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Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The Sabbatical Year & the Jubilee Year
The Sabbatical year and Jubilee year laws in the Bible demonstrate the nature
of Israelite society as a communitarian, agricultural society. As the name suggests, the
Sabbatical year is tied to the biblical concept of the Sabbath, the seventh day of the
week and a time of rest. The Jubilee and Sabbatical years provided a form of regular debt
release to stabilize social and economic gaps that naturally develop in society.
According to the Hebrew Bible, during the seventh year all land had to be
left untilled and unplanted, and debts from close neighbors that had been unpaid during
the previous six years were to be cancelled. These laws of land use and debt remission
are not necessarily originally connected but appear to be grouped together under the single
general category of the seventh/ Sabbatical year or Shemittah (Exodus 21:2-6, Exodus
23:10-11, Leviticus 25:1-7, 18-22, and Deuteronomy 15:1-11, 12-18) by the time the Bible
These laws demonstrate the biblical nature of societal obligations and a
theocratic underpinning for the land and the society. They also represent the careful balance
of social equality that is represented in economic terms.
In particular the laws can be divided into three different concerns. First,
the laws address environmental concerns that overuse of the land would make it unusable.
Second, some of the laws cover debt concerns. Because of drought and other cyclical crop
failures, the poor needed to be allowed to start over and not languish in poverty. Third,
land ownership and management concerns affected families in inter-generational settings.
Although ancient near-eastern texts from the laws of Hammurabi and Ras Shamra
(Ugarit) suggest similar concerns about land control and management issues, none of the
extra-biblical sources have formulations that resemble the advanced and specific laws of
the Hebrew Bible.
These formulations continued to develop and rabbinic texts (written after
the start of the Christian era) make a finer distinction between the
“seventh” year (Shevi’it in Hebrew) that is limited to land ownership
and release from the loss of land ownership and purely financial debt concerns or Shemittah that
deals with release of debtors from debts owed. This distinction, however, may be an artificial
one created as the economic history of the Jews changed or moved from an agrarian society
to a commerce economy in the cities.
The Jubilee Year
The term “Jubilee” is derived from the Hebrew word Yovel meaning “ram’s
horn” and apparently was associated with the fact that the new year of Jubilee was
announced to the people through the blowing of the ram’s horn.
At the fiftieth year, following the seven cycles of the Sabbatical year
(Leviticus 25:8-17, 23-55, 27:16-25, Numbers 36:4), a Jubilee year was declared. It is
unclear in the Bible whether the 49th year or the 50th year, the year after the last Sabbatical
year, was the Jubilee. Rabbinic literature is split on this issue. The majority of rabbinic
literature, presumably written in a period after these laws were functioning in a historical
context, held that the Jubilee followed the seventh cycle of seven years, making the fiftieth
year the second of two successive fallow years. After this second successive fallow year,
the next cycle of counting began.
The laws of the Jubilee were similar to those of the Sabbatical year but
also contained the following additional provisions: (1) compulsory restoration of ancestral
lands to families that may have lost control of the land, and redemption of land by other
family members; (2) the emancipation of all Israelite indentured servants whose term of
servitude was unexpired; (3) the emancipation of all Israelite indentured servants who
had opted to become long-term “slaves” to their Israelite “masters” even
when their original term of servitude had been completed (apparently an additional regulation
to insure that servitude of one generation would not become multi-generational); (4) land
allocations for Levites.
The Second Temple Period
In the picture painted by Josephus and other extra-biblical authors, it appears
that during the Second Temple period (500 B.C.E. to 70 A.D.), the Sabbatical year and Jubilee
were not fully observed.
I Maccabees 6:51, 55 makes it clear that at least the Sabbatical year was
observed during these times.
It is unclear whether the laws were universally observed in regular seven-year
cycles (or in varying cycles of seven in each field, vineyard and olive grove) in the pre-Exilic
and post-Exilic periods in all Israelite territories. The law suggests—at least partially—an
early agricultural setting. In the book of Ezekiel, 47:17, the Jubilee year is called the “year
of release” but only the Sabbatical law is suggested in the post-Exilic book of Nehemiah,
The apocryphal Book of Jubilees, which was written in the Second Temple period
and found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, indicates that the usage persisted as a Jewish division
of time that was still well known in this period.
According to Josephus, the Greeks and later the Romans gave tax exemptions
to the Jews during the Sabbatical year.
Rabbinic literature suggests that the Jubilee and Sabbatical year were observed
when the Israelites were in control of the land of Israel, allowing for a variety of exemptions.
The Sabbatical year remission of loans was particularly onerous in the Second Temple period
allowing for legal innovation to preserve the spirit of the law.
The changing economic history of the Jews in the Greco-Roman period allowed
for the updating of the Sabbatical year debt release. As Sabbatical years approached, lenders
would not loan funds for fear that they would not be paid before the Sabbatical year.
Rabbi Hillel, who lived in the first century C.E., created a legal fiction
(“a prosbul” or “transference”) that allowed for the repayment
of the debt through a transfer of the debt from a personal loan to an institutional loan
and thereby allowed for repayment after the Sabbatical year. This “prosbul”
is an example of how rabbinic Judaism was able to innovate in Jewish legal matters in order
to maintain the
“spirit” of the law from the biblical period.
There is evidence that the concept and practice of the Sabbatical year had
an influence upon the origins of early Christianity. Based upon calculations of the known
Roman period Sabbatical cycles, it is hypothesized that the origins of the ministries of
Jesus and John the Baptist may have dovetailed with a Sabbatical year and created the types
of hardships for the poor that had earlier forced Hillel to reconstitute the meaning of
remission of loans and created the legal fiction of the “prosbul.”
In addition, Jewish tradition tied the observance of the Sabbatical year
to the coming of the messiah and so the emphasis upon the poor and the meaning attached
to the sermons of Jesus may have had even greater significance in the Sabbatical year cycles.
Some scholars even attach this same emphasis in Paul’s teachings about
the poor to the cycles of the Sabbatical year in Paul’s time as well. If this is
the case, the Sabbatical year in particular can be seen as a series of laws with long-term
importance for Christian and Jewish theology.
During the Byzantine, Medieval and pre-modern periods, the Jubilee and Sabbatical
years became literary motifs of some significance implying some type of reformulated observance.
This is similar to other biblical laws such as those associated with purity and impurity
that were reformulated. Rabbinic literature developed a full-blown theological and practical
system for observing the Sabbatical and Jubilee years and attempted to resolve and even
update some of the more impractical issues relating to the observance of the Sabbatical
year’s cancellation of debts as the Jews moved from agricultural settings to city
life in the Roman and later Byzantine periods.
The Sabbatical Year in the Modern Period in Israel
In the modern period, with the rise of modern waves of Jewish immigration
to the historical land of Israel and the re-emergence of agriculture as a major part of
this resettlement in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Sabbatical year emerged again as
an issue of religious importance, especially for religious Jews who were returning to these
agricultural settlements. Rabbinic response again allowed for legal innovations to preserve
the essence of the Sabbatical year and Jubilee without creating a burden for the new farming
The use of the “legal fiction” of selling the fields to neighboring
non-Jews during the newly calculated Sabbatical year was proposed by some of the 19th-
and 20th-century rabbis. The “legal fiction”
they created (sale of fields to non-Jews) was based by analogy upon the transfer of ownership
of Jewish leavened goods to non-Jews before the Passover holiday to fulfill the essence
of the Exodus commandments. Some 19th- and 20th-century rabbinic responses allowed for
the transference of the ownership of the land during the calculated Sabbatical year to
non- Jewish owners until such time as the Jewish settlements were able to support the full
reimplementation of the Sabbatical year.
Most recently, the introduction of non-land-based agriculture such as hydroponics
and other innovations have suggested that the reimplementation of the Sabbatical year can
The Reformulated Jubilee Year
The Jubilee year in the Christian calendar became fully transformed by the
early Middle Ages, starting with Pope Clement VI, who called for a Jubilee every fifty
years to celebrate a variety of pilgrimage and calendar events.
Pope Urban VI decided to take the Jubilee concept and celebrate it every
thirty-three years to coincide with the number of Jesus’ years on earth. Slowly this
use of the concept of Jubilee became a standard within the Church.
Most recently, Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter entitled Tertio
Millennio Adventiente for the Grand Jubilee year of 2000 clarified the concept for
modern Roman Catholics.
He wrote: “A Jubilee is always an occasion of special grace, ‘a
day blessed by the Lord.’ As has already been noted, it is thus a time of joy. The
Jubilee of the Year 2000 is meant to be a great prayer of praise and thanksgiving, especially
for the gift of the Incarnation of the Son of God and of the Redemption which he accomplished.”
The Jubilee concept has continued to change and adapt even into the modern
freedoms and rights espoused by the founders of the United States. The so-called “Liberty
Bell,” now housed in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, demonstrates
the symbolic long-term and now reconfigured use of the Jubilee concept in the Leviticus
25:10 quote it has incised upon the bell: “proclaim liberty throughout the land to
all its inhabitants.”
Next: Hosea (by Leslie Hoppe, O.F.M.)
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