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Jubilee (Biblical)

The Jubilee year (every 50th year) and the Sabbatical year (every seventh year) are Biblical commandments concerning ethical ownership of land. The laws concerning the Sabbatical year are still observed by many religious Jews in the State of Israel.

According to the Hebrew Bible every seventh year farmers in the land of Israel are commanded to let their land lie fallow. The celebration of the Jubilee is the fiftieth year after seven Sabbatical cycles.

Jubilee comes from the Hebrew term yobel refers to the blast of the shofar on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, announcing the jubilee year.

This law is ascribed to the legislation on Mount Sinai (Lev. 25:1). It was to come into force after the Israelites should be in possession of Canaan, Israel. "When you come into the land which I give you" (ib.). The law provides that one may cultivate his field and vineyard six years, but "in the seventh year shall be...a Sabbath for the Lord," during which one shall neither sow nor reap for one's private gain, but all members of the community the owner, his servants, and strangers as well as domestic and wild animals, shall share in consuming the natural or spontaneous yield of the soil.

The fiftieth year, i.e., that following the last year of seven Sabbatical cycles, is the jubilee; during it the land regulations of the Sabbatical year are to be observed, as is also the commandment "You shall return every man unto his possession" (ib. verse 10), indicating the compulsory restoration of hereditary properties (except houses of laymen located in walled cities) to the original owners or their legal heirs, and the emancipation of all Hebrew indentured servants whose term of six years is unexpired or who refuse to leave their masters when such term of service has expired (Gen. 18:6)

The regulations of the Sabbatical year include also the annulment of all monetary obligations between Israelites, the creditor being legally barred from making any attempt to collect his debt (Deut. xv. 1 et seq.). The law for the jubilee year has not this provision.

Table of contents
1 Reasons/rationale
2 The rabbinic Jewish view
3 Fifty- and Forty-nine-Year Cycles


An agricultural basis for this law is that rest from labor is a necessity both for animal and for plant life; continuous cultivation will eventually ruin the land. The law of the Sabbatical year acts also as a statute of limitation or a bankruptcy law for the poor debtor, in discharging his liability for debts contracted, and in enabling him to start life anew on an equal footing with his neighbor, without the fear that his future earnings will be seized by his former creditors.

The jubilee year was the year of liberation of servants whose poverty had forced them into employment by others. Similarly all property alienated for a money consideration to relieve poverty, was to be returned to the original owners without restoration of the amount which had been advanced.

The rabbinic Jewish view

The view of the Mishnaic and Talmudic rabbis was that these laws were made to promote the idea of theocracy: that one year in seven might be devoted "to the Lord," as the weekly Sabbath is devoted to rest from manual labor and to the study of the Law.

The jubilee was instituted primarily to keep intact the original allotment of the Holy Land among the tribes, and to discountenance the idea of servitude to men. "For unto me the children of Israel are servants; they are my servants" (Lev. xxv. 55); and they shall not be servants to servants, as God's bond has the priority (Midrash Sifra, Behar Sinai, vii. 1.).

That the main object was to keep intact each tribe's inheritance is evident from the fact that shemittah and yobel were not inaugurated before the Holy Land had been conquered and apportioned among the tribes and their families. The first shemittah year is said to have occurred twenty-one years after the arrival of the Hebrews in Palestine, and the first yobel thirty-three years later (ib. i. 3.). The jubilee was proclaimed "throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof"; only when all the tribes were in possession of Israel was the jubilee observed, but not after the tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh had been exiled (ib. ii. 3); nor was it observed during the existence of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, when the tribes of Judah and Benjamin had been assimilated. After the conquest of Samaria by Shalmaneser the jubilee was observed nominally in the expectation of the return of the tribes, and till the final exile by Nebuchadnezzar.

Fifty- and Forty-nine-Year Cycles

There is a dispute in the Talmud as to whether the jubilee year was included in or excluded from the forty-nine years of the seven cycles. The majority of rabbis hold that the jubilee year was an intercalation, and followed the seventh Sabbatical year, making two fallow years in succession. After both had passed, the next cycle began. They adduce this theory from the plain words of the Law to "hallow the fiftieth year," and also from the assurance of God's promise of a yield in the sixth year sufficient for maintenance during the following three years, "until the ninth year, until her fruits come in" (Lev. xxv. 22), which, they say, refers to the jubilee year.

Judah ha-Nasi, however, contends that the jubilee year was identical with the seventh Sabbatical year (Talmud tractate Rosh Hashanah 9a). The opinion of the Geonim and of later authorities generally prevails, that the jubilee, when in force during the period of the First Temple, was intercalated, but that in the time of the Second Temple, when the jubilee was observed only "nominally," it coincided with the seventh Sabbatical year.

In post-exilic times the jubilee was entirely ignored, though the strict observance of the shemittah was steadily insisted upon. This, however, is only according to a rabbinical enactment, as by the Mosaic law, according to R. Judah, shemittah is dependent on the jubilee and ceases to exist when there is no jubilee.

See also: Jewish holidays, Jubilee (Christian)