Parashas BeHar


Rabbi Bernard Fox


“And you shall proclaim with a shofar in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month.  On Yom HaKippurim you shall proclaim with a shofar in all your land.”  (VaYikra 25:9)


Parshat Behar discusses the laws of Shemitah – the Sabbatical Year – and Yovel – the Jubilee Year.  The Sabbatical Year occurs in the land of Israel every seven years.  During the Shemitah year, the land may not be worked.  The produce that grows spontaneously is shared by all the inhabitants of the land.  Every fiftieth year is a Yovel year.  In other words, the Yovel marks the culmination of seven Sabbatical years.  The Yovel shares many of the laws of the Sabbatical year.  Accordingly, during the Jubilee the land may not be farmed.


Our pasuk explains that the Yovel must be declared by the sounding of the shofar.  This is done on Yom Kippur of the Yovel year.  Maimonides explains that the sounding of the shofar for Yovel is done in the same manner as the sounding for Rosh HaShannah.  The same notes are required on both occasions and the sounds are accompanied with the same blessings.[1]


Why is the shofar sounded to declare the Yovel?  Maimonides explains that the sounding of the shofar declares that all Jewish slaves are to be set free.   He distinguishes between this mitzvah and the blowing of shofar on Rosh HaShannah.  On Rosh HaShannah the shofar is sounded as an act of prayer. The shofar of Yovel is a declaration of freedom.[2]


Other commentaries object to Maimonides' explanation of the shofar of Yovel.  First, if the Yovel shofar is merely a declaration of freedom, why are the Rosh HaShannah notes sounded?  Second, on Rosh HaShannah the shofar blasts are accompanied by specific blessings of the Amidah.  These blessings clearly incorporate an element of prayer into the mitzvah of shofar.  According, to Maimonides, these blessings should not be required for the shofar of Yovel.  Yet, Maimonides acknowledges that these blessings accompany the shofar blasts even on Yovel!


Gershonides suggests that the shofar of Yovel is not merely a declaration of freedom.  He notes that the sounding of the shofar is typically associated with repentance.  Maimonides explains that the shofar of Rosh HaShannah is intended to alert us to perform teshuvah[3]  The shofar is also sounded on the occasion of a tragedy or affliction confronting the community.  On these occasions the shofar is accompanied with trumpets.  Maimonides indicates that these blasts are designed to urge the community to consider its behavior and repent.[4]  Gershonides assumes that Yovel shofar is also associated with repentance.


This raises an obvious question.  We can certainly appreciate the relationship between Yom Kippur and repentance.  However, the Torah does not require that we sound the shofar on every Yom Kippur.  We only sound the shofar on the Yom Kippur of Yovel.  Why does this Yom Kippur require the special emphasis on teshuvah communicated through the shofar?


Gershonides answers this question through abstracting two basic elements of symbolism from Yovel and Shemitah.  First, these occasions represent a period of rest following a period of labor.  Second, this rest period is associated with repentance through the sounding of the shofar on Yom Kippur of the Yovel. 


Gershonides explains that this period of rest symbolizes the maturity and wisdom associated with the last portion of our lives.  In other words, each human being after "laboring" through the first sixth sevenths of life reaches personal Sabbath or Jubilee.  What is the significance of this personal sabbatical?  Gershonides explains that in youth we labor to overcome our fantasies and material desires.  If we live a Torah life, then with age and maturity we become less dominated by our material drives.  We attain the potential to be more objective and spiritual.  The fantasies and intense desires associated with youth have subsided and turbulence is replaced by calmness.  We then have the opportunity to achieve a level of spiritual perfection that was all but unattainable in youth.  This opportunity demands that we intensify our ongoing efforts to repent and return to Hashem.


We can now understand the sounding of the shofar on Yom Kippur of Yovel. These blasts, like those of Rosh HaShannah and times of trouble, are designed to urge us to perform teshuvah.  The Yom Kippur of Yovel symbolizes a special time in life.  The sounding of the shofar reminds us to take full advantage of our personal sabbatical when it arrives.[5]



“And the land will give forth its fruit and you will eat and be satiated.  And you will dwell securely upon it (the land).”  (VaYikra 25:19)

In addition to the Shemitah year, the nation must also observe the Yovel.  The Yovel is the Jubilee year.  It is observed every fifty years or after seven Shemitah years.  During the Jubilee year, the land may not be cultivated.  This means that after every forty-eight years the land is left fallow for two consecutive years.  The forty-ninth year is the Sabbatical year.  The fiftieth is the Jubilee.


We would expect that this practice to lead to famine and widespread hunger.  The Torah directly discusses the problem presented by these two consecutive years.  What will the nation eat during these years?  The Torah responds that the Almighty will direct His blessing to the land during the forty-eighth year.  This blessing will result in an abundant harvest.  The produce of the forty-eighth year will suffice for the following three years.[6]


Our pasuk also assures Bnai Yisrael that the observance of the mitzvot of Shemitah and Yovel will lead to wealth and security.  What is the purpose of this assurance?  Apparently, it is not intended to relieve any anxiety caused by the prohibitions against working the land.  This issue is dealt with separately, as indicated above.  Instead, our passage seems to represent a more general pledge.  Hashem will reward the nation for observing the commandments of Shemitah and Yovel.  Our passage explains that the recompense is security upon the land and abundant harvests.


We can assume that this reward somehow corresponds with the mitzvah.  To an extent, the connection is apparent.  Through respecting the laws governing the use of the land, we secure possession of the land.  Through observing the laws regulating the working of the land, we assure that the land will produce an abundant harvest.  However, there is another connection between the observance of Shemitah and Yovel and prosperity and security.  This connection is discussed by Rashi.  In order to understand his comments, an introduction in needed.       


The laws of Shemitah and Yovel communicate many important messages.  Both Shemitah and Yovel are related to cycles of seven.  The Shemitah is the seventh year.  The Yovel occurs after seven Shemitah years.  These cycles of seven recall the creation.  Creation occurred in seven days.  Like Shabbat, Yovel and Shemitah remind us that Hashem is the Creator.  He is the master of all He created.  Therefore, He has the right to command us to desist for cultivating the land.  Our suspension of cultivation demonstrates recognition of the Almighty’s authority.[7]


Shemitah and Yovel teach another important lesson.  Rashi explains this lesson in his commentary on the Navi Yermiyah.  The Navi states, “Hashem says, ‘Cursed is the person that relies on man and depends on flesh.  And his heart leaves Hashem.’”[8]  Rashi discusses the cursed person described in the passage.  He explains that this person is one who cultivates the land during the Sabbatical year.  This person believes that these activities as needed for sustenance.  This person departs from Hashem.  The Almighty has commanded us not to work the land during the Shemitah.  Instead, He will sustain us.  He will direct His blessing upon the land during the sixth year.  The person who cultivates the land has chosen to rely on human endeavors rather than the Almighty’s blessing.[9] 


According to Rashi, Shemitah and Yovel communicate an important lesson regarding prosperity.  We assume that success and prosperity are a result of our own personal efforts and endeavors.  The corollary is that without these personal activities, success is virtually impossible.  Our underlying premise is that the universe is guided by unalterable physical laws.  We must work within these laws in order to achieve success.  It follows that any activity that contradicts these natural laws is doomed to failure.  If we adopt a practice of disregarding natural law, we will encounter failure and defeat.


From this perspective, it makes no sense to observe Shemitah and Yovel.  How can prosperity be achieved through not working and cultivating the land?  Abandoning the land should result in disaster!  The Navi Yermiyah tells us that this reasoning is flawed.  The universe is governed by a higher law.  The Almighty reveals to us that prosperity will result from obeying Him.  Shemitah and Yovel produce prosperity and security.  The very behaviors that should result in disaster produce success.  This is because these observances correspond to the will of the Almighty.


We can now understand our passage.  The passage is describing the reward for observing Shemitah and Yovel.  We are rewarded with prosperity and security.  Now we can understand this reward more deeply.  There is a profound relationship between these rewards and these observances.  These commandments demonstrate our reliance on a higher law.  We acknowledge that this higher law supercedes the physical laws.  Through observing Shemitah and Yovel, we abandon the material path to prosperity.  We acknowledge that success depends on adherence to the Divine law.  The reward for this affirmation is the prosperity and security we seek.





“Do not take from him advance interest or accrued interest.  And you should fear your G-d.  And sustain your brother with you.” (VaYikra 25:36)

The Torah prohibits the lending of funds with interest.   Violation of this injunction has serious consequences.   The Talmud, in Tractate Sanhedrin, lists individuals who are disqualified from providing testimony.  Generally, the individuals listed in the mishna have violated a serious mitzvah.  Among those disqualified is a person who lends with interest.[10]


How does a person recover his kashrut – his ability to serve as a witness?  The Talmud discusses this issue.  A person who lends with interest must completely abandon this practice.  He must not even charge a non-Jew interest.[11]   This is a very strange requirement.  Lending with interest to a Jew is prohibited.  It is completely permitted to charge a non-Jew interest![12]  Why must the lender abandon a permitted activity?


In order to answer this question, we must carefully consider the requirement for reestablishing kashrut.  Let us analyze the law regarding another individual disqualified from offering testimony.  A gambler is also disqualified.[13]  The Talmud discusses the means by which this person reestablishes kashrut.  The gambler must shatter his dice.  He must also completely abandon the practice of dice playing.  He must no longer play this game of chance even without a wager.[14]  Again, the question arises.  Playing dice does not involve any wrongdoing.  Only gambling is prohibited.  Why must even a permitted activity be abandoned?


It seems that the recovery of kashrut requires more than mere repentance.  Repentance involves complete abandonment of the sin.[15]  A greater commitment is needed to re-qualify a person as a witness.  He must establish barriers against his return to the prohibited practice.  This requires identifying the behaviors that can lead him back to the prohibited activity.  Permitted activities, which may undermine the person’s repentance, must be cast aside.


This explains the statements of the Talmud. The gambler must desist from all dice playing.  Even playing without a monetary stake must be abandoned.  This activity is permitted.  But, for the reformed gambler, this activity poses a danger.  It can reawaken his desire to gamble.  In order to reestablish kashrut this precaution is necessary.


We can now understand the requirement regarding the lender.  In this case, as well, repentance is not adequate for the re-establishment of kashrut.  The principle outlined above applies.  Activities that may lead the lender back to his former practices must be abandoned. Lending with interest to a non-Jew must be forsaken.  This is a permitted activity.  However, the sinner is required to initiate precautions against backsliding to his former behavior.


As noted, it is generally permitted to charge a non-Jew interest.  This should not be construed as a slight to the non-Jew.  The prohibition against charging interest is an expression of the communal responsibility shared by all Jews.  We are brethren.  It is inappropriate to lend with interest within this religious community.  The non-Jew is not part of the religious community.  Therefore, the prohibition does not apply to the non-Jew.


This concept has additional implications.  Just as it is prohibited to charge interest, one is not allowed to pay interest.  This restriction does not apply to funds borrowed from the non-Jew.  A Jew may pay interest to a non-Jew.  This is understandable, based on the above.  Within the religious community, interest is prohibited.  A Jew borrowing outside of this community is not subject to the restriction against paying interest.




“Do not dominate him to so as to break his spirit.  And you should fear your G-d.”  (VaYikra 25:43)

The Torah allows a Jew to sell himself into bondage under specific circumstances.  He may only sell himself to a fellow Jew.  The Torah strictly regulates the relationship between the servant and the master.  These regulations determine the type of service that may be required.  The general treatment of the servant is also carefully defined.


One might easily assume that these regulations are based solely upon humanitarian considerations.  Certainly, these considerations play a role.  However, the Torah provides an additional reason for limiting the authority of the master.  The Chumash explains that all Jews are servants of Hashem.[16]


Sforno explains that although a person has the authority to sell himself into bondage, this right is limited.  The servant’s primary duty is to serve the Almighty.[17]


The comments of Sforno contain an astute observation regarding human nature.  We are obligated to serve Hashem.  We are His servants.  He is our master.  To the extent that we accept upon ourselves human masters, the position of Hashem is diminished.  The material master assumes a position of authority over the actions and behaviors of the servant.  This dominance extends to the psyche of the servant.  In the psychological reality of the servant, the master is vested with a unique supremacy.  This inevitably conflicts with the servant’s primary servitude to the Almighty.


The Torah is determined to prevent the material master from usurping the role of Hashem, in the mind of the servant.  How was this accomplished?  The Torah restricts the master’s dominance over the servant.  These restrictions have two effects.  First, the master’s authority is not absolute.  This limits the impact upon the servant’s perceptions.  The servant will not perceive the master as an all-powerful individual.  Second, the servant will realize that the master is restricted by a greater authority.  These restrictions remind the servant that ultimately a greater master controls both material master and servant.



[1]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Shemitah VeYovel 10:10-11.

[2]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 137.

[3]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4.

[4]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Ta'aniot 1:1-2.

[5]   Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1997),  pp. 358 and 368.

[6]   Sefer VaYikra 25:20-21.

[7]   Rav Ahron HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 84.

[8]   Sefer Yermiyah 17:5.

[9]   Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Yermiyah 17:5.

[10]  Mesechet Sanhedrin 24b.

[11]  Mesechet Sanhedrin 25a.

[12]  Mesechet Baba Metzia 70b.

[13]  Mesechet Sanhedrin 24b.

[14]  Mesechet Sanhedrin 25a.

[15] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Introduction to Hilchot  Teshuva, 2:1-2.

[16] Sefer VaYikra, 25:42.

[17] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, 25:42.