Cosmic Cycles - The Ramban's Understanding of Yovel (Jubilee)

As Jews, we often like to partake of the ‘humblebrag’ about our religion. We like to think, in some way reminiscent of a Brooklyn hipster's music taste, that we 'discovered it first,' or 'we were doing it before it was cool.' We see this with our own pride about the adoption of monotheism (despite our own traditions' recognition of what a difficult/impossible effort that is), with our ethics-focused relationship to society, and with the satisfaction many take in seeing our religion as 'free' from superstitious influence. 

In particular, I have often heard people talk with deep excitement about how proud they are that Judaism never concerns itself with the end of the world or the apocalypse. Most are more than happy to claim what appears to be a theological oversight as a cultural victory, as if to say, ‘Look how much more mature we are!’

In that case, you may be disappointed to find out that Judaism spends no less time concerned with the Eschaton than other religions -- even if we as contemporary Jews spend hardly any discussing it. In fact, one of the most interesting and creative approaches to cosmology and to the fate of the Universe is found in the earliest schools of Kabbala, and it is worthy of our understanding, even if it may offend our modern(ized) sensibilities. 

"And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year..." [VaYiqra 25:10]

"And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year..." [VaYiqra 25:10]

Parashat Behar, although it might not be immediately evident, is the sedra in which the Kabbalists find the most material to construct a vision of the end-times.

[VaYiqra 25:1-10] lays out the biblical system of shmitta and yovel - that is, that we are required to farm and cultivate the land for six years, and in the seventh to refrain from all agriculture and let the land rest, a shabbat la’aretz. This cycle is repeated seven times (making 49 years) and the fiftieth year is called the Jubilee or Yovel. During the yovel year, all debts are forgiven and all property returned to its original owner.

As they often do, the earliest Kabbalists apply the Hermetic principle of 'as above, so below' to the Biblical shmitta and yovel - and derive from this that the text is not talking only about the land of the Earth, but also about the fabric of the Cosmos. That is, they understand the life of the universe itself to be structured according to these repeating cycles of six years on, and one year off. This isn’t a complete innovation on their part. Already in the Talmud we have the tradition recorded that, “The world shall exist for six thousand years and one thousand [the seventh thousand] it will be desolate.” [BT Sanhedrin 97a]

With this in mind, it isn’t such a jump to see the shmitta system as cosmological - 6000 years on, 1000 off. Fitting it into the rabbinic conception of time, and the current numbering of the year (5776), we find ourselves positioned within a cycle of six thousand years in which creation occurs, and one thousand in which it is left to renew. Just like the days of the week (6 days, 1 day) and the years that we cultivate the land (6 years, 1 year), so too the largest structures of the universe observe the same rules.

 

Now, before you come to think that I’m about to try and convince you that Judaism promotes Creationism (it doesn’t), hang on for just a moment.

You see, this isn’t the end of the end-of-the-world story for the Kabbalists. As for most things, they expected that we decode some of the symbols. In this case, they turn to [Psalm 90], and to the verse found there, “for a thousand years are a day in Your eyes” - God’s eyes that is.

Thus, they set up the equation that 1 God-day = 1000 human years, meaning that if we wanted to understand something in God-years, we’d have to count each God-year = 365,250 human years. Following? Yes, we’re doing math.

So the Kabbalists do accept the idea that the world will exist for 6000 years and then lie desolate for the last thousand before the cycle starts over. Except, they understand those years to be God-years. Meaning that in human-years, the 6000 year period in which the world will exist is actually 2,191,500,000 human years (2.2 billion) with a period of destruction at the end lasting 365,250,000 human years (365 million). That, approximately 2.5 billion year period is one shmitta cycle. Meaning that there will be 7 cycles just like that equalling 17,897,250,000 total human years of the universe, plus the yovel “year” at the very end (being 365,250 human years).

 

This whole calculation was done in the 14th Century by R’ Yitchaq d’min Akko, a student of the Ramban, and evidently a fan of obscure math. Yet even then, he came to the conclusion that the universe would exist in total for 17.9 billion years, split into seven, 2.5 billion year cycles, themselves split into 2.2 billion years of existence and 365 million of destruction.

Now, you may wonder, with these crazy numbers, where did the Kabbalists think that we were in this cycle? R’ Yitchaq at least, took to heart the midrashic statement that, “God created and destroyed worlds before ours,” [Bereshit Rabba] and he inferred that we were in the very beginning of the 7th cycle, meaning we were somewhere around 42,000 God-years into the history of the universe, a number that turns out to be something like 15.34 billion years in human years, a number shockingly close to many current scientific estimates of the age of the universe.

 

This may feel contrived to you or maybe just total nonsense, but I’m not asking you to believe in it. I’m only asking that you believe me when I tell you that this is part of our religion, and a key part.

No less an authority than the Ramban, in his commentary on those verses in [VaYiqra], hints at the Kabbalistic significance of this system of shmitta and yovel. For him, yovel is that very last phase in the world’s existence - the last 365,250 years that anything will be. He sees the purpose of the yovel, on the cosmic level, as assimilating all matter back into the primordial substance (what he tells us the Greeks call the hyle), located in the sefira of Bina, the World-Mother. All things are emanated from the womb of Bina and all things return to it. The earthly manifestation of yovel, to Ramban, is only an echo of an echo of the cosmic yovel, in which all things will be returned to their Source.

As a result of this approach, he devotes a long comment to trying to show that the etymology of the word yovel is not related to a ram’s horn, as most think (even if we do blow a shofar to mark the beginning of the yovel), but rather that it comes from the verb להוביל, to transport something, or deliver it, carry it, channel it:

וחזר ואמר "יובל היא שנת החמישים שנה תהיה לכם", שתהיה לכם שנת החמישים שנה ליובל לא לדבר אחר, ולא תזרעו ולא תקצרו אבל תהיה קדש, ותשובו איש אל אחוזתו להיותה לכולכם יובל כשמה. ועל דרך האמת, "דרור" מלשון דור הולך ודור בא (קהלת א ד), וכן "יובל" שישוב אל היובל אשר שם שורשיו, והיא תהיה לכם.
And it returns and said, “Yovel will be the fiftieth year - a year it will be for you.” - that the fiftieth year will be for you a year for yovel and not for anything else - that you should not sow or reap, but rather that you should be holy - and each person should return to his possession (achuza) for she will be for all of you a yovel as her name implies. And according to the true meaning: freedom (dror) is from the language, “a generation (dor) comes and a generation goes…” (Qohelet 1:4), and thus yovel is that you should return to the Transporter which contains your root, and she will be for you. [Ramban on VaYiqra. 25:10-11]

That it, the yovel for the Ramban, is the thing which will transport all matter back to its source, back to Bina.

Thus, the very very end of our world, as these two rabbis conceive of it, is the passive recombination of all matter, a small window compared to the 17.9 billion years that will precede it. The end is not destruction.

Destruction ends each cycle, but the yovel comes as a capstone to transcend the cycles and break them. The end, the true end, is the ingathering of all things and the collapsing of the Universe back into the God which emanated it. Perhaps TS. Eliot was secretly a great Kabbalist, for he is right when he tells us: “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.”