After many years of conflict over his incarceration, Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of spying for Israel on the US and sentenced to life imprisonment, is set to be released on Friday from the Butner Medium Security Federal Correctional Institution in North Carolina. His release comes one day short of 30 years in order to allow Pollard not to desecrate the Sabbath.
Over the years, Pollard has been held up as a symbol for a host of issues. For many people, his incarceration has Biblical implications and his release messianic import.
Pollard’s release coincides with a very auspicious Biblical time period – the Jubilee year. When he was sentenced, the US justice system did not take into account Biblical law, though his release conforms perfectly to it.
One of the laws surrounding the Jubilee pertains to imprisonment and slavery. If a Jew is sold into slavery to another Jew, the term of slavery ends with the following Shmittah (Sabbatical) year. However, if a Jew is sold into slavery to a non-Jew, he must be redeemed at once and then enters into service for the redeemer to pay off his debt. His service must end with the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25:47-54).
If the Biblical commandment of the Jubilee year was still kept today, it would have begun in mid-September 2015. Pollard’s release comes a mere two months after the end of the Shmittah year and the beginning of the Jubilee year.
During his imprisonment, Pollard developed relationships with several well-known religious figures. One of these leaders was the late Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, the Chief Sephardi Rabbi of Israel, who was very close to Pollard and always referred to him as “Joseph the Tzaddik (righteous) of our generation.” One obvious reason for this reference is due to his belief that Pollard’s imprisonment sentence was unjust, similar to the imprisonment of the Biblical Joseph. However, his reason for referring to Pollard in this manner goes much deeper.
Rabbi Eliyahu requested that Pollard add the letter “hay” (ה) to his Hebrew name, changing it from “Yonatan” (יונתן) to “Yehonatan” (יהונתן). In Jewish tradition, changing a name is a significant act which can alter a person’s fate. This idea is derived from the Bible when God changed the name of the forefather “Avram” to “Avraham” and foremother “Sarai” to “Sarah” (Genesis 17:15).
In 2010, in honor of Pollard’s birthday, his wife Esther wrote a long and impassioned letter to her husband. In the letter she explained Rabbi Eliyahu’s insistence on connecting Pollard to Biblical Joseph.
“If the Rav (Rabbi) repeatedly said that you are the Yosef HaTzadik of our generation it was not intended as a compliment, nor a balm for your tired soul. It was meant as a statement of truth, as a fact. It was meant for you to understand the degree to which you are participating in Jewish history. It was meant for others to understand how critical your redemption is to the redemption of the Jewish people as a whole,” she wrote.
In Pollard’s case, the additional letter changes the numerology of his Hebrew name, making it equivalent to a verse found in Isaiah 9:5 which predicts the coming of the Messiah from the House of David: “For a child has been born to us, a son has been given to us.”
Jewish tradition holds that there will be two messiahs, each with their own important role in the redemptive process. The Messiah from the House of Joseph will prepare the way for the Messiah from the House of David.
According to the medieval 7th century Hebrew source found in the “Book of the Apocalypse Zerubbabel”, the name of the Messiah from the House of Joseph is given as Nehemia ben Hushiel, which is also equal to the numerology of the name Yehonatan.
In addition, the letters of the name Pollard, as it is written in Hebrew (פולארד), can be rearranged to spell the words “Eleph dor” (אלף דור), which means 1,000 generations. This phrase is mentioned in Psalm 105 as the time God will remember his covenant with the forefathers and return the nation of Israel to the land. Rabbeinu Bachya, a distinguished Spanish Torah scholar from the 13th century, interprets this concept from Psalms in his commentary on Exodus 21:6 where he explains that the Messiah will come in the great Messianic Jubilee year in the 1,000th generation.