Hebrew Origin of the Jubilee in the Old Testament

In the Torah, the sabbatical year (Shemitta) and the Jubilee (Yovel) are closely connected with each other. After seven sabbatical years, the fiftieth was “consecrated” a jubilee year by the sound of the horn (Shofar) of the ram (Yovel).

Jubilee of Mercy de open day

PHOTO.VA - OSSERVATORE ROMANO

The word Jubilee calls to mind the concept of jubilation, or a sentiment of joy, exultation, celebration; it comes from the Hebrew Yovel, the ram’s horn which, according to the Law of Moses, was sounded every 50th year to mark the beginning of a holy year, a year dedicated entirely to the Lord God. “..you shall sound the trumpet throughout the land – we read in the Book of Leviticus – You will declare this fiftieth year sacred and proclaim the liberation of all the inhabitants of the land. This is to be a jubilee for you” (Leviticus 25,9-11).

In the Torah, the sabbatical year (Shemitta) and the Jubilee (Yovel) are closely connected with each other. After seven sabbatical years, the fiftieth was “consecrated” a jubilee year by the sound of the horn (Shofar) of the ram (Yovel).

The purpose of the sabbatical year, like the weekly Sabbath, was to make this time an opportunity to interrupt the slavery of day to day material living so as to avoid closing one’s self in an utilitarian or hedonistic vision of reality, devoting one’s self entirely to the needs of the spirit. A need already emphasized by the link between the “Sabbath day of God” (at the conclusion of creation), that of human beings (after every six days of work) and that of the “land” (Lv. 25,2). Every seventh year land was left fallow. Not ploughed, or sown, whatever it produced was distributed to the weakest social categories, widows, orphans, the poor, strangers.

This ancient institution, after the exile in Egypt, was enriched with other particular aspects to underline the great sense of “liberation”: land and homes were returned to the rightful owner; slaves were set free; unsolved debtors were condoned. It was a periodical celebration of justice and peace, in rediscovered harmony of relations between people and with creation; a general liberation of persons as well as property.

“For the land belongs to me” (Lv 25,23): words of great significance to indicate the ecological balance of nature, which human beings are called to respect and not change by unlimited exploitation for individual profit, and also a re-dimensioning of that instinct of possession which can alienate the human person from God and from other people. God alone is Lord of humanity and of the whole of creation. To retrieve one’s goods and liberty means to enter once again in the cosmic order of their creation and the Creator’s project for good.

Emphasis is given to the ideal-utopia of a situation of equality among all the children of Israel to which the jubilee year intended to give broad echo, heightening expectation for the Messiah, the One who would come sent by God to set free those who are oppressed.

The ancient Hebrew jubilee, a pre-figuration of messianic liberation, is confirmed with the “year of grace” proclaimed by Jesus at the synagogue of Nazareth, at the beginning of his mission. After reading the passage of Isaiah (Is 61, 1-2), Jesus rolled up the scroll and sat down. Everyone was watching him. And he said: “This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen” (Lk 4, 16-21). The inauguration of the “year of grace” was completed with a “year of mercy” of which Jesus was to speak in the parable of the fig tree which bore no fruit. (Lk 13,5-9).

First and foremost, the extraordinary Jubilee will be an experience of mercy for each person to feel more intimately the love of God, who like a Father welcomes everyone and excludes no one. This Jubilee will be a significant time for all the Church to remember that mercy is the essence of her proclamation to the world, and to offer to every believer a tangible instrument of the tenderness of God.

In his Bull of Indication (letter announcing the Jubilee of Mercy), Pope Francis also speaks of the social implications of this special year.

 “Corruption prevents us from looking to the future with hope, because its tyrannical greed shatters the plans of the weak and tramples upon the poorest of the poor. It is an evil that embeds itself into the actions of everyday life and spreads, causing great public scandal. Corruption is a sinful hardening of the heart that replaces God with the illusion that money is a form of power. It is a work of darkness, fed by suspicion and intrigue. Corruptio optimi pessima, saint Gregory the Great said with good reason, affirming that no one can think himself immune from this temptation. If we want to drive it out from personal and social life, we need prudence, vigilance, loyalty, transparency, together with the courage to denounce any wrongdoing. If it is not combated openly, sooner or later everyone will become an accomplice to it, and it will end up destroying our very existence.”

This is the opportune moment to change our lives! This is the time to allow our hearts to be touched! When faced with evil deeds, even in the face of serious crimes, it is the time to listen to the cry of innocent people who are deprived of their property, their dignity, their feelings, and even their very lives. To stick to the way of evil will only leave one deluded and sad. True life is something entirely different. God never tires of reaching out to us. He is always ready to listen, as I am too, along with my brother bishops and priests. All one needs to do is to accept the invitation to conversion and submit oneself to justice during this special time of mercy offered by the Church.”  (#19)

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