2003This week's Torah portion is Parshat Behar. It deals with the laws of the sabbatical and jubilee year. Every seventh year is a sabbatical year, during which the land must lay fallow. Every fiftieth year is a Jubilee year. During the Jubilee year, in addition to the restrictions on working the land that apply during sabbatical years, all land reverts back to its original owner and all slaves go free.
The Sabbatical Year: Antidote for the Workaholic
1 The Lord said to Moses on Mount Sinai,
2 "Say to the people of Israel, When you come into the land which I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord.
3 Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruits;
4 but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.
5 What grows of itself in your harvest you shall not reap, and the grapes of your undressed vine you shall not gather; it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land.
6 The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired servant and the sojourner who lives with you;
7 for your cattle also and for the beasts that are in your land all its yield shall be for food.
8 "And you shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall be to you forty-nine years.
9 Then you shall send abroad the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall send abroad the trumpet throughout all your land.
10 And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family.
11 A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be to you; in it you shall neither sow, nor reap what grows of itself, nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines.
12 For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat what it yields out of the field.
13 "In this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his property.
14 And if you sell to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.
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1. When Jews started to establish agricultural communities in Israel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the observance of the Sabbatical year became a critical issue. If the Jews observed these laws, allowing their land to remain fallow for a whole year, it might spell financial ruin to struggling settlements. Some rabbis, such as Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Spector of Kovno and Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, suggested that Jews sell their land to gentiles for the year as a way of circumventing disaster. Since the land would not technically be owned by Jews, it would not be subject to the laws of the Sabbatical year. Can you name other "legal fictions" in Jewish practice? Is this a justifiable practice?
2. Does the idea of all land returning to the original owners, implying economic equality, anticipate socialism or communism? Do you think we could ever do this here in the USA or Canada (Britain, Argentina or wherever you live?) Is this desirable? Why don't they do this in Israel?
3. We count seven sabbatical years and then observe a jubilee on the fiftieth year. This is something like counting the Omer, which we do at this time of year, counting seven times seven days, observing Shavuot on the fiftieth day. Generally we Jews recite "shehechyanu" when we do a mitzvah for the first time. So why don't we say "shehechyanu" when we start to count the omer?
4. Words from this week's portion are found on the liberty bell "Proclaim Liberty throughout the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof." How does the usage on the liberty bell differ from the meaning in its Biblical context? (Be careful, the liberty bell was cast before American Independence ... and does not refer or anticipate separation from Great Britain!)
American society values work. Americans, on the average, work longer hours and take fewer vacations than most Europeans. American Jews have embraced this ethos and, by dint of education, ambition and sweat, have risen to the top of society. We take justifiable pride in their achievement. But Judaism, through institutions such as the Shabbat and Festivals, requirements for daily prayer, study and deeds of righteousness, teaches us to always be mindful that work is a means to an end and never an end in itself. In this week's torah portion, Behar, we learn about the sabbatical year, a time when the land and its owners are to rest. The world tells us "Just don't stand there, do something!" Judaism, on the other hand, seems to be saying "Just don't do something, stand there!" For workaholics, that can be very difficult! But sometimes we need to tune out the foolish noises in our ears in order to get in touch with the silent prayer of our souls. Torah helps us do that.
Prepared by Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen, executive director, American University Hillel.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Behar at MyJewishLearning.com.