A Look at Parashat Behar

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פרשת בהר

ויקרא Leviticus 25:1 to 26:2

During Hebrew Leap Years (7 years out of a 19-year cycle), an extra month of Adar (אדר) is added.  During Hebrew leap years, congregations read Parashot Behar this week, and Parashot Bechukotai the following week. During non-leap years, both parashote are read this week.

Chapter 25 – Sabbatical Year (Verses 1 through 7)  

Every seventh year shall be a sabbatical year (שבת שבתון), defined in Exodus 23:10 and Deuteronomy 25:1 as shmita (שנת השמיטה – year of remission) for the land. It shall not be tilled or sowed. During the sabbatical year, while the land is not actively cultivated, the owner may eat (but not sell) whatever the land passively yields, although this must be shared with his household (inclusive of slaves, indentured servants, laborers, and livestock). We shall see in Deuteronomy Chapter 25 this seven-year release concept being expanded to have economic and social implications.

A rational may be that the sabbatical year may, at least partially, allow the land to rejuvenate, especially in biblical times when crop rotation was not understood, and single-crop farming tended to eventually exhaust the soil.

It should be noted that most historians conjecture that this practice had fallen into disuse sometime during the Second Temple period, especially when continuous working of the land was required to meet unyielding Roman taxation demands. We do not know to what extent the practice was observed during the time of the First Temple. In addition, it does not relate to land holdings outside of the land of Israel. It may be that this represents an idealized (for that time) society that never really existed in practice.

The concept of the sabbatical year can be taken to mean that rather than “ownership” of the land, we are stewards, charged with the land’s periodic renewal. This could serve as a guiding principal as we (and more so our descendants) will be increasingly plunged into the environmental crisis caused in large part by our misuse of the land that we have inherited.

In modern times, many organizations, especially in the higher education field, have adopted the concept of the sabbatical (שבתון), offering select staff a year off every seven or so years to pursue other interests.

Jubilee Year – (Verses 8 through 17)

Every fiftieth year shall be a jubilee year. As this year follows the regular sabbatical year, there would be in effect two consecutive years of leaving the land fallow. This is a virtual “reset” of society. All land goes back to its original owners. This means in effect that land is never sold, in our sense of the term, but is only “rented” for a specified, and limited period. The modern and secular reader may be left scratching his head.

Verse 10 has been interpreted as implying that all slaves or indentured servants are to be relieved of their bondage (commentators have interpreted this as only referring to Hebrew slaves or indentured servants, although the text does not imply this). The Hebrew term דרור (Dror) probably is best translated as “release” and not “liberty” as quoted in the translation of this famous verse as inscribed on the Liberty Bell. It may be related to the Babylonian “Duraru” which was the release of slaves or restoration of property by a royal decree. Duraru was only an occasional edict, not a periodic one as Dror is.

In what ways have the ideas of this section influenced contemporary land reform or social reform movements or theories? In 1901, the Zionist Movement established the Jewish National Fund (קרן קימת לישראל) to acquire land in Palestine to be held in trust for the Jewish people. Holdings were made available to farming communities and cooperatives, for productive use. Farmers can remain on the soil as tenants but cannot sell or mortgage their holdings.

Verses 14 through 17 lay out basic rules for fair and proper business practices, with the focus on land sales; price being adjusted in accordance with how many years remain until the jubilee. These sentences refer to commerce between a seller or buyer and his “fellow” (עמית – colleague in contemporary Hebrew). Some commentators unfortunately interpret this as only referring to business relations with a fellow Jew. Otherwise, anything goes! There is no evidence from the text that this is the intent.

Promise of bumper crop – (Verses 18 through 24)

How can such a system not produce mass starvation? “Ah ha!” the orthodox reader may declare, at least according to the (Orthodox) ArtScroll Stone Edition commentaries (Page 697): ”This commandment proves (italics are mine) that only Gd is the Author of the Torah, because this chapter guarantees (again, italics are mine) that the year before shemitah will produce a crop large enough to last for three years, until the next available crop is harvested.” Whatever. The ArtScroll commentary goes on: “If a human being were (sic) inventing such a commandment, he would have to be foolhardy indeed to make such a prediction; only Gd could make such a statement.” The book does make a point, sort of. If the previous year did not yield a bumper crop, what would happen during the following two years? An alternative, perhaps secular interpretation may be that this was written in Babylon during the exile, where this injunction would not have applied. In present-day Israel, farming settlements have a “workaround”; the land is “sold” for a period of one year to a non-Jew. Many ultra-orthodox Jews do not accept this trick and during the year of shemitah will only eat imported fruits or vegetables.

Practice of Jubilee Year (Verses 25 to 34)

Here we have the obligation of an Israelite to assist his brother (perhaps here the intent is fellow Israelite) in time of trouble, at least financial trouble, to recoup his holdings. Worst case, he or his descendants will reclaim the holding during the jubilee year. A house sold within a walled city may be redeemed within a year, afterward the sale is final and permanent. The jubilee year does not apply to property within a walled city. Why is that? Could the reason be that a walled city was considered an urban environment, and the intention was to preserve agricultural holdings? Within cities of the Levites, Levites will have an unlimited right of redemption and property will revert to the original owners during the Jubilee year. Note that the unenclosed land around the Levite cities cannot be sold. Any ideas as to why this is?

See verses 23 and 24: An environmental interpretation is that all property and even Israelites within the land of Israel belong to Gd (כי לי הארץ). We are only privileged to hold or be custodians of “our” property and even our personages in trust for a limited time.

The rabbis of the Talmud determined that this law was only in effect when all twelve tribes were settled in their respective territorial allotments. According to this interpretation, the law was abrogated when the tribes of Reuben and Gad were forced into exile. There is no evidence that the practice of the Jubilee year was observed during the period of the Second Temple, and of course it is not practiced in modern day Israel.

Obligations towards your kin, dealing with slaves (verses 35 to 55)

Instructions for caring for a brother (or is the intent fellow Israelite?) that comes into your household due to financial straits. Note (verse 37) apparent prohibition against charging interest (or is the intention only against usury?). Further, in Deuteronomy (23:21) is a blanket prohibition against charging interest to a fellow Israelite (it is okay to charge others). A brother in dire straits may be taken in as an indentured servant (to be freed during the jubilee year – if he lives so long) but cannot be considered a slave or treated as one.

Very troubling to contemporary readers are verses 44 to 46 that permit the trading in and possession of non-Israelite slaves from the surrounding nations. In the pre-Civil War US, these lines were used by southern plantation owners to rationalize the institution of slavery. The Torah does not condone, nor try to rationalize slavery, but recognizes it as the prevalent institution that it was at the time. It does try, here and in both Exodus and Deuteronomy, to ameliorate the burden of slavery in general, and in particular for Israelite slaves. This contrasts sharply with the laws in other societies of the time that consider slaves as mere chattel, the owner having the complete power of life or death. In its way, the Torah is quite revolutionary and enlightened for the period (late bronze age). In fact, the Talmud warns that he who purchases a Hebrew slave purchases himself a master.

 An Israelite that is in such straits that he has sold himself to a resident alien (גר) shall still have the right of redemption, or at the last resort being freed during the jubilee year (if he lives so long). A resident alien cannot hold an Israelite as a slave or treat him as such, at most he is an indentured servant.

Chapter 26 – Prohibition of idol worship, observing  sabbath (Verses 1 and 2)

This new section begins with laws prohibiting the fashioning of idols or the worshiping of them and ends with a reminder to observe the Sabbath and revere Gd’s sanctuary (מקדש).

1 Comment

  1. Correction: In my posting, I theorized that one reason for the shmita (year of remission) was the need to rejuvenate the soil in place of “modern” practices such as crop rotation. It has been pointed out to me that there is evidence that crop rotation, was actually introduced and to some extent practiced in the Middle East since sometime about 4000 BCE (that is over two millennium before the period of the exodus).

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