Thursday, November 15, 2012


November 15th is the launch of Occupy Wall Street's (or at least one of its offshoots) next venture. It's called the Rolling Jubilee, and I've already posted the explanatory video here. It's a simple and in some ways brilliant idea: We ordinary citizens buy up some of the distressed loans that are sold for pennies on the dollar, and instead of leveraging them, we pay the loan and forgive it. As this article says, on a large scale it might be problematic, as the strategy may well drive up the price of these loans. But as an initial gesture to do something for people in financial trouble it would seem to work pretty well, and it would take a pretty big influx of money to reach problem proportions.

I thought that in honor of the launch, I'd track down the origins of 'jubilee'. I think most of us know the term 'diamond jubilee', as Queen Elizabeth II celebrated hers this very year. In the case of royalty, it celebrates the 60th year of a monarch's reign, though in terms of other anniversaries, it means the 75th.

But the source of all this is somewhat different--and more relevant. 'Jubilee" goes back through the usual Old French jubileu, which meant jubilee, anniversary, rejoicing. The Late Latin jubilaeus meant jubilee year, and was originally an adjective meaning 'of the jubilee', but which switched meanings a bit by being promiscuous with the Latin jubilare "to shout with joy". I haven't quite been able to pin down the background of this close word to see if it has some of the same root, and there are some alternate theories of etymology out there, but in any case, jubilaeus goes back to the Greek iabelaios and earlier iobelos. But that's not even yet the basis of the word, which is Hebrew and is pronounced yobhel or yovel, and means jubilee but also a trumpet made of ram's horn, and ultimately comes from 'ram'. The ram's horn may be more familiar to you as the shofar, which is present and important at many Jewish ceremonies. 

The original idea of jubilee is that, every 50th year (or really, the end of seven cycles of Sabbatical years known as schmita) is a year of emancipation of slaves and restoration of lands, set off by the sound of trumpets everywhere.Jubilee deals with land, property and property rights. I like the more transcendent sense of the Septuagint--the translation of the Hebrew bible into Greek in the third century BCE-- that yovel means "a trumpet-blast of liberty" (αφεσεως σημασια afeseos semasia), at least according to Wikipedia. Here's the passage from Leviticus.

Christianity did carry the idea forward, in the sense of a period of remission for sin penalities in exchange for alms, pilgrimages and so on. But I like best the way it crept into African-American spirituality and became the name of a type of folk song in the 1800s.

This is a video of the Jubilee Singers, and I'd say it's appropriate for the launch of the Rolling Jubilee
as well.


  1. Remind me to send you a picture of the discount shofar bin I saw on a street in Jerusalem.

  2. There is somewhat deeper explanation of the intent of all this on the Chris Hayes show. You can watch it here.