Last Monday, representatives of the Sanhedrin gathered in Jerusalem to recite the annual blessing that designates the place of the New Year in the Jubilee cycle. Rabbi Yosef Berger, Rabbi Aharon Stern, and Rabbi Hakak blew the shofar and recited the blessings to count the sixth year of the Shemittah (sabbatical) on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Temple Mount.
Shemittah and Jubilee Cycles
The Shemitah is part of a larger framework of seven Shemitah (sabbatical) cycles, in which we count 49 years, and then the 50th year is the Jubilee year, as described in Leviticus.
And you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family. Leviticus 25:10
In Judaism, it is a positive religious commandment “to sanctify the 50th year” (Leviticus 25:8). In actual practice, the Biblically-mandated requirement to observe the Jubilee year was disrupted when the 10 Tribes were exiled approximately 2,700 years ago. Prior to that time, the Jews were careful about counting the cycles leading to the Jubilee year. They observed all the Biblical requirements of the Jubilee year, including freeing slaves and returning property to its original owner.
Jubilee Reinstated by Sanhedrin
The counting of the years for the purpose of the Jubilee was reinstated by the Sanhedrin
Rabbi Hillel Weiss, the head of the Organization of the 70 Nations, explained the mitzvah (Torah commandment) of the Jubilee:
“There are 5 mitzvot connected to the Jubilee: counting the Jubilee, letting free slaves, returning land, blowing the shofar, and forgiving debts,” Rabbi Weiss explained. In the first year, the Sanhedrin chose not to accompany the counting of the Jubilee cycle with shofar blast but have reinstated that aspect as well.
Specific conditions outlined in Jewish law had to be considered by the Sanhedrin before reinstating this mitzvah. Unlike most Torah commandments being observed today which are incumbent on an individual, the Jubilee is a national mitzvah. Its observance is dependant upon most of Israel being in the land of Israel. Therefore, when the Jews returned from Babylonian Exile since many chose to remain in the Diaspora, the Jubilee was not observed. For the same reason, the Jubilee was not observed in modern Israel.
This all changed in 2016 when the Sanhedrin ruled that the conditions for counting the Jubilee existed. Observance of the Jubilee is dependant upon most of Israel being in the land of Israel. To begin counting the Jubilee last year, the Sanhedrin, as a bet din (rabbinic court), ruled that the Jews have returned to inherit the land as a nation, and not just as individuals. This requires at least 600,000 Jews, equal to the number of Israelites that returned to Israel from Egypt under Joshua.
Performing the Mitzvah
The commandment is performed by reciting the following blessing:
ברוך אתה יי אלוהינו מלך העולם אשר קידשנו במיצותיו וצונו על ספירת שמיטים ויובלות
Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu Melech Ha-olam, Asher Kidshanu B’Mitsvotav, V’Tsivanu Al Sfirat Shemittim v’Yovalot.
Blessed art thou, Ruler of the Universe, who sanctifies us in his commandments, and has commanded us to count the sabbaticals and the Jubilees.
.השנה הזאת היא השנה השלישית ליובל הראשון והשנה השישית לשמיטה ראשונה ביובל הראשון
Hashana HaZot Hee Hashanna Hachamisha La’Yovel Harishon v’Hashanna Hashnia LaShmitta Rishon Bayovel Harishon.
This year is the sixth year of the first Jubilee, and the sixth year for the first sabbatical in the first Jubilee.
Jubilee: From Creation to Messiah
It is interesting to note that despite the initiation of the Shemitah year being determined by the actions of the Jews, it worked out that the first Shemitah year was a multiple of seven since the creation of the world, according to the Jewish calendar. The year after the destruction of the Second Temple, 3829, was also known to be a Shemitah year, 547 seven-year cycles since the creation of the world. The current Hebrew year is 5780; precisely 825 Shemitah cycles plus five years.
According to Jewish tradition, the re-establishment of the Biblically-mandated Jubilee year is part of the messianic process.
“On that day, will I raise up the fallen booth (Sukkah) of David.” Amos 9:11
This verse comes in the context of a prophecy about God bringing the nation of Israel back from exile among the nations. Amidst descriptions of the days preceding the Messiah, the Babylonian Talmud in the Tractate of Sanhedrin, 97a, explains the verse from Amos and its implications.
“As it is written, in that day I will raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen. Our Rabbis taught: in the seven-year cycle at the end of which the son of David will come-in the first year, this verse will be fulfilled.”
The Talmud is saying explicitly that the Messiah will come in the first year after the Shemitah.