How the Rolling Jubilee Works

By: Dave Roos

Origin of the Jubilee

The word "jubilee" comes from the book of Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible, known in Christianity as the Old Testament. Jubilee is an English variation of the Hebrew word jobel, which means "ram's horn," the curved horn used as a trumpet to signal the year of the Jubilee [source: Pacomio]. In Leviticus 25, God commanded the House of Israel to observe a year of Jubilee every 50 years. The Jubilee year, the Bible explains, was to be a year of rest, including the forgiveness of all debts, and the liberation of slaves and servants to their native lands.

The text of Leviticus 25 explains how the Jubilee is supposed to work. All outstanding debts between members of the House of Israel must be wiped clean. All people must be allowed to return to their "own property." In an agrarian society, it was common for indebted people to forfeit ownership of their land to a creditor [source: Kinsler]. The accepted interpretation of this commandment is that all land must be returned to its original owners. Likewise, if a Hebrew has taken a fellow Hebrew as an indentured servant, he must release the servant and cancel his debt in the Jubilee year.


It is unclear whether the ancient Hebrews ever practiced the year of the Jubilee as it is outlined in Leviticus. There are historical records, however, of other Near Eastern cultures that practiced a similar "clean slate" tradition, including the Babylonians under Hammurabi and the Egyptians under Ptolemy. The famous Egyptian Rosetta Stone tablet records a Jubilee proclamation from 196 BCE [source: Kinsler].

Instead of waiting every 50 years for debt cancellation, the organizers of the Rolling Jubilee want to create an ongoing process of debt forgiveness, i.e. a "rolling" jubilee. We'll go into greater detail about how the modern Rolling Jubilee works on the next page.