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Torah Sparks

May 21, 2005 - 12 Iyar 5765

Annual: Leviticus 25:1 - 26:2 (Etz Hayim, p. 738; Hertz p. 531)
Triennial: Leviticus 25:1 - 25:38 (Etz Hayim, p. 738; Hertz p. 531)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 32:6 - 27 (Etz Hayim, p. 759; Hertz p. 539)

Prepared by Rabbi Elyse Winick
Assistant Director, USCJ KOACH/College Outreach

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director


The degree to which we began as an agricultural society is reflected in the opening focus of Parashat Behar. Here we are enjoined to observe a sabbatical year, offering a time of rest to our fields. This is specific to the land of Israel. In that year, nothing is to be planted, trimmed or harvested. The completion of a cycle of seven sabbatical phases marks a jubilee. The sounding of the shofar in the Jubilee Year represents a call to freedom, restoring all property to its original owner and requiring the manumission of slaves. The same agricultural rules apply as in the simple sabbatical; the pricing of the land in the years preceding the jubilee must take into account the length of time a purchaser can benefit from its yield. God promises that the yield in the sixth year will suffice for three years, compensating for lost harvest in the seventh year, as well as the failure to plant.

The ownership of land is both temporary stewardship, since the only true Owner is God, and it is also an inheritance. Even if one should sell off land in time of need, in the jubilee it returns to familial ownership. The only exception to this rule is a house within a walled city. It may be redeemed during the first year following its sale, but ownership is permanently transferred after that time. The social ills of poverty find several forms of remediation. Each Israelite bears responsibility for the other and must relieve the other's burden. Loans are to be granted without interest. Should the individual need to hire himself out to repay the debt, he must be set free in the jubilee year. Should he hire himself out to a non-Israelite, we have an obligation to redeem him.

This discussion concludes with a restatement of the prohibition against idolatry and a rejoinder to observe The Sabbath.

Discussion Theme 1: "Universal Freedom"

"… in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard." (Leviticus 25:4)

Derash: Study

  • "'The might in strength that fulfill His word' (Psalm 103:20). To whom does Scripture refer? R. Isaac said: To those who are willing to observe the Year of Release (sabbatical). In the way of the world, a man may be willing to observe a commandment for a day, a week, a month, but is he likely to continue to do so through the remaining days of the year? But [throughout that year] this [mighty] man sees his field declared ownerless, his trees declared ownerless, his fences broken down and his produce consumed by others, yet he continues to give up his produce without saying a word. Can you conceive a person mightier than such as he?" (Leviticus Rabbah 1:1)
  • "Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts. This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of the Lord." (Deuteronomy 15:1-3)
  • "A classic illustration of how the Jewish community changed traditional Jewish law in order to accommodate its current needs is a ruling by the first-century C.E. sage Hillel, as recorded in Mishnah Shvi'it 10:3… To alleviate the plight of the poor, Hillel legislated that a debt could be transferred to the court, where it would be sheltered during the sabbatical year, and at the end of the year it would revert to the creditor and could be reclaimed. The declaration whereby the debt was transferred to the court was called prozbul (from the Greek for "before the assembly"). In effect, Hillel used a legal fiction to circumvent a biblical law that, because of changing economic conditions, had come to subvert the broader social vision of the Torah." (Neil Gillman, Conservative Judaism: The New Century)
  • "The anonymous fourteenth-century author of Sefer Hahinukh(a compilation of the Torah's 613 commandments), in contrast, emphasized the personal import of the sabbatical year. The Torah's deeper intent is to disabuse us of the fallacious idea that the universe has existed for eternity. The belief in creation is the key to finding God, while the sabbatical year helps us realize the vital role God plays in all we do, from growing crops to baking bread. By renouncing some portion of our worldly goods, we assist others without any expectation of reward, even as we intensify our trust in God (commandment 84)." (Ismar Schorsch , JTSA D'var Torah Behar 5760)
  • "The quality of life can only be improved through the affording of a breathing space from the bustle of everyday affairs. The individual recovers from the influence of the mundane at frequent intervals, every Sabbath day… What The Sabbath achieves regarding the individual, the sabbatical achieves with regard to the nation as a whole. The nation has a special need of expressing from time to time the revelation of its own divine light at its fullest brightness, not suppressed by the cares and toil of everyday life… The temporary periodical suspension of the normal social routine raises the nation spiritually and morally and crowns it with perfection." (Rav Kook, The Sabbath of the Land)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. More and more we see the extent to which our ancestors were dependent upon an agricultural system - we were a people of the land as much as we were a people of the book. What do these rules suggest about ancient understanding of sustainable farming? How do they compare to contemporary guidelines for land use and protection? To what might we attribute both similarities and differences?
  2. That the "rest" of the seventh year also applied to financial transactions suggests an overarching theme to this sabbatical experience. What do agricultural and economic practices have in common in this context? What is the ultimate impact of this social interruption? Social evolution often dictates a shift in observance, and the institution of the prozbul seeks to maintain the integrity behind the practice even as it modified the practice itself. In what other ways has change been manifest in the Jewish legal system over time? Do these examples support the intent, as Gillman suggests, of preventing the subversion of the "broader social vision of the Torah?"
  3. In our discussion of Parashat Emor, we considered the impact and the benefits of Shabbat observance. Beyond the concept of seven, or perhaps beneath it, what do the observance of The Sabbath and the sabbatical have in common in social and spiritual terms?

Discussion Theme 2: "We Bend the Knee and Bow"

"You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I the Lord am your God." (Leviticus 26:1)

Derash: Study

  • "Do not make for yourself idols: this is said for one who is sold to a non-Jew, that he should not say, "Since my master engages in sexual transgression, so I will be like him. Since my master worships idols, so I will be like him. Since my master desecrates The Sabbath, so I will be like him…" (Rashi, Leviticus 26:1)
  • "Exile comes into the world because of idolatry, incest and murder." (Pirkei Avot 5:9)
  • "Roman pagan to a rabbi: 'Your God abominates idolatry; why then does he not destroy the idols?' 'Would you have God destroy the sun and moon because of the foolish people who worship them?'" (Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 54b)
  • "Their land also is full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made." (Isaiah 2:8)
  • "For where shall the likeness of God be found? There is no quality that space has in common with the essence of God. There is not enough freedom on the top of the mountain; there is not enough glory in the silence of the sea. Yet the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise." (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. The first of the Ten Commandments enjoins us to refrain from making graven images or worshipping any other god. What appears to be the purpose of this restatement?

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