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Torah Sparks

May 4, 2002 - 5762

Prepared by Rabbi David L. Blumenfeld, PhD
Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations

Annual Cycle: Lev. 25:1-27:34; Hertz, p. 531; Etz Hayim, p. 738
Triennial Cycle I: Lev. 25:1-38; Hertz, p. 531; Etz Hayim, p. 738
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19 -17:14; Hertz, p. 551; Etz Hayim, p. 762

Torah Portion Summary


(25:1-7) The land shall be sanctified through the shemittah, the Sabbatical year of agricultural rest.

(25:8-17) Also, every 50th year is a Jubilee, in which all land and slaves are to be released. The land returns to its original owners, the slaves are freed. Thus, no land is sold forever; it is in effect a lease until the next Jubilee, which must be reckoned in the price.

(25:18-22) Faithful observance of these laws is to be rewarded with ample crops in the sixth year of the seventh cycle, so that there will be enough food for two years.

(25:23-38) Even between Jubilee years, families must help impoverished relatives regain their holdings. An Israelite or resident alien who becomes impoverished should be loaned money at no interest.

(25:39-55) Laws limiting the power of a slave owner.

(26:1-2) Laws against idolatry, and for the observance of Shabbat.


(26:3-13) The blessings of peace and prosperity Israel will receive if they follow the way of Torah and mitzvot.

(26:14-46) The curses and punishments that Israel will suffer if they violate the covenant, including defeat in war, famine and exile. It concludes with words of comfort; if the people of Israel will return to God in repentance, God will forgive them.

(27:1-13) Laws concerning a vow to donate the valuation of a person and of an animal to the Temple. The Torah sets forth specific shekel amounts for different aged males and females. Pledges of animals to the sanctuary.

(27:14-29) Laws concerning the redemption of houses and fields, the redemption of the firstborn, and the devotion of property to the Temple.

(27:30-34) Laws concerning the tithe of fruit, sheep and cattle; the conclusion of the Book of Leviticus.

Discussion Theme: When Earth (and I) "Gets Weary"

"The seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of the Lord; you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land." (Lev. 25:4-5)

Why A Sabbatical for Earth?

  1. The sabbatical year may have been of practical benefit in preventing the exhaustion of the soil, but that was not the intent of the law. It was rather an expression of the Sabbath idea; and, like the weekly Sabbath, has no parallel in the other cultures of the ancient Near East (Bernard Bamberger, The Torah, A Modern Commentary, ed. W. Gunther Plaut, p. 941)
  2. The land is personified. It, too, tires and requires rest. (Baruch Levine, JPS Torah Commentary, Leviticus, p. 170)
  3. The fallow, as described in the Torah (above and elsewhere), has nothing to do with crop rotation and does not seem to have had any agricultural value, such as that of replenishing the soil; no other crop was planted that year nor were the fields worked as this was strictly forbidden during the Sabbatical year... Martin Noth is undoubtedly correct in considering it an example of restitution integrum, when the land was permitted to return to its undisturbed rest. (David Lieber, "Sabbatical Year and Jubilee", Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 14, p. 577)

Why A Sabbatical For Us Humans

  1. Thousands of years of Jewish experience about these matters is embodied in the wisdom of Shabbat and the sabbatical year - a time to work and a time to rest, a time to build and a time to heal - so our work does not destroy us. (Arthur Waskow, Moment, June 1992)
  2. Every commandment in our Torah has a physical as well as a spiritual meaning. Man must not waste his body. He must not indulge in things that are harmful to his body. He must not cramp seventy years' life in one year. He must not become over-civilized, all shut up and covered by thicknesses of polish upon his natural self. At intervals, he must revert to his natural state (as land does in its sabbatical). Work is a blessing; overwork is a curse. Production is a necessity; over-production is a ruination. Voluntary work is a delight; slavery (to one's vocation) is a dungeon of darkness... Even as the soul must have freedom, the body must have rest. Providing the time to be able to learn (i.e. Torah) affords a man with what his soul really craves. (Morris Mandel, Leo Gartenberg, Treasures From the Torah, pp.194-5)

"Sparks" for Discussion:

We recognize that the observance of the Sabbath offers us the opportunity to allow our fatigued bodies and minds to rest. So too, we are commanded to allow our workers and animals to rest. Now here, in our Torah portion, we see that even the land "needs a break" - every seven years.

It is interesting to note an associated practice which developed among Jews in talmudic times when agricultural work lessened during sabbatical years and at certain seasons. Semi-annual gatherings were held during the spring and fall to which the name "Kallah" was given. The Kallah functioned like a popular university, attracting scholars and laymen alike from all over - who came for extended study.

Could that be a possibility in our time, of organizing extended study "retreats" - (my colleague, Dr. Morton K. Siegel insists and rightly so, on calling them instead "advances") for lay people? Certainly, "Elder-Hostel" study programs have taken hold nicely. So too, the week-long IMUN and SULAM Programs of the United Synagogue have been enormously popular. And more recently - we see the marvelous success of our "Yeshiva" for adult study at the Fuchsberg Center in Jerusalem. Such programs are for extended periods of study.

Returning to this week's parashah, we see the possibility of recapturing the grand idea of a "sabbatical" for lay people. In some other religions (for instance, Mormonism) lay-adherents take time off to intensify their faith. How realistic is this for us? How can we accomplish this objective through our synagogues, seminaries, camps, conference centers, etc.?

We conclude the Book of Leviticus on this Shabbat. Let us rise as the last verse of the Torah portion is read today, and join together in chanting; Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazek "Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another."

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