The Jubilee (Hebrew יובל yūḇāl) year is the year at the end of seven cycles of shmita (Sabbatical years), and according to Biblical regulations had a special impact on the ownership and management of land in the Land of Israel; there is some debate whether it was the 49th year (the last year of seven sabbatical cycles, referred to as the Sabbath’s Sabbath), or whether it was the following (50th) year. Jubilee deals largely with land, property, and property rights. According to Leviticus, slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and the mercies of God would be particularly manifest. Leviticus 25:8-13 states:
You shall count off seven Sabbaths of years, seven times seven years; and there shall be to you the days of seven Sabbaths of years, even forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month. On the Day of Atonement you shall sound the trumpet throughout all your land. You shall make the fiftieth year holy, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee to you; and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee to you. In it you shall not sow, neither reap that which grows of itself, nor gather from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you. You shall eat of its increase out of the field. In this Year of Jubilee each of you shall return to his property. (WEB)
The biblical rules concerning Sabbatical years (shmita) are still observed by many religious Jews in Israel, but the regulations for the Jubilee year have not been observed for many centuries. According to the Torah, observance of Jubilee only applies when the Jewish people live in the land of Israel according to their tribes. Thus, with the exile of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh (about 600 BCE), Jubilee has not been applicable.
In Judaism and Christianity, the concept of the Jubilee is a special year of remission of sins and universal pardon. In the Biblical Book of Leviticus, a Jubilee year is mentioned to occur every fiftieth year, in which slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven and the mercies of God would be particularly manifest.
In the Holy Bible, Leviticus 25:8-13 states:
“And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven sabbaths of years shall be unto thee forty and nine years. Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubile to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the trumpet sound throughout all your land. And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family. A jubile shall that fiftieth year be unto you: ye shall not sow, neither reap that which groweth of itself in it, nor gather the grapes in it of thy vine undressed. For it is the jubile; it shall be holy unto you: ye shall eat the increase thereof out of the field. In the year of this jubile ye shall return every man unto his possession.”
In Judaism the Jubilee Year is currently not observed in modern times because it only applies when representatives of all twelve tribes have returned to Israel and a majority of the world’s Jews live in the Land.
In Christianity, the tradition dates to 1300, when Pope Boniface VIII convoked a holy year, following which ordinary jubilees have generally been celebrated every 25 or 50 years; with extraordinary jubilees in addition depending on need. Christian Jubilees, particularly in the Catholic tradition, generally involve pilgrimage to a sacred site, normally the city of Rome. Last Holy Year was celebrated in 2000, the following Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy will be held in 2016.
“Pre-History” of the Christian Jubilee
The year of Jubilee in both the Jewish and Christian traditions is a time of joy, the year of remission or universal pardon. In Mosaic law, each fiftieth year was to be celebrated as a jubilee year, and that at this season every household should recover its absent members, the land return to its former owners, the Hebrew slaves be set free, and debts be remitted.
The same conception, spiritualized, forms the fundamental idea of the Christian Jubilee, though it is difficult to judge how far any sort of continuity can have existed between the two. It is commonly stated that Pope Boniface VIII instituted the first Christian Jubilee in the year 1300, and it is certain that this is the first celebration of which we have any precise record, but it is also certain that the idea of solemnizing a fiftieth anniversary was familiar to medieval writers, no doubt through their knowledge of the Bible, long before that date. The jubilee of a monk’s religious profession was often kept, and probably some vague memory survived of those Roman ludi saeculares which are commemorated in the “Carmen Saeculare” of Horace, even though this last was commonly associated with a period of a hundred years rather than any lesser interval. But, what is most noteworthy, the number fifty was specially associated in the early 13th century with the idea of remission. The translation of the body of St. Thomas of Canterbury took place in the year 1220, fifty years after his martyrdom. The sermon on that occasion was preached by Cardinal Stephen Lantron, who told his hearers that this coincidence was meant by Providence to recall “the mystical virtue of the number fifty, which, as every reader of the sacred page is aware, is the number of remission.”
We might be tempted to regard this discourse as a fabrication of later date, were it not for the fact that a Latin hymn directed against the Albigenses, and certainly belonging to the early 13th century, speaks in exactly similar terms. The first stanza runs thus:
Anni favor jubilaei
Poenarum laxat debitum,
Post peccatorum vomitum
Et cessandi propositum.
Currant passim omnes rei.
Pro mercede regnum Dei
Levi patet expositum.
(The blessing of the year of jubilee releases the obligation of punishments. After sinners have been purged, the cause against them ends. All the guilty go free by the mercy of God’s kingdom, as set forth in the law of Levi.)
In the light of this explicit mention of a jubilee with great remissions of the penalties of sin to be obtained by full confession and purpose of amendment, it seems difficult to reject the statement of Cardinal Giacomo Stefaneschi, the contemporary and counsellor of Pope Boniface VIII, and author of a treatise on the first Jubilee, that the proclamation of the Jubilee owed its origin to the statements of certain aged pilgrims who persuaded Boniface that great indulgences had been granted to all pilgrims in Rome about a hundred years before. It is also noteworthy that in the Chronicle of Alberic of Three Fountains, under the year 1208 (not, be it noted 1200), we find this brief entry: “It is said that this year was celebrated as the fiftieth year, or the year of jubilee and remission, in the Roman Court.”