Jubilees – The Story Shofar

Until this year fifteen monarchs around the world had reigned for at least seventy years, the grand-père of them all being Louis XIV whose 72 years and 110 days on the French throne is the longest recorded of any monarch of a sovereign country. On February 6, 2022, Queen Elizabeth II became the sixteenth. A series of celebrations are being planned this year across the country and the Commonwealth to mark what is known as her Platinum Jubilee year.

Jubilee years were part of the cycle of days and years in Judaic tradition. Seven days made up a week, the seventh being the Sabbath, a day dedicated to rest and worship. There were seven years in a cycle, the seventh, the Sabbath year, was when the land lay fallow. According to the Book of Leviticus (25:10), after forty-nine years, a cycle of seven weeks of seven years, “you shall consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you”.

The jubilee year was a way of resetting the dial. All leased or mortgaged lands were to be returned to their original owners and all slaves and bonded labourers were to be freed. There were carefully crafted provisions to mitigate the economic mayhem that these strictures may have caused (Leviticus 25:15-16), but the underlying principle was that everyone should be free to enjoy the fruits of their own labour.

A blast on a shofar, a rudimentary trumpet made from a ram’s horn, marked the start of the Jubilee year. The Hebrew word for ram was “yobhel”, which may be the origin of our word “jubilee”, although it is just as likely to have been derived from the Latin verb “jubilare”, to shout out joyfully or to celebrate.

Jubilee years were introduced to the Christian world by Pope Boniface VIII in a Papal Bull, Antiquorum fida relatio, published on February 22, 1300. He promised that anyone who made a full confession and made a pilgrimage to Rome would be absolved of all sins. Once in Rome they were required to visit the basilicas St Peter and St Paul for fifteen consecutive days, or if they were Roman citizens, for thirty.

Pilgrims flocked to Rome, the chronicler Giovanni Villani observing that it was “the most marvellous thing that was ever seen, for throughout the year, without a break, there were in Rome, besides the inhabitants of the city, 200,000 pilgrims…and all was well ordered, and without tumult”. The Papal coffers received a welcome boost, and the jubilee was declared a success, so much so that Pope Clement VI overturned Boniface’s original intention of holding one every hundred years by organising another, in 1350.

In the 1380s Pope Urban VI decided that the jubilee years should reflect the duration of Christ’s earthly life and be held every thirty-three years, but by the mid-15th century the frequency had become once every twenty-five years as it is today. 2025 is the next jubilee year. From 1500 pilgrims entered the principal basilicas through special doors, known as “Holy Doors”, and temporary walls built behind them were ceremonially broken down by the Pope to mark the beginning of the year.

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