An Introduction to the Jubilee

Jubilee CelebrationYou shall make the trumpet sound throughout all your land…
And you shall hallow the fiftieth year,
And proclaim liberty throughout all the land,
unto all the inhabitants thereof:
it shall be a jubilee for you:
and you shall return every man unto his possession
and you shall return every man unto his family

– Leviticus 25:9,10

In ancient Israel, the Year of Jubilee was the name given to the fiftieth year, a year heralded with the blast of a trumpet. It was a year to be hallowed, a year when liberty and release from debt was proclaimed throughout the land.

In this year all slaves were set free. All debts of the poor were cancelled. Those that had been depressed into poverty for any reason were commanded to return home to their family and repossess their inheritance. It was a year of new beginnings, an economic recovery for everyone in the land.

Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century, stated that “Jubilee means freedom”:

The fiftieth year is called by the Hebrews Jubilee, in which debtors are freed from their debts, and freedom is granted to slaves… and he (Moses) also restores fields to their original owners… this name (Jubilee), by the way, means freedom.

from the word for trumpet

Iubely is of this Hebrew word Iobel,
which in English, signifieth a trumpet:
A yeare of singuler mirth and ioy,
and of much reste.

– Marbeck, 1581

The word “jubilee” comes from the Hebrew word yobel, the ram’s horn trumpet which was blown to inaugurate the year. “Yobel” became associated with the Latin term “jubilum” (from jubilaire, to rejoice, to exult) and so entered our English language as “jubilee” .

Since that time Jubilee has been associated with joy and gladness. Modern dictionaries give the following synonyms for jubilee: celebration, anniversary, season of rejoicing, festival. The most common use of the term is for a public celebration, usually ocurring every 50th year, the “Golden Jubilee”.

Jubilee, part of the Biblical festivals
The Jubilee celebration is an integral part of the Biblical “festivals of the Lord”. These frequency of these festivals is based on the number “7”. Every seventh day is the Sabbath. There are seven feasts in the year, and the seventh month is the sacred month.

A system of sacred years is also based on the number seven. Just as every seventh day is a sabbath, every seventh year is a sabbatical year. After a multiplication of seven times seven years (49 years) comes the Jubilee on the 50th year.

the 7th day = the sabbath
the 7th year = the sabbatical year
the 50th day (7 x 7)+1 = the day of Pentecost
the 50th year (7 x 7)+1 = the year of Jubilee

How the Jubilee was celebrated
The Jubilee was proclaimed on the tenth day of the Jewish New Year, which begins in the fall, at harvest time. The New Year was inaugurated with a festival known as the Feast of Trumpets. The day was, naturally, a day for lots of trumpet blowing. It is thought that on this day God finished the work of creation, and was therefore celebrated as the Birthday of the World.

Two kinds of trumpets were blown in the temple on New Year’s Day: the straight silver trumpet, and the ram’s horn trumpet, the yobel (now called the shofar). Some rabbis stated that in the Year of Jubilee, the shofar was to be sounded by every individual, even on the Sabbath. So outside the temple, anyone, even a child, could go around blowing a trumpet. Maimonides, a rabbi of the 12th century, considered that the purpose of the Feast of Trumpets was to awaken people from their spiritual slumber, to prepare for the solemn Day of Atonement which followed ten days later. It was on this Day of Atonement that the actual release of slaves and cancellation of debt took place, although the Jubilee began on the first day of the year.

There was a spiritual significance to cancelling debt and freeing slaves on the Day of Atonement. The Day of Atoment was the one day in the year when the High Priest entered the “Holy of Holies” to make atonement for the sins of the people. Those who had lost their liberty or property were to have them restored on the same day that God forgave the debts of his people and restored them to fellowship with himself.

A rest for the land
Not only were the people and their animals given a rest from work in the sabbatical and Jubilee years, but the land itself was to be left fallow, given a rest from being worked:

When you come into the land which I give you, then the land shall keep a sabbath… Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in the fruits thereof but in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land… You shall neither sow your field nor reap your vineyard.. for it is a year of rest unto the land. And you shall number seven sabbaths of years unto you, seven times seven years… and you shall hallow the fiftieth year… a jubilee shall that fiftieth year be unto you you shall not sow, neither reap.
-Lev 25:2-4,5,8,10,11

Philo Judaeus, of Alexandria, an eminent philosopher and writer who was born about 20 B.C., pointed out that one effect of these fallow years was to deprive tax collectors and governors of most of their revenue:

Moses commands the people to leave the ground fallow and untilled every seventh year, for many reasons… it does not become anyone whatsoever to weigh down and opress men with burdens for if one is to allow a period of rest to the portions of the earth which cannot by nature have any share in the feelings of pleasure or of pain, how much the more must men be entitled to a similar relaxation… Cease, therefore, ye who are called masters, from imposing harsh and intolerable commands on your slaves… Moreover, let the governors of cities cease to oppress them with continual and excessive taxes and tributes, filling their own stores with money, and in preserving as a treasure the illiberal vices which defile their whole lives…

The harvest for the poor
During the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, any crop left in the fields was not to be harvested for the landowner, but to be given to the poor:

…in the sabbath year you shall release and renounce it (the crop) in order that the poor of your people may eat.
– Exodus 23:11

The release of debts
The laws of Moses specify that debts were to be valid for only seven years. If debtors were unable to complete payment in that time, their debts were to be released

Maimonides, a sage of the Middle Ages, explained that “the law of limitation, which cancelled all debts, was a provision for the poor, that they not be always enslaved to their rich creditors.”

The law of debt release is commanded in Deuteronomy 15:

…At the end of seven years you shall make a release. And this is the manner of the release: Every creditor that has loaned unto his neighbour shall release it he shall not exact it of his neighbour, or of his brother because it is called the LORD’s release… there shall be no poor among you for the LORD shall greatly bless you in the land which the LORD thy God gives your for an inheritance to possess it.

The Jubilee was a multiplication of the law of individual debt cancellation: after 49 years (7 times 7) all the debt in the country was cancelled at once. The Jubilee took care of any individual debts that disobedient creditors had not cancelled after seven years, by wiping out all debt, regardless of when it had been incurred.

The Jubilee debt cancellation was a public, general law affecting everyone. The stated intent of this legislation was to abolish poverty: There shall be no poor among you. Debt would not be allowed to accumulate forever, but would be periodically abolished for the people’s sake, so that they would prosper in the land.

The Jubilee concept of Liberty
Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof it shall be a jubilee unto you and you shall return every man unto his possession (which through poverty he was compelled to sell), and you shall return every man unto his family (from which he was separated in bondservice)… in this year of jubilee you shall return every man unto his property.

The Hebrew word for liberty, “deror”, comes from a root word which means “tto live” – to live a full life, to live in every dimension. To proclaim “liberty” throughout the land means to proclaim a “full life ” for every person. This is only possible by cancelling oppression and restoring the freedom and heritage of the people.

Notice that in Jubilee terms, economic recovery means to literally recover what you had lost. Debtors were commanded to return and take back the lands and other possessions they had surrendered to their creditors.

Philo wrote that:

The year (of Jubilee) both is and is looked upon as a year of remission everyone retracing his steps and turning back again to his previous state of prosperity . . .

The Year of Jubilee was a year of new beginnings, an economic recovery for the poor. The combination of a trumpet blast with the return to one’s home and family made the Jubilee a very joyous occasion.

It is the year of Jubilee in which every man comes into his own lands again, and is restored to his own home.
– John Knox.

A New Beginning

The intention of this humane and remarkable law (was) that on the return of every fifty years things should go back where they were half a century before that whatever wrongs had accumulated in society during that period should be at once rectified that if there were any cases of oppression and cruelty which the usual operation of the law failed to reach, they should now at once be arrested and corrected and that if any cases of poverty had arisen by a reverse of circumstances, instead of being fixed, and leading to the permanent debasement of the family, the evil might be checked then, and the family have the opportunity of beginning life again. The idea of the great Hebrew legislator seems to have been that in order to the perfection of a commonwealth, there should be no permanent causes of degradation that no individuals or classes in society should be placed in such circumstances of permanent disadvantage that they could not rise and that in order to secure the highest state of society it was proper that all should have the opportunity periodically of starting on life again under equal advantages. There was to be no institution, no law, no custom, no relation, no habit among the people, that was to become stereotyped, and that would send a malign influence onward to coming generations. It was felt that evils might accumulate which no ordinary operation of law would reach that there might be cases of oppression and wrong which the usual course of jurisprudence could not affect and that instead of allowing them to accumulate, there should be a time when, by a general agreement, all these evils should cease.”
– Albert Barnes, Scriptural Views of Slavery, pp 155-6.

Written by Henry Garman