On The Mosaic Law

Heinrich Heine

[An extract from Heine's Confessions, taken from Everyman's Edition of selections from his Prose and Poetry. Reprinted from Land & Liberty, September 1939]

OF ISRAEL'S love of liberty, at a time when not only in its immediate vicinity, but also among all the nations of antiquity, even among the philosophical Greeks, the practice of slavery was justified and in full sway - of this I will not speak for fear of compromising the Bible in the eyes of the powers that be. No Socialist* was more of a terrorist than our Lord and Saviour. Even Moses was such a Socialist; although, like a practical man, he attempted only to reform existing usages concerning property. Instead of striving to effect the impossible, and rashly decreeing the abolition of private property, he only sought for its moralisation by bringing the rights of property into harmony with the laws of morality and reason.

This he accomplished by instituting the jubilee, at which period every alienated heritage, which among an agricultural people always consisted of land, would revert to the original owner, no matter in what manner it had been alienated. This institution offers the most marked contrast to the Roman statute of limitations, by which, after the expiration of a certain period the actual holder of an estate could no longer be compelled to restore the estate to the true owner, unless the latter should be able to show that within the prescribed time he had, with all the prescribed formalities, demanded restitution. This last condition opened wide the door for chicanery, particularly in a state where despotism and jurisprudence were at their zenith, and where the unjust possessor had at command all means of intimidation, especially against the poor who might be unable to defray the expense of litigation.

The Roman was both soldier and lawyer, and that which he conquered with the strong arm he knew how to defend by the tricks of law. Only a nation of robbers and casuists could have invented the law of prescription, the statute of limitations, and consecrated it in that detestable book which may be called the bible of the Devil - I mean the codex of Roman civil law, which, unfortunately, still holds sway.

I have spoken of the affinity which exists between the Jews and the Germans, whom I once designated as the two pre-eminently moral nations. While on this subject I desire to direct attention to the ethical disapprobation with which the ancient German law stigmatizes the statute of limitations: this I consider a noteworthy fact. To this very day the Saxon peasant uses the beautiful and touching aphorism: "A hundred years of wrong do not make a single year of right."

The Mosaic law, through the institution of the jubilee year, protests still more decidedly. Moses did not seek to abolish the right of property; on the contrary, it was his wish that everyone should possess property, so that no one might be tempted by poverty to become a bondsman and thus acquire slavish propensities. Liberty was always the great emancipator's leading thought, and it breathes and glows in all his statutes concerning pauperism.

* It will be allowed that Heine used this term to mean social reformer. - EDITOR, Land and Liberty.