The jubilee — yovel in Hebrew — is a year observed once in 50 years, following seven cycles of seven-year shmita, or sabbatical, years. Like the shmita year, the jubilee is one in which no agricultural work is to be done and the land is to lie fallow. But jubilee also has some additional rituals.
According to Maimonides, there is a commandment to consecrate the jubilee year and to sound the shofar on the tenth day of the month of Tishrei. These are both specified in Leviticus 25:9-10, which states: “Then shall you cause the shofar to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, on Yom Kippur shall you sound the shofar throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you.” This verse is also inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.
Additionally, the Torah mandates that all slaves were set free and that all land should return to its original owners. The Talmud in Rosh Hashanah explains that slaves technically were free from the first of the jubilee year, but did not return to their homes until ten days later when the shofar was sounded (Rosh Hashanah 8a or b, right?). The requirement of returning land to its original owners meant that, in effect, land could not be sold or leased in perpetuity. This had the practical effect of ensuring that land did not concentrate in a small number of hands, and spiritually served as a reminder that nothing on earth truly belongs to human beings. This is made explicit several verses later in Leviticus, when God states “the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. It is all on loan from God.”
Both the shmita year and the jubilee year are widely understood to have both practical agricultural and economic significance. Letting the land rest for a year — particularly in the era before synthetic fertilizers and mechanized agriculture — was crucial to ensuring it remained productive in perpetuity. Economically, both shmita and yovel entail a certain kind of social reset, preventing the over-concentration of land and wealth in a few hands. The return of land to its original owners —
In ancient times, observing the jubilee year was truly an act of faith. Since the land could not be cultivated for the seventh shmita year that preceded the jubilee year, nor during the jubilee year itself, the produce grown in the 48th year had to suffice for an entire population for three years — the 48th itself, the 49th (shmita), 50th (jubilee). God makes an explicit promise in the Bible that the produce grown in the year prior to shmita and yovel will suffice for all these years. (There is a debate in the Talmud about whether the jubilee year is the 50th year or the 49th, but the majority opinion holds that it’s the 50th.)
The word yovel is also a matter of some dispute. Its Hebrew root — yud, bet, lamed — is phonetically similar to the modern English word jubilee. Many authorities — Rashi chief among them — believe the word refers to the blowing of shofar, since it shares a root with the biblical word for ram, the horns of which are used for shofars. But others — Maimonides perhaps most famously — believe the word means something like “to bring” or “to convey,” a reference to the return of land to its original owners. Still others believe the word means something akin to “mixture” — it is also similar to the Hebrew word for flood, mabul, in which all is mixed up and confused. In this reading, the yovel year is one in which private and public property become intermingled.
Today, shmita is observed in the land of Israel, which creates some challenges for a modern nation of 8 million people who still need to eat. An innovative legal workaround, known as the heter mechira (“sale permit”), allows the land to be worked by selling it to a non-Jew for the duration of the year.
But the jubilee year has not been observed for at least two millennia. This is because the verse in Leviticus, which specifically names “all its inhabitants,” was understood by the rabbis to mean that the jubilee year only applies when all those who are meant to live in Israel — that is, all 12 tribes of Israel — do in fact live there. According to Maimonides, the jubilee years were counted after the end of the Babylonian exile and the construction of the Second Temple, but they were not observed.