Jubilee Year
(Shanat Yoveil)

The Covenant & Land Management: how to run the Kingdom of God on earth

In the time of Joshua, the Land was to be divided equally between the tribes, with each clan receiving a plot of land that would adequately sustain their needs. The whole purpose of the Jubilee Year was to return this ancestral land lost through sale or debt to its original owners. Leviticus 25:23 says, “the land shall not be sold into perpetuity, for the land is Mine; with me you are but resident aliens and My tenants”. And Isaiah 5:8 speaks against those “who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!”

Torah legislates against the gathering of more and more land into fewer and fewer hands, and the Prophets protest bitterly against those who strive to accumulate land that rightfully belongs to everyone. Land is the source of life, the vital means for the poor to make an independent living. It therefore cannot be treated or sold like a commercial
commodity. In modern times, it would therefore be against the spirit of this law for a private landlord to accumulate hundreds of properties, to the extent that it becomes difficult for ordinary individuals to buy their own home.

If ancestral land could not be bought and sold, it could be lost another way – though debt. By reversing the dispossession of land – if land was lost to its original owners through debt, then it was to be returned during a Jubilee year, which was the year immediately after every seventh Sabbatical year (Lev 25:10)

This aspect of the Jubilee Year is virtually impossible to honour, because the original clan ownership from the time of Joshua is impossible to trace.

The term ‘Jubilee Year’ or ‘Yoveil Year’

The English word ‘Jubilee’ comes from the Latin word iubilare: to shout for joy. It is not connected with the Hebrew word yoveil in any way, so ‘jubilee’ is not really an appropriate translation of yoveil. The Hebrew word yoveil specifically refers to ‘a ram’s horn used for signalling’, or for setting something apart – a ‘signal-horn’. The English word Jubilee gives the false impression that the Jubilee Year is all about rejoicing, but the Hebrew word is emotionally neutral. In my translation of The Book of Leviticus, I have left the Hebrew word untranslated (it would otherwise be ‘A Year set apart with a signal-horn’, or ‘a Signal-horn Year’).

When is it?

In the 49th year, on the Day of Expiations, when the trumpet blast is sounded throughout the land, a year of Jubilee is proclaimed. The year following that is thereby consecrated.

The Jubilee Year is not every 50 years; it is actually every 49 years, the year after the 7th Sabbatical Year being the ‘50th year’.

We are told that the calculation of the Jubilee Year is from the entry of Israelites into the Land (Lev 25:2). The question arises: does this mean from the original entry in 1406 BCE (reckoning from the date of the Exodus given in 2Kgs), or from each and every time the Israelites re-enter the land after periods of exile? Rabbis in Israel have made the decision that it is the latter. Therefore the next rabbinic Jubilee Year will be in 2051.

However, if it is only to be calculated from the original entry into the Land, then the next Jubilee Year will begin in Spring 2024 CE, the previous year having been the 7th Sabbatical Year of the cycle. Lev 25:2 says, “When you enter the Land which I am giving you….” And not “Every time you re-enter the land that I gave you….”

The purpose of the Jubilee year

Years between Jubilee Years are only temporary renting out of the use of land; the land is not sold permanently. If you need to buy back land, then you compensate the person you sold it to for loss of earnings up to the Jubilee Year. The main pointsof the Jubilee Year are:

  • Land is not to be sold permenently
  • Property is returned to its original owner if it has been sold to pay off a debt
  • If a house in a walled city is not bought back a year after its sale, then it cannot be bought back; it cannot be returned in Jubilee Year.
  • An exception is a house belonging to a Levite, they retain the permanent right to buy back their houses.
  • Everyone returns to their own property, and their own clan
  • Debt slaves are release in Jubilee Year, and return to their property
  • If someone sells themselves, they are to be released in Jubilee Year
  • We are not to sow or reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines.
  • eat only what is taken directly from the fields.

If someone can buy land back before a Jubilee, he must compensate the new owner for the number of crop-years until the Jubilee year. 

The relevance of a Jubilee Year in the Talmidi community

From the above points, for those living outside of the Land of Israel, a Jubilee Year has little effect, since the return of land refers only to the Land of Israel. Even in Israel, no one knows there ancestral plots of land any more, so again, that part of Jubilee Year is not possible to honour.

Additionally, no one in the Jewish community has kept slaves since the end of the Babylonian Exile, so the aspect of the release of Jewish slaves is also irrelevant.

One thing that can be done however, is the renewal of family ties, and valuing one’s family origins. There are also societies where slaves are still kept (mostly Islamic countries, since the Quran allows the keeping of slaves), and even some western countries keep individuals in servitude (there are still individuals in the UK who have been kidnapped and made to work as slaves). There are also people who are exploited and made to work for very little. Therefore, during a Jubilee Year, communities can get together to collectively lobby for the full abolition of slavery in countries where it still exists, and for better conditions for those who have to work for abysmally little pay.

Our prayers during Jubilee Year, for example on the Sabbath, can be mindful of slavery in the world today, and for God to help those who can do something about it to be strengthened in their efforts.

The Passages referring to the Year of Jubilee 
Lev 25

8 ‘Count off seven sabbaths of years— seven times seven years— so that the seven sabbaths of years amount to a period of forty-nine years.

9 Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land.

10 Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan.

11 The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines.

12 For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.

13 ‘In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to his own property.

14 ‘If you sell land to one of your countrymen or buy any from him, do not take advantage of each other.

15 You are to buy from your countryman on the basis of the number of years since the Jubilee. And he is to sell to you on the basis of the number of years left for harvesting crops.

16 When the years are many, you are to increase the price, and when the years are few, you are to decrease the price, because what he is really selling you is the number of crops.

17 Do not take advantage of each other, but revere your God in awe. I am YHVH your God.

18 ‘Follow my decrees and be careful to obey my laws, and you will live safely in the land.

19 Then the land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live there in safety.

23 ‘The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants.

24 Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the buying back of the land.

25 ‘If one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells some of his property, his nearest relative is to come and buy back what his countryman has sold.

26 If, however, a man has no-one to buy it back for him but he himself prospers and acquires sufficient means to buy it back,

27 he is to determine the value for the years since he sold it and refund the balance to the man to whom he sold it; he can then go back to his own property.

28 But if he does not acquire the means to repay him, what he sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee. It will be returned in the Jubilee, and he can then go back to his property.

29 ‘If a man sells a house in a walled city, he retains the right of buying back a full year after its sale. During that time he may buy it back.

30 If it is not bought back before a full year has passed, the house in the walled city shall belong permanently to the buyer and his descendants. It is not to be returned in the Jubilee.

31 But houses in villages without walls round them are to be considered as open country. They can be bought back, and they are to be returned in the Jubilee.

32 ‘The Levites always have the right to buy back their houses in the Levitical towns, which they possess.

33 So the property of the Levites is redeemable— that is, a house sold in any town they hold— and is to be returned in the Jubilee, because the houses in the towns of the Levites are their property among the Israelites.

34 But the pasture-land belonging to their towns must not be sold; it is their permanent possession.

39 ‘If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave.

40 He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you; he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee.

41 Then he and his children are to be released, and he will go back to his own clan and to the property of his forefathers.

42 Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves.

43 Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.

47 ‘If an alien or a temporary resident among you becomes rich and one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells himself to the alien living among you or to a member of the alien’s clan,

48 he retains the right of buying back after he has sold himself. One of his relatives may buy back him:

49 An uncle or a cousin or any blood-relative in his clan may buy back him. Or if he prospers, he may buy back himself.

50 He and his buyer are to count the time from the year he sold himself up to the Year of Jubilee. The price for his release is to be based on the rate paid to a hired man for that number of years.

51 If many years remain, he must pay for his buying back a larger share of the price paid for him.

52 If only a few years remain until the Year of Jubilee, he is to compute that and pay for his buying back accordingly.

53 He is to be treated as a man hired from year to year; you must see to it that his owner does not rule over him ruthlessly.

54 ‘Even if he is not bought back in any of these ways, he and his children are to be released in the Year of Jubilee,

55 for the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt. I am YHVH your God.

Leviticus 27

16 ‘If a man dedicates to YHVH part of his family land, its value is to be set according to the amount of seed required for it— fifty shekels of silver to a homer of barley seed.

17 If he dedicates his field during the Year of Jubilee, the value that has been set remains.

18 But if he dedicates his field after the Jubilee, the priest will determine the value according to the number of years that remain until the next Year of Jubilee, and its set value will be reduced.

19 If the man who dedicates the field wishes to buy it back, he must add a fifth to its value, and the field will again become his.

20 If, however, he does not buy back the field, or if he has sold it to someone else, it can never be bought back.

21 When the field is released in the Jubilee, it will become holy, like a field devoted to YHVH; it will become the property of the priests.

22 ‘If a man dedicates to YHVH a field he has bought, which is not part of his family land,

23 the priest will determine its value up to the Year of Jubilee, and the man must pay its value on that day as something holy to YHVH.

24 In the Year of Jubilee the field will revert to the person from whom he bought it, the one whose land it was.