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Jubilee Year

According to Leviticus 25, every fifty years, the Israelites were to observe a Jubilee Year, when slaves were freed and debts were forgiven.


Inscribed on the Liberty Bell displayed in Philadelphia are the words, “proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof,” from Lev 25:10 (King James Version). In this context, the word “liberty” is usually understood to refer to the important American values of freedom and independence. However, in its original context, the Hebrew word dror (best translated as “release”) refers specifically to economic amnesty to be enacted during a year referred to as the Jubilee—from the Hebrew, yovel, which refers to a ram’s horn trumpet blown to announce the occasion.

How was the Jubilee Year to be observed?

According to the laws set out in Lev 25, observance of the Jubilee is to be part of a larger system of organizing time according to the number seven, which includes the seven-day week and the practice of leaving agricultural land fallow every seventh year. After the counting of seven sets of seven years, forty-nine years, the Jubilee Year is to be announced by the sounding of a trumpet on the Day of Atonement (the tenth day of the seventh month). Many scholars hold that the Jubilee Year was calculated as beginning with the Day of Atonement in the fiftieth year. However, Leviticus assumes a calendar in which the year begins in the spring. So it is likely that the proclamation on the Day of Atonement, in the autumn of the forty-ninth year, looks ahead to the fiftieth year beginning in the subsequent spring. Whatever the case, the fiftieth year is understood as “consecrated” or “hallowed” (Lev 25:10, Lev 25:12). During the year, fields and vineyards are to be left fallow. Most significant is the economic amnesty: land is to be returned to its ancestral owners and Israelites held in indentured servitude are to be set free. The requirement to return property in land to its original owners makes the transfer of land effectively into a leasing arrangement rather than a permanent sale. This rule is justified by God’s announced ownership over the whole land of Israel so that its Israelite inhabitants are really God’s tenants (Lev 25:23). Likewise, the requirement to release Israelites from indentured servitude at the end of a maximum of forty-nine years makes it impossible for them to be held as chattel slaves who can be bought and sold at will, a norm justified by God’s declaration that the Israelite’s are God’s slaves (Lev 25:55); thus, they cannot be held by anyone else as slaves, even by other Israelites. The laws specify that the Jubilee release does not apply to non-Israelites held as slaves by Israelites, who may be held as permanent chattel and passed on as inherited personal property (Lev 25:44-46); there is no general abolition of slavery.

Was the Jubilee Year actually observed?

The laws for the Jubilee Year are set out as if they are to put into practice. However, the Jubilee Year is referred to nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible. The laws may have been presented to express ideal values rather than to enact specific concrete practices. As such, they have remained a source of inspiration for people seeking a more just economic order through limiting the concentration of property in a small number of hands.

  • gilders-william

    William K. Gilders is an associate professor in the Department of Religion at Emory University. His research and teaching focus on cultural history, especially its religious dimensions, ranging from the ancient Mediterranean world to twenty-first century North America. He is the author of Blood Ritual in the Hebrew Bible: Meaning and Power (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004) and several articles on ancient Israelite religious practice interpreted from the perspective of anthropology and ritual theory.