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Jubilee Year

JUBILEE YEAR (יוֹבֵל, H3413; LXX ἄφεσις, G912, but later Gr. tr. transliterate as ἰωβηλ; OL annus remissionis, Vul. jobeleus/jubeleus; prob. giving up; in view of Exod 19:13 the meaning ram’s horn may be primary [BDB, s.v., M. Noth, Leviticus, ad loc.], cf. Josh 6:4-13, including a pl. form, but always constructed with “horn” or “trumpet” [Vul., “the horn used in the jubilee”]; ASV JUBILE, perhaps dissyllabic; the root has meanings bring, produce, in which North [Sociology, pp. 96-103] finds support for the LXX rendering, and Cazelles sees an indication of agricultural origin.)

Biblical occurrence.

The law of the Jubilee is given (Lev 25:8-55; cf. Lev 27:16-25) for its effect on the dedication of property. It underlay the case of the daughters of Zelophehad, in which it was ruled that an heiress in possession could not marry outside her tribe, because her property would then not revert to her family even at the jubilee (Num 36:4). The jubilee (unlike the year of Sabbath, see below) is not mentioned elsewhere in the canonical or apocryphal scriptures.

Provisions of the law

Part I, Leviticus 25:8-17.

(i) The jubilee announced on the Day of Atonement in the “fiftieth year”; (ii) the jubilee to consist in the return to alienated land of its original owners, including any who were in bondservice; (iii) prohibition of sowing, vintage, and harvest; (iv) land valuation to take into account the years to run to jubilee; guarantee of provision to cover the Sabbath (vv. 18-24), impliedly conditional on observance of these laws (relates also to vv. 1-7).

Part II (vv. 25-38).

(i) Land may be redeemed within the jubilee period; (ii) redemption option on city dwellings limited to one year; if not so exercised, such property to be exempt from next release; Levitical property not subject to these provisions; (iii) the poor to be a charge on the community, in the last resort.

Part III (vv. 39-55).

(i) Israelite bondmen to be discharged at the jubilee, and not subjected to the full rigors of slavery; (ii) Israelites bound to foreigners may redeem themselves or be redeemed by kinsmen, at a proportion of their original price depending on the years remaining to the jubilee; or else released at the jubilee.

Aims of the law.

The primary aim was to re-unite owners (or their heirs) with their property, so far as practicable; thus (1) restricting the estates from growing to the detriment of small holders, and (2) maintaining the basic security of a property owning, agricultural community. It is assumed that owners would sell only in extreme necessity, which would usually entail going into hired service; the intention was to give such servants a fair opportunity to become self-supporting again. In practice, usury, and profiteering made recovery almost impossible (Neh 5 illustrates this).

The law would be frustrated unless bondservants were freed to claim their property. Further, as a buyer was virtually taking leasehold, there had to be a fair valuation of the lease in relation to expected yield, and definition of redemption rights.

The Mosaic law sought to forestall a tendency toward aggregation which, throughout history, has been a cause of political revolution.

Relation to the Sabbath year.

The laws of the seventh year are found in Leviticus 25:1-7 (Sabbath, cf. Exod 23:10f.), and in Deuteronomy 15:1-11 (release, with attached provisions for individual release of slaves after six years’ service, Deut 15:12-19; cf. Exod 21:2-6). “Seven years” occurs as a time-unit from Genesis (29:8-30) to Daniel (9:25); but the term “weeks of years,” used freely in Daniel, is explained in Leviticus 25:8 as if it were unfamiliar.

The Deuteronomic “release,” or discharge, from indebtedness (shemitta) is not concerned with land; neither did a servant, released on expiry of his six years, necessarily recover any land (hence Deut 15:13f.). The jubilee property law, on the other hand, did not assume any outstanding debt, whereas the general release was merely to facilitate the restoration. R. North’s emphasis on “mortgage” is misplaced (Cazelles, Vet Test 5).

Observance of Sabbath and release laws.

Jubilees regards the forty-ninth year purely as a calendar event. The official Mishnaic view is that the jubilee was abolished after the Exile (Sebi’it 10:3); expedients for avoiding release of debt relate, presumably, to the shemitta.

The problem of the fallow.

Despite Josephus’ testimony and the more convincing (because it is incidental) evidence of 1 Maccabees 6:49, authorities have doubted whether a national fallow would be practicable; some have tried to relate Sabbath and jubilee to intercalary periods, despite the explicit mention of sowing and harvest. R. North (Sociology, p. 120) sees the fallow as applied to individual fields on a staggered basis, arguing that a general fallow would not help the poor. It is difficult, however, to imagine such restraint being introduced otherwise than generally. The law was directed primarily at stewardship of the land, and was only one of many measures aimed at the relief of poverty.

The apparent implication of a two year fallow in Leviticus 25:20-22 is difficult. Morgenstern (HUCA, X [1935], pp. 83ff.) infers a spring new year; the crop sown at the end of the sixth, unharvested, would provide food; and with no sowing in the next year, there would be no proper harvest in the eighth. Admittedly 25:8-11 suggests a fall new year; Morgenstern concludes that vv. 20-22 are editorial. The passage can hardly refer to a jubilee fallow after the seventh Sabbath, for despite its position, it refers to “seventh,” etc., not “forty-ninth, fiftieth”; Leviticus 23:15f. may show that “fiftieth” was used for a seventh sabbath, as Jos. and Jubilees understood it.


R. North, Sociology of the Biblical Jubilee (1954); H. Cazelles, Vet Test 5, (1955), 321-324; W. Hallo, BA XXIII (1960), 48f.; N. Avigad, BASOR CLXIII (1961), 18-22.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

In addition to this, the Jubilee Year was to be observed after the manner of the sabbatic year, i.e. there should be neither sowing nor reaping nor pruning of vines, and everybody was expected to live on what the fields and the vineyards produced "of themselves," and no attempt should be made at storing up the products of the land (Le 25:11 f). Thus there are three distinct factors constituting the essential features of the Jubilee Year: personal liberty, restitution of property, and what we might call the simple life.

1. Personal Liberty:

The 50th year was to be a time in which liberty should be proclaimed to all the inhabitants of the country. We should, indeed, diminish the import of this institution if we should apply it only to those who were to be freed from the bonds of physical servitude. Undoubtedly, they must have been the foremost in realizing its beneficial effects. But the law was intended to benefit all, the masters as well as the servants. They should never lose sight of their being brothers and citizens of theocratic kingdom. They owed their life to God and were subject to His sovereign will. Only through loyalty to Him were they free and could ever hope to be free and independent of all other masters.

2. Restitution of Property:

The institution of the Jubilee Year should become the means of fixing the price of real property (Le 25:15 f; compare 25:25-28); moreover, it should exclude the possibility of selling any piece of land permanently (Le 25:23), the next verse furnishing the motive: "The land is mine: for ye are strangers and sojourners with me." The same rule was to be applied to dwelling-houses outside of the walled cities (Le 25:31), and also to the houses owned by Levites, although they were built within walled cities (Le 25:32).

In the same manner the price of Hebrew slaves was to vary according to the proximity of the Jubilee Year (Le 25:47-54). This passage deals with the enslaving of a Hebrew by a foreigner living among the Jews; it goes without saying that the same rule would hold good in the case of a Hebrew selling himself to one of his own people. In Le 27:17-25 we find a similar arrangement respecting such lands that were "sanctified unto Yahweh." In all these cases the original owner was at liberty to redeem his property at any time, or have it redeemed by some of his nearest relatives (25:25-27,29,48 ff; 27:19).

The crowning feature, though, was the full restitution of all real property in the Jubilee Year. The primary object of this regulation was, of course, the reversion of all hereditary property to the family which originally possessed it, and the reestablishment of the original arrangement regarding the division of the land. But that was not all; for this legal disposition and regulation of external matters was closely connected with the high calling of the Jewish people. It was a part of the Divine plan looking forward to the salvation of mankind. "The deepest meaning of it (the Jubilee Year) is to be found in the apokatastasis tes basileias tou theou, i.e. in the restoring of all that which in the course of time was perverted by man’s sin, in the removing of all slavery of sin, in the establishing of the true liberty of the children of God, and in the delivering of the creation from the bondage of corruption to which it was subjected on account of man’s depravity" (Ro 8:19 ) (compare Keil, Manual of Biblical Archaeology). In the Year of Jubilee a great future era of Yahweh’s favor is foreshadowed, that period which, according to Isa 61:1-3, shall be ushered in to all those that labor and are heavy laden, by Him who was anointed by the spirit of the Lord Yahweh.

3. The Simple Life:

The Jubilee Year, being the crowning point of all sabbatical institutions, gave the finishing touch as it were to the whole cycle of sabbatic days, months and years. It is, therefore, quite appropriate that it should be a year of rest for the land like the preceding sabbatic year (Le 25:11 f). It follows, of course, that in this instance there were two years, one after the other, in which there should be no sowing or systematic ingathering. This seems to be clear from Le 25:18-22: "And ye shall sow the eighth year, and eat of the fruits, the old store; until the ninth year, until its fruits come in, ye shall eat the old store." Thus in the 7th and 8th years the people were to live on what the fields had produced in the 6th year and whatever grew spontaneously. This shows the reason why we may say that one of the factors constituting the Jubilee Year was the "simple life." They could not help but live simply for two consecutive years. Nobody can deny that this afforded ample opportunity to develop the habit of living within very limited means. And again we see that this external part of the matter did not fully come up to the intention of the Lawgiver. It was not the simple life as such that He had in view, but rather the laying down of its moral and religious foundations. In this connection we must again refer to Le 25:18-22, "What shall we eat the seventh year?" The answer is very simple and yet of surpassing grandeur: "Then I will command my blessing upon you," etc. Nothing was expected of the people but faith in Yahweh and confidence in His power, which was not to be shaken by any doubtful reflection. And right here we have found the root of the simple life: no life without the true God, and no simplicity of life without true faith in Him. "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God" (Mt 4:4; compare De 8:3).

We may well ask: Did the Jewish people ever observe the Jubilee Year? There is no reason why they should not have observed it in pre-exilic times (compare Lotz in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, X, under the word "Sabbatical Year" and "Year of Jubilee"). Perhaps they signally failed in it, and if so, we should not be surprised at all. Not that the institution in itself was cumbered with any obstacles that could not have been overcome; but what is more common than unbelief and unwillingness to trust absolutely in Yahweh? Or, was it observed in post-exilic times? Here, too, we are in the dark. There is, indeed, a tradition according to which the Jubilee Year has never been observed--neither in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah nor at any later period. The truth of this seems to be corroborated by the silence of Josephus, who, while referring quite frequently to the sabbatic year, never once mentions the Year of Jubilee.