By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
Shabbat Parshat Behar
12 Iyar 5765 - May 20, 2005
And Hashem spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai,
saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you will come to
the land which I am giving you, the land shall rest, a Shabbat to Hashem (Vayikra
Thus begins a detailed discussion of the laws of Shemittah, the seventh year
(Sabbatical Year), when the land of Israel lies fallow. The emphasis on Mount
Sinai in this introduction gives rise to Rashi’s famous question – “Why is the
issue of Shemittah placed next to Mount Sinai? Weren’t all the mitzvot given at
Sinai?” – as well as his equally famous answer: “Just as Shemittah was taught,
with all its details, at Sinai, so were all the mitzvot taught, with all their
details, at Sinai.”
But in the view of many commentaries, the question “Why mention Sinai?” is
relevant not only to Shemittah. The passage from here until the end of the Book
of Vayikra is divided into subsections only “in order to give Moshe pause to
contemplate between topics” (Sifra 2); but Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Ramban and others
consider it as one unit, one communication from Hashem. Before the Admonitions (Tochecha),
which we read next week, the subjects of BEHAR (chapter 25) are:
(verses 1-7) -Shemittah
(verses 8-24) -Yovel, the fiftieth Jubilee Year
(verses 25-34) -Redemption of property due to financial hardship
(verses 35-38) -Prohibition against charging interest when helping others
(verses 39-55) -Treatment of one who sold himself into slavery to a Jew or to a
non-Jew due to extreme financial hardship.
So perhaps the question should be, “Why should all these mitzvot be explicitly
connected to Mount Sinai?”
It seems that, taken as a unit, the mitzvot of BEHAR are meant to epitomize the
lengths to which we must be committed to the Revelation, an important lesson to
absorb before the Tochecha.
Clearly, all these mitzvot deal with issues of possession: of land, of money and
of slaves. However, in every case the Torah limits our degree of ownership,
thereby indicating that Hashem is the true Owner.
Shemittah, Yovel and redemption all demonstrate that we do not have absolute
control, even over land:
And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine; for
foreigners and residents are you with Me (verse 23).
Nor do we have the right to use our money
usuriously, rather we must remember that the money is G-d’s.
The same is true of Hebrew slaves:
And if your brother becomes impoverished with you and is sold to you, you shall
not impose on him (BO) the work of a slave. Like an employee, like a resident
shall he be with you; only until the Jubilee Year shall he serve you. Then he
and his children shall leave you and he shall return to his family; he shall
return to his fathers’ holdings. Because My servants are they, whom I brought
out from the land of Egypt. They shall not be sold like a slave is sold. You
shall not dominate him with rigor, but you shall fear your G-d (verses 39-43).
A fellow-Jew might be sold into slavery only
under two circumstances: (a) a thief who is unable to repay the principal is
sold by the court (Shemot 21:2-6) (b)one who is reduced to extreme poverty sells
himself. As Sforno (R. Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, c. 1470-c.1550) points out,
even though he has sold himself, your rights towards him are limited. He has not
surrendered himself utterly.
From this passage we learn how to treat a Hebrew slave: He is not bought and
sold publicly on the block, but only privately and with respect. He may not be
given work which has no purpose other than to demonstrate your mastery, nor may
you require him to do demeaning work, or work in an unfamiliar profession (see
Rambam, “Laws of Slaves” 1:5-7).
Treating a slave with Rigor would break him both physically and psychologically,
leading him to believe that he will never be free again. Yet, as Haamek Davar
(R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893) explains, you have a responsibility
to your slave who is a fellow-Jew: to keep the hope of freedom alive in him, so
do not dominate him with rigor.
What about a fellow-Jew who is not a slave? Logic might have dictated: if you
may not overwork a slave, then certainly you may not do so to a free person.
However, this is not the case:
You shall not impose on him (BO) the work of a slave; however, you may impose
“the work of a slave” on a freeman (Sifra Behar 7).
How ironic! Rambam, (op. cit., 1:7) explains
why this is the law:
The above restrictions apply only to a Hebrew slave, because his soul is brought
low by the sale; but an Israelite who is not sold may be employed like a slave,
because he does this work only by his will and of his own accord.
A free Israelite still retains the right to
quit his job.
What all these mitzvot have in common is custody. For many other peoples,
freedom equals the untrammeled right of possession. Instead, the Torah insists:
what you think is yours – what you believe most thoroughly demonstrates your
capacity for ownership – is not yours absolutely. Neither your land, nor your
money, nor your slaves are yours, but all belongs to Hashem. Thus the passage
Because to Me are the Children of Israel servants; they are My servants, whom I
brought out from the land of Egypt. I am Hashem your G-d (verse 55).
Israel attained freedom from servitude during the Exodus. The mitzvot at the end
of Vayikra require Israel to acknowledge Hashem’s ultimate dominion over
everything, including themselves. Thus, the freedom of the Exodus leads to the
submission to Hashem delineated when Hashem spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai.
This is the pinnacle of kedusha (sanctity)in this book of kedusha. Sanctity
means knowing one’s utter surrender to Hashem. It is a yoke that does not pull
us downward, but rather elevates us.
The ideas of eretz (the Land) and achuza (possession;
inherited property) in this week's Parasha remind us of the sanctity of
Eretz Israel. Included among Behar's mitzvot ha-teluyot ba’Aretz
(commandments dependent on the Land), are several regarding shemittah and
yovel. Our keeping these mitzvot will result in God's blessing us "in the
sixth year, and [the land] will yield produce for the three years" (see
Other conditions and blessings that seem very apropos to
our present situation are (25:18-19): "You shall carry out My statutes and
keep My laws and practice them, and you will [then] live securely in the
land. The land will produce its fruit, and you will live there securely."
The Ketav Sofer explains the repetition of "lavetach" – securely: The
Torah refers here to two types of anxiety: 1) unrest, and 2) insecurity.
The first is due to a scarcity of food, when "the land does not yield its
crop." This may lead to problems, such as stinginess, strife and theft.
The second is due to a threat from neighboring countries, caused by
enemies who covet our blessed land and want to possess it. We may have
plenty of rain, a rich harvest, a booming economy – but still feel
insecure. Keeping God's laws and statutes will bring us security in both
Shemittah is mentioned at Har Sinai, says the Ketav
Sofer, to remind us of the importance of Israel's unity, as it is written:
"Israel [in the singular] camped there facing the mountain (Shmot 19:2)."
What better way is there to show love for our fellow than to renunciate
private ownership of our produce during Shemittah!
May our love for each other, our dedication to Eretz
Israel, and our faith and trust in God – by observing Shabbat, shemittah,
and the other "laws and statutes" – result in our houses in the Land
remaining in our possession (25:30) litzmitut, permanently, and may we and
our children live in them securely.
Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Iskowitz
*D’var Torah from Aloh Na'aleh:
an initiative of former North
American Rabbis and laymen who successfully made Aliyah, aimed at
highlighting the centrality of Israel and promoting Aliyah. They send
emissaries – Rabbis, academicians, and others – on speaking-tours
throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Roness ,
Exec. Dir., Aloh Naaleh,
At the OU Center, 22 Keren HaYesod
Tel.(02) 566-7787 ex. 254