Leviticus 25:10 – The Jubilee Year

These days we’re all familiar with the idea of rebooting a computer. It turns out God provides the Jewish people with a way to reboot.

The Torah commands the Jewish people to observe every 7th year as shemitah. During shemitah most agricultural work is forbidden.

After 7 shemitah cycles, 49 years, the fiftieth year has a special status.

Leviticus 25

10. And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty [d’ror] throughout all the land to all the inhabitants of it; it shall be a jubilee [yovel] to you; and you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man to his family.

Obligations of the Jubilee Year

There are 3 main obligations to be observed during the Jubilee Year.

1. It is also a shemitah year and most agricultural work is forbidden.

2. Every Hebrew slave, male or female, is to be set free. It does not matter how long or short of a time the person was a slave.

3. All fields are returned to their original owners.

There are 2 Hebrew words in this verse I want to understand better:

  • d’ror translated as liberty
  • yovel translated as jubilee
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The Hebrew Word D’ror – Liberty

This word is spelled dalet-reish-vav-reish with a 3-letter root of dalet-reish-reish.

The Jastrow Dictionary defines the root meaning as “moving about.”

Liberty Stamp

He probably bases this on Rabbi Yehuda in the Gemara. Rabbi Yehuda, based on a similar Aramaic word, says d’ror means that a person is able to dwell wherever he wants. This is a significant aspect of liberty and freedom.

Gemara Rosh HaShanah 9b
All authorities agree that the word d’ror means freedom. What does this tell us? — As it has been taught: The word d’ror means freedom. Rabbi Yehuda said: What is the significance of the word d’ror? [The freedom of] one who dwells where he likes and can carry on trade in the whole country.

The prophet Jeremiah (chapter 34) uses the word d’ror 4 times in reference to freeing slaves.

Rabbi Hirsch in his commentary points to other uses of the word d’ror. In Isaiah 61:1 d’ror means the return of captives. And in Ezekiel it means the return of property to its original owners.

We see that d’ror can be translated as liberty or freedom.

The Hebrew Word Yovel – Jubilee

This word is spelled yud-vav-bet-lamed based on the 3-letter root yud-bet-lamed.

Depending upon the context, yovel means a ram, a ram’s horn, or the name of the 50th year.

Liberty Air Mail Stamp

Rabbi Hirsch points out that yud-bet-lamed (in the hifil verb form) means “to bring.” A noun based on this root is “hovalah” which is the “act of bringing that is appropriate, such as bringing of a person to a place that is right for him…”

In modern Hebrew, “hovalah” is a common word which means transportation and moving. Some form of it appears in the name of many moving and delivery companies.

He also points to another noun from this root: canal, a structure that brings water to the place where it is needed.

This indicates a problem: “jubilee” does not seem to be a good translation of yovel. The word jubilee is not making clear the meaning of the Hebrew root.

The English Word Jubilee

The English word jubilee has two meanings:

1. a special anniversary
2. a celebration of a special anniversary

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) writes, “The earliest known use of the noun jubilee is in the Middle English period (1150—1500). OED’s earliest evidence for jubilee is from 1382, in Bible (Wycliffite, early version).”

OED will only show the etymology of words to paid subscribers. Fortunately, there are other resources such as the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Here is their etymology of jubilee which I’ve taken the liberty to format as bullet points:

Late 14c., in the Old Testament sense,

  • from Old French jubileu “jubilee; anniversary; rejoicing” (14c., Modern French jubilé),
  • from Late Latin iubilaeus “the jubilee year,” originally an adjective, “of the jubilee,”
  • from Greek iabelaios, from iobelos,
  • from Hebrew yobhel “jubilee,” formerly “a trumpet, ram’s horn,” literally “ram.”

The original jubilee was a year of emancipation of slaves and restoration of lands, to be celebrated every 50th year (Levit. xxv:9); it was proclaimed by the sounding of a ram’s horn on the Day of Atonement.

The form of the word was altered in Latin by association with unrelated Latin iubilare “to shout with joy” …

Here is Leviticus 25:10 from a Wycliffe version I found online:

Leviticus 25 – Wycliffe

10 And thou schalt halewe the fiftithe yeer, and thou schalt clepe remissioun to alle the dwellers of thi lond; for thilke yeer is iubilee; a man schal turne ayen to hys possessioun, and ech man schal go ayen to the firste meynee,

All of this leads me to conclude that jubilee was NEVER intended to be a translation of yovel. Rather, they recognized that the root yud-bet-lamed in this context did not mean ram or ram’s horn. But they weren’t sure how to translate it, as there didn’t seem to be an appropriate English word.

Therefore, they sought to transliterate the Hebrew word into English letters. That transliteration eventually became the word jubilee.

Leviticus 25:10 – A Better Translation

Rabbi Hirsch in his commentary recognizes the problem with translating yovel as jubilee.

Here’s how the Hirsch Chumash translates our verse:

Leviticus 25 – Hirsch Chumash

10. And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty in the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a [year of] homebringing and shall be to you as such, and each one of you shall return to his landed property and each one of you shall return to his family.

This translation of the verse brings out the basic meaning of yovel which is to bring something to it’s proper place.

In this context, slaves are permitted to return to their families and property is returned to its original owner.

Yovel Today

Today in the modern State of Israel there are efforts to observe and celebrate shemitah every 7 years. However, there is no attempt to observe jubilee / homebringing.

Rabbi Hirsch, based on Gemara Arachin 32b, writes that jubilee / homebringing is only in effect when: a) the whole nation lives in the Land of Israel (that is, no tribes exiled) and b) when the tribes are not mixed together, but living in their own portions of Israel.

Those are two factors that appear to be impossible to achieve in today’s world.

Lessons from Yovel

Even though we may not observe yovel today, we can still learn lessons from it.

Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi cites the laws of Yovel as a proof of God’s foreknowledge and care for the Jewish people.

Kuzari 2:56.5

God, on the other hand, was able to carefully measure everything – the capacity of the people of Israel, Canaan’s ability to support agriculture and livestock, and the needs of the tribe of Levi. … Under these laws, no tribe or family would ever become destitute, since God commanded that at the advent of the Jubilee year all property would revert back to the status it had when Eretz Yisrael was first apportioned to each family.

The Yovel year was part of God’s calculation and plan designed to keep the Jewish people wealthy in their land.

Rabbi Sorotzkin asks why does the verse say “all its inhabitants”? Most people were not slaves or servants who needed to be freed. He cites Jeremiah 34 as proof that observing shemitah and yovel protected the nation from its enemies.

Conversely, the failure to observe these laws lead to tragedy and exile.

Picture Credits:
Liberty Bell 13 cent stamp

Liberty Bell 10 cent air mail stamp

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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