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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT BEHAR
May 17, 2008 – 12 Iyar 5768

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 Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

God tells Moses to instruct the people about the shemittah, the sabbatical year. Once they had settled in their land, the Israelites were to plant, harvest, and store the produce of their fields for six years. During the seventh year of the cycle, the shemittah, they were not to plant or harvest or to store produce that grew on its own. However, everyone was free to take and eat whatever did grow on its own.

After seven of these seven-year cycles, the 50th year was designated the yoveil. Not only was farming prohibited, but all Israelite slaves were to be freed and any land sold during the previous 49 years was to revert to its original owners – that is, land was never actually sold, but only leased until the next yoveil.

When a person had to sell all or part of his land due to financial need, his relatives were to redeem what he had sold. Houses in walled cities could be redeemed for a year from the date of sale and then passed permanently to the buyer. Houses outside these walled cities and houses in the cities of the Levites could not be sold permanently – they remained subject to redemption and reverted to the original owners at the yoveil.

If a person became poor, he was to be loaned money at no interest. If this was not sufficient to allow him to recover financially, he could become an indentured servant who would be set free at the yoveil. Non-Israelite slaves were to be considered permanent possessions.

The parashah concludes with the repetition of the commandments not to make or worship idols and to keep Shabbat.

1. Wronging With Money

When you sell property to your neighbor or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. (Vayikra 25:14)

  1. This refers to wronging in matters of money. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. One may not mix produce with produce, even new with new. And one need not say: new into old. In truth, for wine they permitted mixing hard (strong) with soft (weak) because this improves it. The sediment of one wine may not be mixed with another wine, but one may give another the sediment [from that vintage]. If water becomes mixed in one’s wine, one may not sell it in a store unless one gives notice (that this has occurred); nor may one sell it to a merchant – even though one gives notice – as this is a set-up for deception. In a place where it is customary to put water in wine, it may be put in the wine. (Mishnah Baba Metzia 4:11)
  3. One may not paint [and thus improve the appearance of] a person, an animal, or a utensil. For example, one does not dye the hair of an old slave who is for sale in order to make him look younger; add bran to an animal’s drink in order to raise its hair and thus make it look fatter; . . . or paint old utensils in order to make them look new. One may not inflate [an animal’s] intestines in order to make it look fatter and broader. One may not soak meat in water in order to make it look pale and fat. (Shulhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 228:9)
  4. Rabbi Yehuda says: a shopkeeper may not distribute parched corn or nuts to children, because he accustoms them to come to him; but the sages permit this. The merchant shall not sell at less than the market price; but the sages say: May the merchant be remembered for good! (Mishnah Baba Metzia 4:12)
  5. It is very easy for a person to fall prey to sin in regard to deceiving a customer. A person might consider it proper to attempt to make his merchandise attractive and to use sales talk on his customers to make them more receptive. But if a person is not careful, he will violate the prohibition against wronging others. . . . If you ask: “How is it possible not to try to influence a prospective customer to buy my merchandise?” You should know that there is a big distinction in the methods you might use. When you try to show a customer the true value and beauty of an article, it is good and proper. But whatever is done to conceal the defects of an item is deceitful and forbidden. This is a basic principle in business integrity. (Mesilat Yesharim [Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto, 1707-1746, Italy])

Sparks for Discussion

As Rashi points out, the rabbis expand this verse, which applies to the transfer of property between Jews, to all business dealings (including those between Jews and non-Jews). A grocer arranges boxes of strawberries with the plump, ripe berries on top and misshapen, unripe ones underneath. Is this wrong? A used car dealer has the cars on his lot detailed (completely cleaned inside and out) and puts new, inexpensive tires on them, but he doesn’t turn back the odometer. Is this wrong? A fast food chain offers a toy based on a current move with its kids’ meals and advertises the promotion on cartoon shows. Is this wrong? What common business practices can you think of that fit the Torah’s definition of wronging? Is it possible to operate a business today without violating these laws?

2. Wronging With Words

Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I the Lord am your God. (Vayikra 25:17)

  1. Here it warns against wronging by words, i.e. that you should not provoke your fellow or give him advice that is not appropriate for him... And if you should ask, “Who knows if I intended evil?” Therefore it is said, but fear your God; He who knows the thoughts [of human beings], He knows... (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. For example: If a person is a penitent, you should not say to him, “Remember the way you used to act.” If he is the son of proselytes, he should not be taunted with “Remember the way your fathers acted.” If he is a proselyte and comes to study Torah, you should not say to him, “Shall the mouth that ate unclean and forbidden food, abominable and creeping things, come to study the Torah, which was uttered by the mouth of the Almighty?” If a person is visited by suffering, afflicted with disease, or has just now had to bury his children, you should not speak to him as Job’s companions spoke: “Is not your piety your confidence, your integrity your hope? Think now, what innocent man ever perished? When have the upright been destroyed?” (Job 4:6-7) If ass drivers ask to buy grain from him, he should not say to them, “Go to So-and-so, who sells grain,” knowing full well that So-and-so has never done any such thing. Rabbi Judah said: He should also not feign interest in a purchase when he has no money, since this is a matter turned over to the heart, and of everything turned over to the heart, it is written, but fear your God.

    Rabbi Yohanan said on the authority of Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai: Wronging through speech is more heinous than wronging in money matters. For of the first, it is written, but fear your God, whereas of the second, but fear your God is not written. Rabbi Eleazar said: The first affects a victim’s very person; the second only his money. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said: For the second restoration is possible; but not for the first. (Talmud Baba Metzia 58b)
  3. Any words that will distress someone or hurt his feelings are forbidden. Whatever you would not want someone to say to you, do not say to someone else. This rule should be remembered constantly; careless words cause much pain and suffering. (Pele Yoetz [Rabbi Eliezer Papo, 1785-1826, Bulgaria])

Sparks for Discussion

Rabbi Yohanan says that wronging with words is worse than wronging with money. Do you agree? How far should a person go to avoid hurting another’s feelings?

The rabbis prohibit a person who has no intention of buying from asking a merchant the price of his goods. Why do you think they did this? It is not uncommon today for a person planning to make a major purchase to visit local retailers to test drive cars or compare different big-screen TVs or even to try on many pairs of expensive shoes. Once the person knows exactly what he wants, he searches the internet to find the lowest price. Is this “wronging with words?” Do you think it is wrong?


 
 
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