peace). Also, the root Y-B-L is connected to water in several verses. See, e.g., Isa. 30:25 and 44:4, Jer. 17:8 and Ps. 1:3.

I am telling you all of this because it helps us better understand the word “mabul.” The word “mabul” is commonly translated as “flood” (see, e.g., ArtScroll’s Stone Chumash and the Hertz Pentateuch.) But in order to truly understand the meaning of a word, we must determine its three-letter root. There is no root M-B-L in Biblical Hebrew, so we have to look harder for the root. Also, an initial mem is usually not part of the root; it is what is added at the beginning to turn the word into a noun. So we have to figure out what third root letter was originally there and dropped out.

Some see the root as B-L-L, with the meaning “mixture/intermingling/confusion.” (See, e.g., Ibn Ezra.) Others believe that the root is N-B-L, which has the meaning of “fall, decay, destroy.” (See, e.g., Ibn Ezra, Seforno, Radak and Shadal.) But now we realize there is a third possibility: the root is Y-B-L, with its meaning of “movement, flow.” This is probably the correct approach. It is the approach adopted in the Daat Mikra. It is also adopted by Moses David Cassuto, and by many other modern scholars. (See, e.g., H. Tawil, an Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, p. 196.) I discussed this all at length in an article at seforim.blogspot.com, from Oct. 2014.

Interestingly, Rashi conducts practically the same analysis of the word “mabul” that I did. In his explanation of the word at Gen. 6:17, he writes: “she-bilah et ha-kol, she-bilbel et ha-kol, she-hovil et ha-kol min ha-gavoha la-namuch…” “Bilah” means “destroy and wear down,” similar to N-B-L. “Bilbel”means “mix,” the equivalent of B-L-L. “Hovil” means “move” and is from the root Y-B-L. But Rashi seems to believe that the word “mabul” was purposely chosen to convey all three connotations.

Going back to our original word “yovel,” is there a connection between the “movement/bringing” meaning of “yovel” and the “ram” meaning? Rav S.R. Hirsch (comm. to Lev. 25:10) makes the following suggestion: “[T]he ram is the leader of the flock, the one who ‘brings’ them to their pasturage… who goes in front, and the flock following him, ‘brings them home.’” Such an approach is also taken by E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, entry for yovel=ram, p. 256 (“leader of the flock”). (I am mentioning this approach because it is interesting but I am not yet convinced.)

What about the word “yevulah” in the second paragraph of the Shema? It turns out that Y-B-L also has the related meaning of “carry.” See, e.g., Ps. 76:12: “yovilu shai” (carry presents). In the Shema, the word “yevulah” is used to mean the produce of the land. Most likely, it has this meaning because produce must be carried in from the land. Alternatively, because produce “flows” from the land.

Finally, why is the “yovel” called the “jubilee” year in English? The first English translation of the Bible, the King James Version published in 1611, used the word “jubile.” (This was the spelling of our word “jubilee” at that time.) But why did they use this celebratory word? The answer is that those who were responsible for this English translation should have just transliterated from the Latin and wrote “jobel.” Instead, they got a bit creative and used the word “jubile,” which they knew had a positive, celebratory meaning. In this way they created a connection between the 50th year and a jubilant celebration that is absent from the Tanach. (I admit that the 50th year is a year of “dror”/freedom. But this is not the same as a year of joy.)

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He is jubilantly looking forward to the next jubilee year, but unfortunately we seem to have lost the jubilee-year count long ago.

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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