Behar (On mount)25:1-26:2) Vayikra (Leviticus)
Behar is the ninth sedrah in Vayikra. The sedrah takes its name from the opening sentence, “The Lord spoke to Moshe on Mount (“Behar”) Sinai.” According to Etz Hayim, the sedrah divides into two parts. All of chapter 25 deals with Principles of Land Tenure. This is followed by a two verse postscript from chapter 26 containing three unconnected commands. This is one of those times when such oversimplification hides the importance of the topic. Chapter 25 contains a series of laws related to the Sabbatical Year, The Jubilee, Redemption and Servitude that were to become operative once the Children of Israel entered the Promised Land. The material is a continuation of the Holiness Code that began with Chapter 19. Having dealt with ways to keep the Israelites holy and then the Kohanim holy, the Torah now turns to making the land itself holy. At one level the laws pertaining to the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee may be seen as the ultimate example of the concept of elevation that we have been discussing. For what can be more mundane than the land we walk on and what can be more inspiring than the rules presented here in how to treat it? For those of you using different texts, please note that I have relied on the Stone Chumash for categorizing some of this material.
The Sabbatical Year, The Jubilee, Redemption of Property, Preventing Poverty and Servitude (25:1-55).
Sabbatical Year (25:1-7). For six years the Israelites are to work the land. During the seventh year or Sabbatical Year the land is to lie fallow. Notice the similarity with the commandment about Shabbat. There we are commanded to work for six days before resting. Judaism recognizes the value of work as well as the need to rest. We also read about the Sabbatical Year in Devarim (15:1-10) where the Sabbatical Year is described as the year in which debts were to be canceled. The Hebrew term for the remission of debts is “Shmittah” and this is the name by which the Sabbatical Year is also known.
The Jubilee Year (25:8ff). The Jubilee followed a series of seven Sabbatical Years. In other words it was the fiftieth year. Note the similarity in the counting method used here and the one used to count the Omer and arrive at Shavuot. In Hebrew the Jubilee Year is called “Yovel” which according to Plaut may “have originally meant ‘ram’…” This would have been in reference to the shofar or ram’s horn that was supposed to be sounded to announce the Jubilee. The shofar was to be sounded with a “broken blast,” the same note pattern used on Rosh Hashanah. It was also to be sounded on the tenth day of the seventh month, Yom Kippur. One could easily make the connection that in performing the rituals of the Jubilee one was beginning anew (Rosh Hashanah) and atoning for past wrongs (Yom Kippur). As Plaut points out, the Jubilee Year contains three main facets. The land is to rest in the same manner as in the Sabbatical Year. All land that has been sold is to be returned to its original owners as defined by the apportioning that took place at the time of Joshua. All Israelite slaves are to be freed. The great Rabbinic commentator Rashi finds a philosophic message in the sequencing of the verses following the introduction of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. If you do not observe the Shmittah and the Yovel and fail to repent you suffer as follows. First you lose your money. Then you have to sell your land. Then you have to sell your house. Then you have to borrow at interest. Since you cannot repay the loan you become a bondsman to a Jew, then a slave to a non-Jew and finally the property of an idol worshipper which leads you to a life of idolatry.
Redemption of Property (25:23-34)
Redemption of Land and Houses in Walled Cities (25:23-31). The important message here is that “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity” because the land really belongs to God and we are merely temporary residents.
Cities of the Levites (25:32-34). As with everything else, there are special laws for the Levites at the time of the Jubilee.
Preventing Poverty (25:35-38). The concepts of remitting debts and returning land that are part of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years may be seen as a way of preventing the creation of a permanent class of impoverished Israelites controlled by a small number of wealthy families. The verses here are much more direct. They command us to help our brethren rise out of poverty without waiting for these seminal years. Maimonides contended that the highest form of charity was helping somebody to avoid poverty in the first place. Give a man a fish and you give him a meal. Teach a man to fish and you give him a livelihood.
Servitude (25:39-55). This section begins with the words “If your brother becomes impoverished…and is sold….” It covers the gambit of the levels of servitude and how bondsmen and slaves are to be treated and redeemed. But in the end “…he shall go out in the Jubilee Year, he and his children with him.” (25:54). And why do we obey these laws? Because we are God’s servants and He took us out of the land of Egypt (25:55). Verse 48 provides the foundation for redeeming Jews who are held captive. For example, in the Middle Ages, it was incumbent on Jews to raise money to rescue co-religionists who were seized by pirates or other such brigands. In modern times, we see this in the rescue of various Jewish communities such as Operation Joseph, which saved the Ethiopian community. Verse 50 provides the underpinning for the Rabbinic rules about not stealing from non-Jews or dealing deceitfully with them. It is bad enough for a Jew to steal from another Jew. But when a Jew cheats a non-Jew, the non-Jew will then generalize that all Jews are thieves and this brings discredit on God and the whole House of Israel.
Postscript (26:1-2)These two verses contain three commands - do not make or worship idols, observe Shabbat, and show reverence for the Sanctuary. These are admonitions concerning private behavior that will keep us Jewish; that will keep us separate; that will keep us holy. We can observe these only if we are free people in the truest sense of the term i.e., not only that we are not slaves but that we have the economic wherewithal not to have to compromise our Judaism. By observing the commandments in Chapter 25, we will then be able to follow these three basic rules.
326. The prohibition against working the earth during the seventh year (25:4).
327. The prohibition against pruning one’s vineyard during the seventh year (25:4).
328. The prohibition against harvesting one’s land during the seventh year (25:5).
329. The prohibition against gathering grapes from one’s vines during the seventh year (25:5).
330. The commandment to count seven sabbatical cycles, after which a Jubilee year is observed (25:8-10).
331. The obligation to sound a shofar at the beginning of the Jubilee year (25:9).
332. The commandment to sanctify the Jubilee year (25:10-11).
333. The prohibition against farming the land during the Jubilee Year (25:10-11).
334. The prohibition against harvesting wild growing produce during the Jubilee year (25:10-11).
335. The prohibition against systematically gathering fruit from one’s trees during the Jubilee year (25:10-11).
336. The obligation to affect justice between buyer and seller (25:14).
337. The prohibition against wronging another in a business deal (25:14).
338. The prohibition against wronging another with cruel words (25:17).
339. The prohibition against selling land in Israel in perpetuity (25:23-24).
340. The command to return such land to its original owner during the Jubilee year (25:23-24).
341. The specification of special laws regarding the sale of a house within a walled city (25:29).
342. The prohibition against selling land adjoining the cities designated for the Levites so as to assure them their property rights (25:34).
343. The prohibition against charging interest to a fellow Israelite (25:37).
344. The prohibition against imposing degrading work on an Israelite slave (25:42).
345. The prohibition against selling a Hebrew slave at auction (25:42).
346. The prohibition against imposing crushing burdens on a Hebrew slave (25:43).
347. The right to hold non-Israelite slaves in perpetuity (25:46).
348. The prohibition against tolerating a non-Israelite’s mistreatment of an Israelite slave (25:53).
349. The prohibition against bowing down before a stone image (26:1).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
BeharWhy does the sedrah begin by telling us that the commandments concerning the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years were given on Mount Sinai? After all, other laws in Vayikra are not introduced in a manner tied to the Revelation at Sinai. The laws given here run contrary to human nature and basic economics - get as much as you can while you can; he who makes the gold makes the rules; never give a sucker an even break. Therefore, it is necessary to introduce these laws with the authoritative reassurance that they were given by God at Sinai. Otherwise, it would have been too tempting to avoid them by dismissing them as some crazy do-gooder’s scheme to rob from the rich and give to the undeserving poor.
The Sabbatical and Jubilee YearsWere these ever observed or are they just some visionary concept of a utopian society? Based on various sources including the Book of the Maccabees, Hillel’s creation of the Prosbul and the writings of Josephus, there is reason to believe that the Sabbatical Year was observed in some fashion. In fact, failure to observe the Sabbatical Year is given by some as one of the reasons for the Exile. There does not appear to be independent evidence of the observance of the Jubilee Year. However, in modern times, we have seen the adoption of one its principles - the idea of the common holding of land. The Jewish National Fund or “Keren Kayemet” was created by the early Zionists to buy land in what was Palestine and is now the state of Israel. While individuals are allowed to use this land, it is not theirs to sell or misuse.
ShmittahShmittah is the Hebrew word for what we call the Sabbatical Year. Shmittah actually means release. In observing the Sabbatical Year, we release the land from working for us. Shmittah reminds us that the land actually belongs to God. Shmittah reminds us that we really do not have total control of our physical universe. The laws of Shmittah only apply in Eretz Yisrael because when the Torah uses the term “My Land” it means the land of Israel.
Once again, we are reminded that the Jewish standard for business ethics is a lot higher than those practiced in Western societies. “When you make a sale to your fellow or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow, do not aggrieve one another” (25:14) means that it is wrong to take advantage of people when doing business with them. For example, if a person knows about a defect in a piece of merchandise he or she is selling, the seller must make full disclosure to buyer. By the same token, a buyer may not return a piece of damaged merchandize that was damaged after the sale.
TzedakahThis sedrah offers us at least two ways to fulfill the commandment to perform tzedakah. First, we should do what we can to help people from falling into the pit of poverty. Second, we should help them escape the pit of poverty by helping them learn a trade or a skill, which will enable them to earn a living. Judaism recognizes that some people are incapable of working due to age, physical infirmity or other such conditions. Otherwise Judaism believes people should work so that they can provide for their needs, the needs of their family and the needs of the community. There is nothing “righteous” about the able-bodied becoming professional beggars. Not only does it diminish them as human beings, it takes away from the resources of those who are truly in need.
MannaHow do we know that the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years were commanded to the Israelites in the wilderness? We know this because they were the ones who had experienced the double portion of manna on the sixth day that would provide food for Shabbat. If God could provide a double portion in the Wilderness, He could surely bring about the miracle of a double portion in the sixth year to feed us during the Sabbatical year.
And you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof
We know what’s on the Liberty Bell. Now we know where it comes from (25:10). One thing is for sure; the spin they put on this in Civics Class and what Vayikra says are not necessarily the same.
IyarWe are now into the month of Iyar. Iyar is sandwiched between Nissan (Pesach) and Sivan (Shavuot). While Iyar does not have a major festival, it includes three minor observances worth noting: Israel Independence Day - Iyar 5, Pesach Sheni - Iyar 14 and Lag B’Omer - Iyar 18.
The Sabbatical Year and PesachThere seems to be a contradiction between Pesach and the pronouncements about the Sabbatical year. At Pesach we are told to remove Chametz (grain) that is in our possession. Yet under the Sabbatical Year we are told that there will be enough of the harvest in the sixth year for us to be able to eat in the seventh year and even into the eighth year until the harvest begins. Furthermore, if there is no harvest in the Sabbatical Year, did that mean that the Omer ceremony was suspended every seventh year as well? I am sure there is an explanation for this but right now I must take refuge in the words of Rashi, “Of this I do not know.”
HaftarahJeremiah 32:6-27 (Ashkenazim)
Jeremiah 32:6-27 (Sephardim and Chabad Chassidim)
The Man: Along with Isaiah and Ezekiel, Jeremiah is one of the three Major Prophets. He began preaching about seventy years after the death of Isaiah. He was a major figure at the time of the destruction of the
(586 B.C.E.). Jeremiah was not part of the group that went
into exile in First
Temple Babylonia. Instead he remained behind but was forced to
flee when a Jewish zealot assassinated Gedaliah, the Jewish governor installed
by the Babylonians. Jeremiah was taken
where he died feeling alone and miserable. We know quite a bit about Jeremiah’s
life. He came from a town called
Anatoth. He never married. He was assisted by a scribe named Baruch, who
was probably responsible for preserving Jeremiah’s writings for posterity. Jeremiah was considered a traitor by many of
his contemporaries since he counseled against fighting the Babylonians. In fact, King Zedekiah put Jeremiah in jail
because of his outspoken opposition to fighting the Babylonians. This week’s
haftarah takes place during Jeremiah’s confinement. Egypt
The Message: As predicted by a vision from God, Jeremiah’s cousin, Hanamel, came to Jeremiah and asked him to buy a plot of family land near his hometown of Anatoth. Jeremiah fulfilled his familial obligation and bought the land. The process is described in great detail (32:11-14) and it becomes the Talmudic standard for asserting ownership to property. Jeremiah then uttered a prayer praising God for all that He has done for the Jews. The Ashkenazim continue with five additional verses that explain why the Jews were being conquered by the Babylonians, why God wanted Jeremiah to buy the land at this time and asserting the ultimate power of the Lord.
Theme-Link: The sedrah tells of the method and importance of redeeming family holdings. The haftarah begins with just such a transaction. However, Jeremiah’s purchase of a plot of land seems to be ridiculous. After all he is in prison and the Babylonians are about to conquer the kingdom. But Jeremiah’s redemption of a plot land is more than just legal formality. His redemption of his family’s land acts as a symbol of God’s future redemption of Eretz Yisrael for the Jewish people.
Tonto: If Jeremiah was the Lone Ranger, than Baruch the son of Neriah was his faithful companion, his Tonto. Baruch was not just a scribe. He was Jeremiah’s friend and companion. He shared in all the adversities of Jeremiah’s life. He was also the one who re-created the text of Jeremiah’s writings after the King of Judah had burned the original scroll. Baruch is the Hebrew word for blessed. The relationship between Jeremiah and Baruch reminds us that we are truly blessed when we share in the steadfastness of true friends.
Pirke AvotChapter 4
4:3 “He would say: ‘Be not scornful of any person and be not dismissive of anything; for there is no person who does not have his hour and there is no thing that does not have its place.’”
This is a teaching in humility and modesty. Since every person and everything is created by God, then there is nothing that is without value. If we do not see its value, then we must look again and again and again until we do. Of course, this is consistent with the motif for study - look at each text over and over again to make sure that you capture all of the meaning. The “He” is Ben Azzai or more accurately, Shimon ben Azzai, who lived during the second century. He was a younger contemporary of Rabbi Akiva and is variously reported to have been engaged to or married to Akiva’s daughter. According to those who believe the former, Azzai was criticized for not marrying to which he responded that he was too overwhelmed by his love of Torah to seek a wife. According to those who believe the latter, Akiva’s daughter sent her husband away so that he could increase his study. Like mother like daughter. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Azzai believed women should be taught Torah. “A man is required to teach his daughter Torah.” Ben Azzai met a tragic end when his studies in mysticism led to an untimely death. According to some, he was scholar who ensured that Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs would be included in the TaNaCh. He is the one who said, “The reward of virtue is virtue and the wages of sin is sin.” He also believed that the fifth chapter of Bereshit was “of fundamental importance” because it taught that all men were united because they were made in the image of God and that all men had value because they had a soul given to them by God. The statement quoted above serves to reinforce his belief that every thing and every person has value and importance. We have all heard the line about “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse, the kingdom was lost.” And most of us know the story of the humble Jew whose recitation of the alphabet opened the gates of prayer for all the Jews on Yom Kippur. It is easy to be a snob. The trick is to find the value in each person and to value each person just for his or her humanity.
4:11 Rabbi Jonathan said: “Whoever fulfills the Torah despite poverty, will ultimately fulfill it in wealth; but whoever neglects the Torah because of wealth, will ultimately neglect it in poverty.”
Rabbi Jonathan or Yonatan in Hebrew is the epitome of the humble spirit mentioned by Rabbi Meir. We have no reliable biographic information about Yonatan, yet his colleagues thought enough of him to include his teaching in this Mishnah.
4:12 Rabbi Meir said: “Reduce your business activities and engage in Torah study. Be of humble spirit before every person. If you should neglect the study of Torah, you will come upon many excuses to neglect it; but if you labor in the Torah, God has ample reward to give you.” Contrary to the popular stereotype, business is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. This pair of sayings serves as pithy reminders that study of Torah is the business of the Jew. Rabbi Meir was a well-known sage, one of the most famous disciples of Rabbi Avika. His compilations of Rabbi Avika’s teachings was a major step in the creation of the Mishnah and therefore of the Talmud.
4:14 Rabbi Yochanan ha-Sandelar said: “Every assembly that is dedicated to the sake of Heaven will have an enduring effect, but one that is not for the sake of Heaven will not have an enduring effect.” Yochanan ha-Sandelar was a student of Rabbi Akiva. He lived during the Bar Kochba rebellion. According to some, he was trying to encourage the Jewish people after the defeat by the Romans. Since the rebellion was done in the name of God, ultimately the Jewish people would triumph. The real reason for including this particular verse is because of the teacher to whom it is attributed, Yochanan ha-Sandelar, which translates at Yochanan the Sandal Maker. In other words, he was a common shoe maker. The sages were not paid clergy. They were not cloistered in some Ivory Tower. For the most part they worked for a living. This helped make their wisdom both pithy and useful. In addition to which, it should remind us that if men who labored from dawn to dusk at often menial jobs could find time to study maybe we could too.
Copyright, May, 2016; Mitchell A Levin