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Behar-Bechukotai - The Ownership of God and Man

  • Rav Reuven Taragin

I) Relationship to Sefer Vayikra

 

As opposed to the preceding parshiot which Moshe received in the ohel mo'ed, the three chapters of Behar and Bechukotai (25-27) were given "behar" - at Sinai (25:1, 26:46, and 27:34). The placement of these Sinaitic chapters in Sefer Vayikra can be attributed to the their connection to themes of the Sefer. Ibn Ezra (25:1) parallels the exile threatened as punishment for neglect of the "shemitta" (sabbatical year) laws (26:34-5) to the same fate linked in chapter 18 to improper marital practices. Additionally, Behar's stress on interpersonal responsibility (25:6,10,14,39,49) mirrors that of Kedoshim's list of "kedusha" commandments. (Chapter 19. See especially the parallel between verses 25:14,17 and verse 19:33.) Thirdly, Bechukotai's discussion of sanctified objects in perek 27 can be seen as parallel to the voluntary offerings whose delineation opens Sefer Vayikra.

 

II) Interrelationship

 

The Ramban (27:1) addresses the interrelationship between the three chapters. Although all three chapters were of Sinaitic origin, verse 26:46 divides the three into two units. The first unit includes the commandments of chapter 25 and the curses of chapter 26. The curses were included in the commandment revelation because they share a cause and effect relationship with the commandments. The neglect of the shemitta laws, which open chapter 25, bring the curses (26:34-5). The second unit, chapter 27, deals with the laws of sanctified objects.

 

The Ramban points out that the commandment sections of each unit ordain "yovel" (jubilee year) as the emancipation point for sold or sanctified objects. I think that a closer examination of the commandments found in Behar and Bechukotai will considerably enhance our appreciation of the Ramban's linkage.

 

III) Behar - Chapter 25

 

A) Two Themes

 

Although Behar opens with the shemitta laws (25:1-8), verse 9 and onward focus on yovel. What's more, four out of the five units that follow the completion of the shemitta/yovel laws include a reference to yovel.

 

1. (25:25-28) The return of sold land.

2. (29-34) The return of sold houses.

3. (39-46) The emancipation of Jewish-owned slaves.

4. ((47-55) Foreign-owned slaves.

 

In all four cases, the yovel reverses the previous sale. The last verse of the parasha, "You shall observe my Shabbatot and fear my mikdash, I am Hashem" (26:2), seems to break the yovel theme of the rest of the parasha. Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni are so influenced by the centrality of the yovel theme that they explain this verse in reference to shemitta and yovel as well, shemitta being "shabbat ha'aretz," and yovel being "kodesh" (25:10,12).

 

Yovel's frequent appearance makes the presence of the chapter's "yovelless" center unit (35-38), which prohibits usury, seem anomalous. I think the presence of the usury prohibition most clearly expresses a second theme present in the chapter - the special consideration Jews are expected to show their brethren. This theme is reflected not only by the usury prohibition, but also by the following unit (fourth overall) that contrasts the laws of Jewish slaves with those of gentile ones.

 

The unit of slavery (39-45) subdivides into two sub-units. Each sub-unit opens and closes with a matched phrase - the first by "he shall not be sold/work as a slave" (39,42) and the second by "you shall not work him 'befarekh' (with rigor/ to break his spirit)." (43,46) The first sub-unit mandates that a Jewish slave be freed at yovel; the second sub-unit contrasts this special dispensation with the management of a gentile slave who may/must be enslaved indefinitely. (See further study questions.)

 

The limitation of the period of a Jew's enslavement, as opposed to that of the average slave, most emphatically reflects the Torah's insistence in the framework of the two sub-units that he basically is not to be treated as a slave. The unique, super-erogatory treatment of a Jewish slave is confirmed by the formulation of the concluding verse - "And your brothers - the sons of Israel - a man over his brother shall not rule with rigor (46)."

 

The unique compassion Jews must show one another already appears within the framework of the initial exposition of the yovel laws. The Torah inserts four verses that deal with fraud (14-17) in an artificially created space between the presentation of the shemitta/yovel laws (1-13) and their justification and summary (18-24). Just as in the slave unit, the mini-unit blends into the context by using adherence to yovel laws as the example of a proper sale.

 

The Torah reinforces the relationship between the third and fourth units and the fraud mini-unit, all three based on Jewish social responsibility, by including the phrase - "And you shall fear your God" in all three of these units (17,36,43) and nowhere else in the chapter.

 

Thus, the four units that follow the shemitta/yovel laws can be divided into two groups which make two independent points. The first two units deal with the sale of property and mandate that the sale not be final. The yovel liberation and the redemption possibility, the central component added by the first two units, express the limitation in one's ownership - "the land may not be sold forever for the land is mine; you are strangers and sojourners with me. And in all inheritance land you shall grant redemption (23-4)." The second group of two units deals with the compassion that must be shown to other Jews - whether freemen or slaves. The second of the two units mentions the yovel emancipation as an indication of the fact that no Jew should be treated as a slave.

 

B) The Relationship Between the Two

 

The two distinct themes - yovel and the special treatment of Jewish brethren - are related both conceptually and textually. Conceptually, both are reflections of the limits God's underlying ownership places on man's. Just as "the land may not be sold forever for the land is mine," (23) so too no Jew can be owned "for they are my servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt." (42) Additionally, recognition of the fact that even one's basic freedom from the bondage of Egypt is a product of to God's compassion should bring one to show unique compassion to fellow Jews in settings besides slavery, such as loans and others business dealings.

 

The Torah intertwines the two themes in the fifth unit (47-55) applying both to a Jew who, out of desperation, enslaves himself to a gentile. Ideally the slave's relatives, even distant, should show compassion and redeem their brother. The redemption clause, heretofore (in the first two units, which dealt with property) an expression of the man's restricted land ownership now reflects the responsibility fellow Jews have to enslaved brethren.

 

If no one redeems the slave, the Torah adds two stipulations. "The gentile may not rule over him with vigor in your sight" (53), for one should find a foreigner's lack of compassion for another Jew as intolerable as his own. Additionally, the slave must be freed at yovel - "for the Jewish people are my servants that I brought out of Egypt; I am Hashem - their God" (55).

 

IV) Chapter 27 (Bechukotai) and Parashat Behar

 

Chapter 27 applies Behar's theme of God's exclusive ownership to "hekdesh" (objects owned by the Temple). The chapter stresses the unacceptability of a Jew being owned by distinguishing between the dedication of property and self-dedication. That the two types of dedication are meant to be contrasted rather than understood as a continuum may be seen by the fact that they are separated by a mesora-break (after 27:8), the ONLY one in the perek. Dedication generally applies to the object actually dedicated. Although the possibility of redemption generally exists, it is merely an option. What's more, it meets with a penalty - an extra fifth is adas a surcharge. Otherwise, the object remains hekdesh and may be purchased by another. A Jew's self dedication, though, has only one resolution - personal redemption; another's acquisition or a permanent state of hekdesh-ownership are not considered possible. Even hekdesh cannot possess another Jew.

 

Likewise, the Torah limits the scope of hekdesh's hold on property. Although an animal fit for sacrifice or a "cherem" fall inextricably under hekdesh's control, land that is dedicated returns to it's original owner through redemption or, in certain circumstances, yovel. Hekdesh fairs no better than the commoner; it's control is likewise undermined by God's underlying ownership.

 

"Bekhor" (first born animal), singled out as an exception (26), fits well within the framework of the chapter. God's execution of yetziat mitzraim grants Him ownership of man, and therefore hekdesh's ability to control man is limited. It also grants him ownership of all firstborns and, thus, preempts man's sanctification.

 

Thus, it is not merely the mutual mention of yovel that characterizes the two chapters, but the joint limitation of ownership of both land (the redemption clause) and man (the dedication being a vow, not a transfer of ownership).

 

 

Further questions:

 

1. "You shall enslave them (non-Jewish slaves) forever" (25,46). R. Akiva (Gittin 38b) interprets this as a prohibition on the emancipation of non-Jewish slaves, although in context it could easily have been interpreted as merely excluding the MANDATORY emancipation at yovel. How does his interpretation strengthen the underlying theme of the contrast between slaves, as explained in the shiur?

 

2. Halakhically, redemption applies to any Jew sold as a slave (Kiddushin 14b). Explicitly, however, the Torah mentions it only in regard to a female slave (Shemot 21:4) and, in our parasha, in regard to a slave sold to a non-Jew (25:48). Why are these two cases stressed? What does this indicate about the context for this halakhic institution?

 

3. Are shemitta and yovel "religious" institutions (about God's ownership of the land) or social institutions (about equality and freedom)? Read carefully the opening of the parasha and compare to Shemot 23, 10-12 (Shemot 23:12 is about Shabbat - but notice the context of Shabbat in that verse!) and Devarim 15:1-2; 12-18.

 

4. Yovel, including even counting the fiftieth year separately, depends on "kol yoshveha aleha" - having the Jewish people as a whole living in Eretz Yisrael. This is the only mitzva hateluya ba-aretz with this stipulation. Why is the mitzva dependent not only on kedushat ha-aretz, but also on the presence of the people in the land?