The Mystery of the Lost Jubilee: Part V – Jewish Jubilee

In part four of our series, Bob discussed the secular and Protestant Christian perception of the Jubilee. In this article we return to Israel, and I will briefly explain the Orthodox Jewish perception.

Since the re-establishment of the state of Israel 67 years ago, not much attention within the religious Jewish community in Israel has been paid to re-establishing the Jubilee. I believe this may be changing, but first, let me explain how the Jubilee is generally understood by Orthodox Jews.

What is the Jubilee?

The word itself has very clear origins in biblical Hebrew. It is the Greek/Latin transliteration of the Hebrew word Yovel. The “y” became a “j”, the “o” became a “u”, the “v” became a “b”, and a double-e was tacked on at the end. Yovel seems to be an alternate word for shofar.

The word yovel appears several times in the Torah, but by far the most frequent use is in these verses of Leviticus 25:8-13.

You shall count seven Sabbatical years—seven years seven times—until the seven Sabbatical years come to 49 years. And you shall pass [likely meaning blow] the sound of a shofar on the tenth day of the seventh month, on Yom Kippur you shall blow the shofar in all your land. And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom in the land for all its residents—it shall be a Jubilee (yovel) for you, each man will return to his ancestral property, and each man will return to his family. This fiftieth year will be a Jubilee year for you—you shall not plant and you shall not harvest what grows, and you shall not harvest the vines. For it is a Jubilee, it will be holy to you—from the field you shall eat the produce. During the Jubilee each man will return to his ancestral property. (English Translation by Gidon Ariel)

BIN-OpEd-Experts-300x250(1)The Jubilee is the fiftieth year of the Shemitah cycle. In fact, it isn’t really correct to call it the Shemitah cycle to begin with. It is really the Jubilee cycle, which is made of seven Shemitah cycles.

The Jubilee year is culmination of this 49-year cycle. It is a year-long commemoration of the completion of the old and the beginning of the new. The event that sets off the Jubilee is the blowing of the shofar on Yom Kippur.

This, more than anything else, distinguishes the Jubilee from the rest of the years of the cycle. It is a very public and very national proclamation of a restart of society: slaves are freed, property is restored to its original owners, and the calendar is set back to zero.

How should the Jubilee be observed?

The answer is in the details of the four activities associated with the Jubilee, mentioned in the Torah. These are:

  1. Blowing the shofar on Yom Kippur: This likely resembled the ceremony that is still observed today on Rosh Hashanah. The Mishnah, the oldest recorded document of the Jewish oral tradition concerning Jewish law, states explicitly that the two are the same.
  1. Freeing slaves: This is exactly as it sounds. Thankfully, slavery is an aspect of biblical Judaism that was not continued beyond the biblical period, as far as we know. Consequently, this aspect of the Jubilee would probably be irrelevant, even if the commemoration of the year would somehow be reinstituted in modern times.
  1. Restoring property to its original owner: The land of Canaan was divided up between families according to the twelve tribes of Israel. Each family owned a specific plot, granted to be their ancestral land forever. Even if some or all of that land was sold or ownership transferred in some other way (for instance, as a donation to the Temple), the land would be restored to the descendants of the original owner when the Jubilee year came around. Most of the details in both the Torah and the Mishnah concerning the Jubilee concern this particular aspect.
  1. Observing the agricultural restrictions as in a Shemitah year: Based on a simple reading of the Torah, this implies that there are two years in a row of restricted agricultural activity—the seventh Shemitah year and the Jubilee year which follows it. Presumably, the promise of a bountiful sixth year to cover for the Shemitah year would double prior to the Shemitah-Jubilee combination.

You will find more complete information about Jubilee in the book I recently wrote with my partner Bob O’Dell, “Israel FIRST! The Key to Understanding the Blood Moons, Shemitah, Promises to Israel, and the Coming Jubilee.”

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Agricultural Field in Israel. Photo: Sherwood Burton.

Is the Jubilee currently being observed in Israel? No, and here is why.

First, there is no clear general agreement about when the Jubilee year actually happens. Of course we will discuss this more going forward as this is the mystery we all want to solve.

Second, unlike when the Land of Israel was settled thousands of years ago, there is no longer a clear understanding of the boundaries of tribal ownership. We currently do not have an exact method of knowing the borders of each tribe and, of course, are clueless as to the borders of family plots. In addition, barring a prophetic dictate, it would be nearly impossible for anybody to prove which tribe or family they descended from, so that their property could be returned.

Third, because there is no tradition of Jubilee observance. The process of religious observance of festivals in Judaism is steeped in tradition. Changes do not come easily; they are deliberated and debated from all sides and we look to past sources of information passed down from the rabbis. But concerning the Jubilee we have no such records.

In fact, there seems to exist no clear evidence that the Jubilee was ever observed in the history of the Jewish people in the ancient land of Israel.

Therefore, to begin observance of the Jubilee would be a momentous undertaking. Nothing so important would ever be agreed to easily. However, the potential impact for celebrating the Jubilee could also be historic.

Some Rabbis, including Maimonides, believe that observance (or re-establishment of the observance) of the Jubilee could actually be a sign of the arrival of the Messianic age!

So it is significant to see early signs in Israel of a renewed interest in the Shemitah and now the Jubilee. It is even more significant to me because we might be in the midst of a Jubilee year right now!

What is the big idea behind Jubilee? Why is it so important?

The Jubilee is about freedom! The Torah’s explicit statement is to proclaim freedom is even enshrined on the Liberty Bell with the words:  “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

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Liberty Bell (Photo: Wikicommons)

Among Americans, this ranks among the most treasured quotes from the Bible, and represents all the striving for freedom and liberty that the United States was built upon. The forms that freedom took in biblical times may have been different from the way it manifests in modern times, but the basic idea is the same. Slaves were freed regardless of the reason or term of their slavery. Land purchases were all temporary—the land really belonged to God. The land itself was freed from its task of producing food.

Nowadays, we may look to different forms that freedom may take. We might emphasize freedom of speech or religion or some other human endeavor. We may see it as a quest of individual freedoms over the power of the government. It may take the form of freedom from oppression or hatred or control. But whatever form freedom takes, it is arguably the state of human society that is treasured above all others. In November I wrote about Jonathan Pollard being released in the US and suggested this might be a sign of the Jubilee. And now in December, another reputed Israeli spy, Ouda Tarabin, an was just released by Egypt.

That the biblical calendar celebrates freedom through the restarting of the Jubilee cycle is only fitting. The Bible brought a great measure of freedom to the world through its wisdom, its insight into human nature, and its great revelation of one God who creates, sustains, and guides the universe. Is there any better way to usher in the next great cycle in the calendar than to “proclaim liberty throughout the land”?

Can we bring this half-century celebration of freedom back into our lives? This is not a question for the Jews alone, but for all those who treasure the Bible and look to it for spiritual sustenance.

Perhaps the time has come to revive this long-forgotten observance. Maybe those Jubilee years, coming as rarely as they do, signify something more than a few technical laws from the Old Testament. Maybe they represent something greater than that, something whose significance will only be understood as the decades and centuries and Jubilees role by. Only God knows—and only the future will tell.

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Next Time

In the next article, we will examine the critical events of 1917, the Hebrew Calendar, and the big question they raise for solving the Mystery of the Lost Jubilee.

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