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Learn about the Sabbatical year laws and the Jubilee year laws, their reflection on the nature of Israelite society, the development of the laws during the Second Temple period and the place of these laws in modern Israel and the Christian calendar.


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The Sabbatical Year & the Jubilee Year

by Richard A. Freund

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 was produced.

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.

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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, 10:32.

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 communities.

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 be accommodated.

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.”

Richard A. Freund is the Maurice Greenberg Professor of Jewish History and Director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies of the University of Hartford. He is the author of six books, including two books on Jewish ethics and four books on archaeology and the Bible. His most recent book, Secrets of the Cave of Letters, (Prometheus, 2004) chronicles the excavations in the most famous cave of the Bar Kokhba period. He is Director of the Merrill Qumran Excavations Project, the Mary’s Well Excavations Project and the Bethsaida Excavations Project.

Next: Hosea (by Leslie Hoppe, O.F.M.)

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