This week’s Torah portion is Behar, Leviticus 25:1-26:2.
And you shall sanctify the 50th year, and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all who live on it. It shall be a jubilee for you, and you shall return, each man to his property, and you shall return, each man to his family” (Leviticus 25:10).
The word “jubilee” rolls off the tongue, conveying a sense of joy and celebration. No wonder that it has been used so frequently in popular culture.
Marvel Comics has a superheroine, Jubilee, who can generate sparks from hands.
Hoagy Carmichael, Paul McCartney, Patti Smith and 10,000 Maniacs all have songs named “Jubilee,” not to mention the Sex Pistols album Jubilee.
In Las Vegas, Jubilee! is a long-running burlesque show.
To arrive at Charing Cross Station of the London Underground, you take the Jubilee Line.
And I can personally attest to this: Friendly’s Jubilee ice cream roll is quite delicious.
Yet, none of these usages shed light on what the word jubilee means in this week’s Torah portion, Behar. In Hebrew, jubilee is yovel, another word for ram’s horn. On Yom Kippur of the 50th year of a 50-year cycle, the yovel was blown, signaling the yovel, or jubilee year.
A quick little refresher about Hebrew transliteration into English: The letter yud in Hebrew becomes a “j” in transliteration. Think Yaakov and Jacob. And, the Hebrew vet is really a variation of bet. So, yovel could be spelled jobel, much closer to jubilee.
The jubilee year of our parsha meant freedom from indentured servitude and financial debt. During the 49 years leading up the jubilee year, if a person fell into hard financial times, he could sell his property or become an indentured servant. But, in the yovel year, his property and freedom were returned to him.
Rashi explains why the ram’s horn is called a yovel and not a shofar in our parsha. Rashi says, “For in Arabia, they call a ram yuvla.” In the midrash, the specific ram’s horn called yovel came from none other than the ram of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac (Midrash Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer). In Judaism, therefore, when we say jubilee, we mean joy and celebration marked by the most sacred of instruments, the ram’s horn; from one of the awe-filled moments of our Torah, the Akedah; on the most holy of days, Yom Kippur.
As Hebrew mingled with Greek and, later, Latin, yovel became transliterated and transformed into the several Latin words.
Jubilaeus meaning “the jubilee year”
Jubilum mean “wild shout”
And some say jubilare meaning “to shout with joy” although scholars debate whether it is related.
Instead of a joyful ram’s horn, we have wild shouts and joyful voices — and perhaps we are moving closer to Paul McCartney. The Latin then spawned other joyful and celebratory words — jubilant and jubilation.
But, we know the source: the Torah portion Behar and sound of the ram’s horn, announcing freedom.
Rabbi Deborah Cohen is director of congregational learning at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac.