The Jubilee Year is explained in Leviticus 25:8-24 where it is stated that 49 years are to be counted (it seems that there are discrepancies as to when this countdown actually began) 1 and every 50th year was to be declared a special year in which the land would remain fallow, all property was to revert to the original families that owned it, and all slaves were liberated.
The name “Jubilee” comes from the word yovel, ‘ram’s horn,’ so called because a ram’s horn was sounded when Jubilee was proclaimed (see Leviticus 25:9). Since the verse states, “throughout all your land,” the Talmudic view is that the Jubilee was not observed during the Second Temple period (530 B.C. – 70 A.D.) because the majority of Jews no longer lived within the boundaries of Israel. 2 There is evidence of pushing back the Jubilee year even further than the Second Temple period. Ze’ev Falk writes that “under the monarchy, the ancient rules were no longer in force, with the result that Zedekiah had to arrange a special release of Hebrew slaves (Jeremiah 34:8-16). Even Nehemiah 5:1-13 shows the absence of a fixed system of emancipation of slaves and cancellation of debts.” 3
Jubilee applied to Israelites
Jubilee seems to only apply to the Israelites at this time. Only Israelites could own land or own foreign slaves (Leviticus 25:44-46). There was no return of the land to non-Israelites, and foreign slaves were not freed at Jubilee. The poorest people of the land were included in the feasts (alien, widow, orphan), but they did not have property rights (except to houses in walled cities). The rules of Jubilee also did not apply in the cities. Instead, there existed only a limited right of redemption exercisable within one year of the date of sale (Leviticus 25:29).
As to how this law applied to the poorest among Israel, John Schneider stated:
“Writers on the subject almost universally miss the point that its provisions applied only to members of the original Israelite tribes. The poorest people in society were unaffected by it. For aliens, sojourners, non-Israelite debtors and slaves possessed no land in the first place and thus had no share in its repossession on the day of jubilee. Their economic need, however dire, played no role in the redistribution.” 4
I like the overall principle of the Jubilee year, the idea that slaves must be free, and that the land should be in the hands of the people and not just the wealthy few families. The idea that we really do not own the land is also emphasized in this text. In Leviticus 25:23 we read, “the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.” Truly we do not own the land. It is a gift from God. Freeing those that are slaves, assuring that the people whom God gave the land can maintain this arrangement, is something that is close to consecration, or the economy of heaven. As a believer in Jesus Christ, I believe in his promise that through his atonement, and with repentance, we can all be free from the bondage of sin. All of us can strive to not have material things rule over us, to choose to be free from letting things control us. This, to me, is one way to understand and apply these ideas.
- See Judah David Eisenstein, “Sabbatical Year and Jubilee,” The Jewish Encyclopedia. Accessed 11.15.18. Eisenstein writes, “The exact year of the shemittah is in dispute, and different dates are given. According to Talmudic calculations the entrance of the Israelites into Palestine occurred in the year of Creation 2489, and 850 years, or seventeen jubilees, passed between that date and the destruction of the First Temple. The first cycle commenced after the conquest of the land and its distribution among the tribes, which, occupied fourteen years, and the last jubilee occurred on the “tenth day of the month [Tishri], in the fourteenth year after that the city was smitten” (Ezek. xl. 1), which was the New-Year’s Day of the jubilee (‘Ab. Zarah 9b; ‘Ar. 11b-12b). Joshua celebrated the first jubilee, and died just before the second (Seder ‘Olam R., ed. Ratner, xi. 24b-25b, xxx. 69b, Wilna, 1895). The Samaritans in their “Book of Joshua” date the first month of the first Sabbatical cycle and of the first jubilee cycle as beginning with the crossing of the Jordan and the entrance of the Israelites into their possession; and they insist that the date was 2794 of Creation, according to the chronology of the Torah “and the true reckoning known to the sages since the Flood” (“Karme Shomeron,” ed. Raphael Kirchheim, § 15, p. 63, Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1851). The First and the Second Temple, the Talmud says, were destroyed “on the closing of the Sabbatical year” (“Moẓa’e Shebi’it”). The sixteenth jubilee occurred in the eighteenth year of Josiah, who reigned thirty-one years; the remaining thirteen years of his reign, together with the eleven years of those of Jehoiakim and Jehoiachin and the eleven years of that of Zedekiah (II Kings xxv.), fix the first exilic year as the thirty-sixth year of the jubilee cycle, or the twenty-fifth year of the captivity of Jehoiachin, or fourteen years from the destruction of the Holy City (‘Ar. and ‘Ab. Zarah l.c.; see Rashi ad loc.). The Babylonian captivity lasted seventy years. Ezra sanctified Palestine in the seventh year of the second entrance, after the sixth year of Darius, when the Temple was dedicated (Ezra vi. 15, 16; vii. 7). The first cycle of shemittah began with the sanctification of Ezra. The Second Temple stood 420 years, and was destroyed, like the First, in the 421st year, on the closing of the shemittah (‘Ar. 13a).
- Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion, Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 291.
- Ze’ev Falk, Hebrew Law in Biblical Times, Brigham Young University Press, 2001, p. 87.
- John Schneider, The Good of Affluence, Eerdmans, 2002, 83.