Parashas Behar


Rabbi Bernard Fox



“And Hashem spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai saying:  Speak to Bnai Yisrael and say to them, “when you come to the land that I am giving to you, you should rest the land.  It is a Sabbath to Hashem.”  (VaYikra  25:1-2)

Our parasha discusses the laws of Shemitah.  The Shemitah year occurs in the land of Israel every seven years.  The Shemitah is a Sabbatical Year.  The land cannot be worked.  The produce that is produced without cultivation is shared by everyone. 


The first passage of the parasha explains that the laws of Shemitah were given to Moshe at Sinai.  The commentaries are concerned with this comment.  Why does the Torah specify that this mitzvah was given at Sinai?  The midrash discusses this issue.  The midrash explains that the Torah is using Shemitah as an example.  The Torah states that this mitzvah was given at Sinai in its entirety. We are to extrapolate from this example.  Just as this mitzvah is derived from Sinai, so too all other mitzvot were revealed at Sinai.  In other words, the Torah is teaching us that all mitzvot were revealed at Sinai.  This revelation encompassed both the general principles of the commandment and its details.[1]


The comments of the midrash are somewhat enigmatic.  The midrash seems to assume that one would presume that the mitzvot are not completely from Sinai.  Our passage is designed to correct this misimpression.  The commentaries ask the obvious question.  Why would we assume that the mitzvot are not derived, in their entirety, from Sinai?


The commentaries offer a variety of answers.  Nachmanides explains that the manner in which the Torah discusses some mitzvot could potentially lead to a misunderstanding.  The Torah does not always deal with a mitzvah in a single comprehensive discussion.     Sometimes, the discussion of the mitzvah will be dispersed to different locations in the Torah.  Shemitah is an example of this approach.  The mitzvah is first encountered in Parshat Mishpatim.[2]  Our parasha continues this discussion.  Furthermore, there is an important relationship between the two discussions.  The passages in Parshat Mishpatim outline the general concept of Shemitah.  Our parasha provides the details.  Nachmanides explains that the casual reader could easily misinterpret this presentation.  The reader might assume that only the general outline of the mitzvah was revealed at Sinai.  This outline is the discussion in Parshat Mishpatim.  However, this reader might incorrectly assume that the details, discussed in our parasha, were filled-in by Moshe.  In order to dispel this misconception, the Torah explains that even the details, discussed in this week’s parasha are from Sinai.  This example serves as a model for understanding the Torah’s treatment of other mitzvot.  In all cases in which the discussion of the mitzvah is dispersed in the Torah, the entire mitzvah with all of its details is from Sinai.[3]


Gershonides offers an alternative answer to the original problem.  Why is it necessary for the Torah to specify the origin of the mitzvah of Shemitah?  Gershonides maintains that, in general, the origin of the mitzvot is clear.  The mitzvot are derived from Sinai.  Sinai is the source of the general outline and the details.  There is no need for the Torah to reiterate this point.  However, at the opening of our parasha, there is a specific basis for confusion.  He explains that the cause for this confusion is found at the end of the previous parasha – Parshat Emor.  There, the Torah relates an account of a person that blasphemed that name of Hashem.  The nation did not know the punishment for this crime.  The people appealed to Moshe.  Moshe could not respond.  He turned to Hashem.  The Almighty instructed Moshe that the blasphemer should be stoned.  In this case, Moshe was confronted with an issue that he could not resolve based on the revelation at Sinai.  A further prophecy was needed.  Moshe received this prophecy in the wilderness.  The reader might assume other mitzvot were also revealed in the wilderness and not at Sinai.  Our parasha resolves this issue.  The parasha begins with the declaration that Shemitah was revealed at Sinai.  Sinai is the source for the Torah.  The punishment of the blasphemer represents an unusual and relatively isolated exception to this rule.[4]




“And you shall count for yourself seven Sabbatical years, seven years seven times.  And the period of the seven sabbatical cycles shall be forty-nine years.”   (VaYikra 25:8)

In the Land of Israel the years are divided into cycles of seven years.  The seventh year of each cycle is the Shemitah year.  During the Shemitah year the land is not worked.  Seven of these cycles include forty-nine years.  The fiftieth year is the Yovel – Jubilee year.  During Yovel the land may not be farmed.  In addition, the land is redistributed.  Land returns to the descendants of the individuals who originally inherited the Land of Israel.  Another law of the Yovel is that all Jewish slaves are freed.


Sefer HaChinuch discusses the moral lessons learned from the Yovel year.  He explains that Yovel reinforces a fundamental idea.  Hashem is the master of the land.  We may purchase the land for a period of time but our ownership is limited.  With the arrival of the Yovel, we must recognize that the Almighty is the legitimate owner.  He has the right to restrict our use of the land and to require its redistribution.[5]


It is quite understandable, according to the reasoning of Sefer HaChinuch, that Yovel is associated with the number seven.  It follows a series of seven cycles of seven years.  The universe was created in seven days.  The Yovel reminds us of Hashem’s role as Creator.  This is the foundation of Hashem’s ownership.  He created the universe.  He has the authority to distribute the land according to His will.


There is another aspect of the Yovel phenomenon.  Modern society accepts the responsibility to provide for its less fortunate members.  However, the task often seems overwhelming.  Poverty tends to be inter-generational.  Eventually, poverty can become ingrained within the structure of the family.  New generations, raised in poverty, lack hope, skills and motivation.  These important characteristics are replaced by profound hopelessness.


The only solution to this problem is to prevent poverty from becoming culturally ingrained within the family.  Relief must be provided before an underclass mentality can develop.  The mitzvot of Yovel provide a method of preventing inter-generational poverty.  Every generation receives a fresh start.  The land is redistributed.  Everyone receives a portion.


From this perspective, it is fitting that all Jewish slaves are freed at Yovel.  This too assures that the disadvantaged receive a fresh start.  The Jewish slave has fallen to a level of abject poverty.  With Yovel, he and his children can begin a new life as free individuals upon their own land.


This entire system is more radical than any system in today’s world.  It reflects the level of responsibility we bear for the welfare of those in need.





“Do not take from him advance interest or accrued interest.  And you should fear your Lord.  And you brother shall live with you.”   (VaYikra 25:36)

The Torah prohibits us from charging a fellow Jew interest.  Various explanations are provided by the commentaries for this prohibition.


One of the terms used by the Torah for interest is neshech.  Rashi explains the reason for the prohibition based upon this term.  Neshech literally means “the bite of an animal”.  It is often used to refer to bite of a poisonous snake of serpent.  Rashi explains that interest is similar to such a bite.  The snake only makes a small puncture in the skin of its victim.  Yet, this tiny wound causes tremendous damage.  The entire body swells.  If not treated, death may follow.


Interest is similarly deceptive.  The percentage interest may seem small.  But if the borrower cannot promptly repay the loan, the interest begins to compound.  With time, the interest charge can even exceed the principal amount of the loan.[6]


It would seem that Rashi maintains that the charging of interest is an unfair business practice.  The borrower, in need of the funds, can easily underestimate the impact of the interest expense.  To protect the borrower, from his own folly, the Torah forbids interest-bearing loans.


Maimonides treats the issue from a different perspective.  In his Mishne Torah he includes the various prohibitions regarding interest in the section dealing with loans.  This section begins with a statement concerning the basic mitzvah of lending money.  Maimonides explains that it is a mitzvah to lend funds to the poor.  The section continues with the description of various mitzvot and laws protecting the borrower.[7]  Apparently, these laws are designed to protect the poor person who needs a loan from oppression.


Maimonides inclusion of the prohibitions against interest in this section seems to reflect upon his understanding of these restrictions.  We are obligated to help the less fortunate.  One of the means by which we can accomplish this task is by providing loans.  However, we must always remember that the loan is an act of kindness.  As such, it is inappropriate to charge interest.


It should be noted that the prohibition against interest is not designed to disrupt commerce.  It is completely permitted for a person to earn a return on capital.  Capital may be used to purchase an ownership interest in a business endeavor.  The partner providing the capital has a right to a share of the profits.  In this manner capital can earn a return.  The interest prohibition only regulates loans.


[1]   Midrash Torat Kohanim, Parshat BeHar, parsha 1.

[2]   Sefer Shemot 23:10-12.

[3]  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 25:1.

[4]   Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1997), p 365.

[5] Rav Ahron HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 330.

[6] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 22:24.

[7] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Introduction to Hilchot Malveh VeLoveh.