The Dangers of City-centric Societies

The Dangers of City-centric Societies

Country people tend to consider that they have a corner on righteousness and to distrust most manifestations of cleverness, while people in the city are leery of righteousness but ascribe to themselves all manner of cleverness. -Edward Hoagland

The biblical laws of Yovel, the Jubille year, when land was returned to the ancestral heirs, seems antithetical to our own modern perception of property rights. Once every fifty years, all lands in Israel were returned to their original owners or their descendants. However, there is more.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 25:34 has a fascinating analysis as to details of the laws, the reasons, and their effects on Israeli society. I will both paraphrase Rabbi Hirsch and quote from him below:

All houses in unwalled cities were also returned. The only exception were houses in walled cities which could be sold permanently, but only in cities that were walled at the time of the original conquest of the Land of Israel.

Cities in existence could not expand beyond their original area at the expense of arable soil. No farmland could be converted for urban use. If the cities became overcrowded, new cities could be built, but only on land that had never been used for agricultural purposes.

The first effect is that in the long run it maintained “the original distribution of the land according to tribal and familial divisions.” Its main purpose was to: “Restore and regenerate the social and political life of the nation.”

“The houses in unwalled cities not cut off from arable land could not be sold in perpetuity, but had to revert to the original family. City and countryside remained linked as family properties. As a result, every field and every vineyard normally would be owned by an individual who also owned a house in the nearest city. Thus the purpose of this momentous, sweeping legislation was to encourage the combination of the city dweller’s intelligence and ingenuity with the simple life of the countryside.”

“A state whose population is, and remains, settled primarily in moderate-sized country towns is protected not only from peasant dullness and stultification but to an equal extent also from the extremes of urban luxury and proletarianism.”

However, in the few well-defined and controlled walled cities, “a population could develop without ties to the surrounding arable land, an urban population compelled to make its living from commerce and industry.”

But the law for all other cities prevents their expansion “into metropolises detached from the surrounding countryside.”

“It is an effective way of preventing the rise of an economic system in which some families must live in perpetual poverty while huge tracts of land remain in the hands of a privileged few. A powerful class of landowners living in the midst of a landless and therefore pauperized class can never arise or survive in a country where every fiftieth year that land as a whole reverts to its original owners, with the richest returning to his original patrimonial property and the poorest getting back the field that had been his inheritance.”

The above is a divinely prescribed economic and social policy. Policymakers would be wise to give it some thought and attention. And may the rest of us find that right balance between city life, its priorities and values, and those of people closer to the land.

Shabbat Shalom,



To The Jordan Company, who I had the pleasure of meeting in the shiny spires of Manhattan, but who seem particularly well grounded.

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