Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

According to the Pentateuchal legislation contained in Leviticus, a Jubilee year is the year that follows immediately seven successive Sabbatic years (the Sabbatic year being the seventh year of a seven-year cycle). Accordingly, the Jubilee year takes place at the end of seven times seven years, i.e. at the end of every forty-nine years, or the fiftieth. Hence, the institution of the Jubilee-year system is but an extension or the working out of the Sabbatic-year legislation, viz. that as at the end of every six years there succeeds a Sabbatic year, so at the end of each seven Sabbatic years there succeeds a Jubilee year. Arguing from the analogous Pentecostal system, it is evident that the actual year in which the Jubilee occurs is not the last of the seventh Sabbatic cycle (i.e. the forty-ninth year), but the year following, namely, the fiftieth. Hence, at the end of each forty-eight years there occur two consecutive fallow years, viz. the forty-ninth, or the Sabbatic year of the seventh Sabbatic cycle and the fiftieth, or the Jubilee year. From the nature and purpose of the Jubilee legislation, it is also evident that the Jubilee Year is to be reckoned with in itself absolutely, and not in relation to the length of time, or duration, of each particular event or contract. So that if, for example, the year 195O is Jubilee Year, and an Israelite became a slave in the year 1930, this slave is to be set free not in 1980, but in 1950, which is the appointed year of Jubilee.

The term jubilee year ( Vulgate annus Jubilei , or Jubileus ) is of Hebrew origin, the etymological meaning of which is, in all probability, "ram", which metonymically stands for "the horn of a ram". Thus the name "the year of the blowing of the ram's horn" exactly corresponds to "the day of the blowing of the horn", or the "feast of the new year", and it was, like the latter, announced to the people by the blowing of the horn. In Ezechiel (xlvi, 17) the Jubilee Year is called "the year of release"; hence some commentators have derived the Hebrew for "Jubilee" from the stem which means "to emit", "to liberate". The first derivation, however, is more acceptable.

The legislation concerning the year of Jubilee is found in Leviticus, xxv, 8-54, and xxvii, 16-24. It contains three main enactments:

  • rest of the soil;
  • reversion of landed property to its original owner, who had been driven by poverty to sell it; and
  • the freeing or manumission of those Israelites who, through poverty or otherwise, had become the slaves of their brethren.

The first enactment (contained in Leviticus 25:11-12 ) enjoins that as in the case of each Sabbatic year, so in each Jubilee year the soil is to be at rest, and that there is to be no tillage nor harvest, but that what the land produces spontaneously and of its own accord is free to be utilized by all Israelites, including, of course, the landlord himself, but only for their own actual and immediate use and maintenance, and, consequently, not to be stored by anyone for any other time or purpose. The object of this law, as well as of the two following, is most commendable, as by it the poor and all those who, mainly on account of poverty, do not actually own any land, are hereby provided for, not only for a whole year every seven years, but also in every fiftieth year.

The second enactment, contained in Leviticus, xxv, 13-34, and xxvii, 16-24, enjoins that any owner of landed property, who, for reason of poverty or otherwise, has been compelled to part with his land, has the right to receive his property back free in the Jubilee year, or to redeem it even before the Jubilee year, if either his own financial circumstances have improved, or if his next of kin will redeem it for him by paying back according to the price which regulated the purchase. Hence, among the ancient Hebrews, the transfer of property was not, properly speaking, the sale of the land but of its produce for a certain number of years, and the price was fixed according to the number of years which intervened between the year of the sale and that of the next year of jubilee. Accordingly, the right of possession of real estate was inalienable. Whether a landowner was ever allowed to part permanently with his property for speculation, or for any purpose other than poverty, is not explicitly stated, although according to later rabbinical interpretation, this was considered as legally unlawful. Real estate in walled towns was made an exception to this law. An owner who had sold was permitted to redeem his property provided he did so within a year, but not afterwards. Levitical cities, on the other hand, as well as all the property in them, came under the provisions of the general law, reverting back to their original owners in the year of jubilee. Land in the suburbs of such cities could not be disposed of, or traded with in any manner. In case a man dedicated property to the Lord, he was permitted to redeem it, provided he added to it one-fifth of its value as reckoned by the number of crops it would produce before the year of Jubilee, and provided, also, he redeemed it before that period. If not reclaimed then or before that period it was understood to be dedicated forever. The details of these exchanges of property probably varied at different times. Josephus informs us that the temporary proprietor of a piece of land made a settlement with its owner at the year of Jubilee on the following terms: after making a statement of the value of the crops he had obtained from the land, and of what he had expended upon it, if his receipts exceeded the expenses, the owner got nothing; but if the reverse was true, the latter was expected to make good the loss.

The third enactment (contained in Leviticus 25:39-54 ) enjoins that all those Israelites who through poverty have sold themselves as slaves to their fellow-Israelites or to foreigners resident among them, and who, up to the time of the Jubilee year, have neither completed their six years of servitude, nor redeemed themselves, nor been redeemed by their relatives, are to be set free in the Jubilee year to return with their children to their family and to the patrimony of their fathers. Exception, of course, is made in the case of those slaves who refuse to become free at the expiration of the appointed six years' servitude. In this case they are allowed to become slaves forever and, in order to indicate their consent to this, they are required to submit to the boring of their ears ( Exodus 21:6 ). This exeption, of course, is in no way in contradiction with the Jubilee-year's enactment. It is not necessary, therefore, in order to explain this apparent contradiction, to maintain that the two legislations belong to two distinct periods, or, still less, to maintain that the two Iegislations are conflicting, as some modern critics have maintained. It is important, however, to remark that the legislation concerning the various enactments of the Jubilee year contained in Leviticus, is not sufficiently expanded so as to cover all possible hypotheses and cases. This want has been more or less consistently remedied by later Talmudic and rabbinical enactments and legislations.

The design of the Jubilee year is that those of the people of God who, through poverty or other adverse circumstances, had forfeited their personal liberty or property to their fellow brethren, should have their debts forgiven by their co-religionists every half century, on the great day of atonement, and be restored to their families and inheritance as freely and fully as God on that very day forgave the debts of his people and restored them to perfect fellowship with himself, so that the whole community, having forgiven each other and being forgiven by God, might return to the original order which had been disturbed in the lapse of time, and being freed from the bondage of one another, might unreservedly be the servants of him who is their redeemer.

The aim of the jubilee, therefore, is to preserve unimpaired the essential character of the theocracy, to the end that there be no poor among the people of God (Deut. xv, 4). Hence God, who redeemed Israel from the bondage of Egypt to be his peculiar people, and allotted to them the promised land, will not suffer any one to usurp his title as Lord over those whom he owns as his own. It is the idea of grace for all the suffering children of man, bringing freedom to the captive and rest to the weary as well as to the earth, which made the year of jubilee the symbol of the Messianic year of grace ( Isaiah 61:2 ), when all the conflicts in the universe shall be restored to their original harmony, and when not only we, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, but the whole creation, which groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now, shall be restored into the glorious liberty of the sons of God (comp. Isaiah 61:1-3 ; Luke 4:21 ; Romans 8:18-23 ; Hebrews 4:9 ).

The importance of this institution will be apparent if it is considered what moral and social advantages would accrue to the community from the sacred observance of it.

  • It would prevent the accumulation of land on the part of a few to the detriment of the community at large.
  • It would render it impossible for any one to be born to absolute poverty, since every one had his hereditary land.
  • It would preclude those inequalities which are produced by extremes of riches and poverty, and which make one man domineer over another.
  • It would utterly do away with slavery.
  • It would afford a fresh opportunity to those who were reduced by adverse circumstances to begin again their career of industry, in the patrimony which they had temporarily forfeited.
  • It would periodically rectify the disorders which creep into the state in the course of time, preclude the division of the people into nobles and plebeians, and preserve the theocracy inviolate.

More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Jeremiah 1:17-19
17 'As for you, prepare yourself for action. Stand up ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 71:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 15, 17
1 In you, Yahweh, I take refuge, I shall never be put ... Read More

Gospel, Mark 6:17-29
17 Now it was this same Herod who had sent to have ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for August 29th, 2014 Image

St. Sabina
August 29: St. Sabina's feast day is August 29th. We know St. Sabina only ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter