Our portion this week deals with the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years as they pertain both to the land and the people. The Sabbatical occurs every seven years, with the Jubilee taking place after every seventh seven, or once in fifty years. During both the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, the Children of Israel may not work the land, but God promises they will never go hungry if they follow His statutes. Land that has been sold reverts to its previous owner, and Hebrew slaves are freed. Finally, God reminds the people that they must not serve idols. Rather, He says, they should keep his Sabbaths and revere His sanctuary.
The portion of Behar is sometimes read in conjunction with next week’s portion, Bechukotai.
Sabbatical and Jubilee
Our portion delves into the details of some of the laws which have already been mentioned. Its opening line, “And the LORD spoke unto Moses in Mount Sinai, saying” (25:1), is cited by the Sages to demonstrate that not only the broad strokes of the Ten Commandments, but all the laws of the Torah, were given by God at Mount Sinai.
We are given a more complete picture of the expectations of the Sabbatical, or shmita, year. Every seventh year, we are commanded to let the land rest completely. Traditional farming activities, from planting and plowing to weeding and finally harvesting, are forbidden. More than an agricultural law, this is a social requirement, for all the land that year is treated as if it were ownerless, and the natural growth may be eaten by anyone (including, but not restricted to, the landowner and his family).
Once every seven cycles, a Jubilee year is declared with a shofar blast on the Day of Atonement. That year, which follows a Sabbatical year, the land must also be left to rest. In addition, as the rest of the portion explains, the Jubilee serves as a “reset” for the nation, with slaves being freed and land reverting to its original owners.
Of the Jubilee, the Torah says, “…proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof…” (25:10). This verse appears on the Liberty Bell in Pennsylvania. As the Israel Bible points out, this made it a symbol of freedom in the eyes of the abolitionists in the 1830s, and it is an icon of American independence and liberty to this day.
Points to Ponder
The Torah requires the years leading up to the Jubilee be counted. Why do you think that is? Is it a practical act, or could there be a moral imperative behind it? Where else does the Torah command that ‘seven sevens’ be counted?
Land Leases and Redemptions
The Torah next addresses the issue of land sales in Israel. According to the text, the nature of the sale is more akin to a lease, as the land must revert to its original owner in the Jubilee year, as it is a heritage from God. The price of the land must be set according to the number of years it can be farmed between the date of sale and the date of the Jubilee.
Here we are given an interesting promise: if we keep God’s commands regarding the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, He will bless us in the sixth year so there is enough produce to last for three years until the crop planted in the eighth year is reaped in the ninth. This verse, the Israel Bible points out, is often cited to support the divinity of the Torah, for who other than God could make such a promise? It would take only six years to disprove such a claim were it not made by God Himself.
If someone is forced to sell his land due to financial strain, and then recovers and earns enough money to redeem his land, the Torah requires the buyer to sell the land back to its original owner before the Jubilee year, at a rate equal to the number of years remaining.
The Torah then tells us the sale of houses is not always the same as the sale of land. If a house is sold in a walled city, the owner has only one year to redeem it before ownership settles eternally on the buyer. However, if the home is located in an unwalled city, its law is like that of a field, which can be redeemed for money up to the Jubilee and reverts automatically at that time. The only exception is the house of a Levite, which may be redeemed at any time and reverts automatically at Jubilee.
Points to Ponder
The order of subtopics in this passage, and indeed, in the entire portion, seems haphazard, causing many commentators to remark on it. Why do you think the topics are arranged this way? What can the order of topics teach us?
Hebrew Slaves, Revisited
The Torah now deals again with the laws of the Hebrew slave. We are told the reason one might be reduced to slavery is financial ruin. The Torah commands the Children of Israel not to charge interest to one another, to enable those less fortunate to make it in the world. If this is not enough, however, the impoverished may sell themselves into slavery.
A Hebrew slave may not be treated as such; rather, he is to be treated like a laborer and made to work under comfortable conditions. At the end of the Jubilee cycle, he is to be set free whether he wants to leave or not (remember, the portion of Mishpatim already provided slaves who were happy in their masters’ homes with the option of extending their terms of service past the Sabbatical year). If he has married or had children in this time, they go free with him. Non-Israelite slaves, however, may be kept in perpetuity.
If an Israelite is sold into the hands of resident aliens, his fellow Israelites must do everything in their power to redeem him. His redemption price must be set like that of land, according to the number of useful years before the slave must be freed in any case for the Jubilee.
The portion ends with a reminder not to serve idols, to keep the Sabbath and to revere the sanctuary of God.
Points to Ponder
What might be the relationship between the Sabbatical and Jubilee on one hand and keeping the Sabbath, revering the sanctuary and not serving idols on the other? Why might these concepts have been juxtaposed?