Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Behar- Behukotai 5769/ May 16, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Societal Concerns in Parashat Behar


Benjamin Salant


Kibbutz Sa’ad


Many commandments in this week’s reading have to do with matters affecting society, such as the sabbatical year, the jubilee year, charity, and the proscription against taking interest.  Today these commandments are not observed according to the letter of the law by most of the Jewish people, and quite possibly they were never observed as such in the past.


The laws of the sabbatical year

These laws are reiterated in three books of the Bible:

Exodus, with emphasis put on helping support the poor:  “Let the needy of your people eat of it” (23:11).

Leviticus (this week's reading), with emphasis on the land resting:   “The land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest” (25:4).

Deuteronomy, dealing with remission of debts:  “This shall be the nature of the remission:  every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow” (15:2).

Evidence for the fulfillment of such laws spans extended periods of time. In the book of Nehemiah, in the fifth century B.C.E., the pledge signed by the officials of the exile read:  “We will forgo [the produce of] the seventh year, and every outstanding debt” (10:32).

In Antiquities of the Jews Josephus described Alexander of Macedon (4th century B.C.E.) as complying with the request of the High Priest to exempt the Jews from taxes in the seventh year. [1]   Several centuries later (in the 4th century C.E.), Julius Caesar did the same, exempting the Jews from taxes and even granting them special rights. [2]   After the Bar Kokhba Revolt (135 C.E.), however, not only were all the exemptions and rights previously granted the inhabitants of the land cancelled, but the Jews were also assessed heavy taxes.

In the tannaitic period (70-225 C.E.), when inhabitants engaged in agriculture, the people suffered economic hardship.   Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, aware of the great economic straits during his term as patriarch, especially during the sabbatical year, initially tried to abrogate the laws of the sabbatical year altogether, but having failed at this endeavor, found ways to give a looser interpretation and permit certain activities (Jerusalem Talmud, Demai 1.22a).  Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi held that the obligation to observe the sabbatical year in his time (after the destruction of the Temple) was rabbinic, as stated in the baraitha in Gittin (36a) and Moed Katan (2a). [3]   In forming his opinion Rabbi Judah ha- Nasi may very well have relied on the waiver given by Hillel the Elder (see below).

Remission of debts

Hillel was among the first of the tannaim, living approximately seven generations before Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi.  Under his patriarchate (1st century B.C.E. – 1st century C.E.) the sabbatical year was observed.  However, due to economic difficulties and the apprehension of moneylenders that they might lose their money during the sabbatical year, “people were refraining from lending to one another.”   It was in this context that Hillel issued his prozbul, a regulation that exempted moneylenders from remission of debts (Shevi’it, chapter 10, mishnah 3; Gittin 36a), in order to encourage continuity in the cycle of economic life.   This regulation has survived to our times.

Presumably Hillel had arrived at the view that the laws of the sabbatical year no longer had the force of Torah law.  A detailed analysis substantiating this assumption may be found in the work of Y. D. Gilat, [4] which cites sources deliberating the matter at great length and even viewing it as expunging something that was written in the Torah.

An interesting view is presented in Torat Rabbeinu Samuel Salant:

Rabbi was of the opinion that since the laws of the jubilee year were no longer in effect … the laws of remission of debts no longer applied.  Maimonides ruled the same as Rabbi, arguing that if the law had authority from the Torah, how could Hillel have instituted his prozbul in contravention to the laws of the Torah? [5]

Skipping over the centuries to the present day, we must add parenthetically Rabbi Yehiel Michal Tokachinsky’s description in his Sefer Ha- Shemittah of how, in the sabbatical year in 1898, prominent Jerusalem rabbis, including among others Rabbi Samuel Salant and Rabbi Diskin, [6] added their names to the heter mekhirah as an emergency measure necessitated by the times.  Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook later reacted to this measure in a letter to the periodical, Amudim. [7]   To those who may have been skeptical about the majority opinion being that the laws of shemittah have only rabbinic force (and therefore may be loosely interpreted), Rabbi Kook testified about a meeting which he had had with the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, the gaon Rabbi Tzvi Pesah Frank, who “decided explicitly, by halakhic ruling, to exempt the settlements of the Beth She’an Valley from being bound by these commandments (tithes and sabbatical), on the basis of the gemara in Tractate Hullin 6a.” [8]   Further on he wrote:

In truth, a lenient stand on the sabbatical year is taken by the majority of great Jewish rabbis…  Those inclined to be lenient and permissive far outnumber those who are strict and forbidding…   As Ralbah wrote in his essay on the sabbatical year, “it has become clear to him that there is not a single posek (rabbinical authority), great or small, who holds that the laws of the sabbatical year in this day and age have authority from the Torah.”

Rabbi Judah ha- Nasi’s approach was carried on by his son, Rabban Gamaliel, who instituted regulations easing the laws of the sabbatical year.   Rabbi Yannai, a first-generation amora living in the land of Israel, also continued in the path of his mentor Rabbi Judah and, when Roman taxation became even more burdensome, went so far as to say:   “Rabbi Yannai declares:  plough and sow on the seventh year, because of arnona (the land tax)” (Sanhedrin 26a).

Nevertheless, in spite of all the relief legislated in the days of Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Yannai, two generations later another trend began to emerge.  Uffenheimer cites a midrash homily, describing people who continued to observe the seventh year according to the letter of the law, in which Rabbi Isaac  calls such people “mighty creatures who do His bidding” (Ps. 103:20). [9]   This referred to those individuals who were capable of observing the proscriptions of the seventh year and still pay taxes (Lev. Rabbah 1.1).

To conclude our remarks on the sabbatical year, it must be said that the commandments of the seventh year have great social value.  In its laws the sabbatical year embodies a supremely noble and moral idea; would that we were all capable of observing it according to the letter of the law.   However, the circumstances under which farmers live, even in our day, do not make this possible, since the vast burden falls on a few farmers, namely a minority that observes the commandment of settling the land in its broadest sense.  For our times, the heter mekhirah is a necessary solution in view of the ruling by a majority of rabbis that today the laws of the sabbatical year only carry rabbinic authority.  Some are even of the opinion that observing the sabbatical year today should be considered a voluntary act of extreme devotion (middat hassidut). [10]

The prohibition against taking interest

Severe prohibitions against taking interest are repeated several times throughout the Torah:   “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them” (Ex. 22:24);  “If your kinsmen, being in straits, comes under your authority, … do not exact from him advance or accrued interest” (Lev. 25:35-36);  “You shall not deduct interest from loans to your countrymen, whether in money or food or anything else that can be deducted as interest” (Deut. 23:20).

The object of this prohibition is to grant relief to the poor, to farmers and craftsmen, so that they will be able to continue in their vocations, the source of their livelihood.  However, lending without receiving interest is tantamount to giving charity, and not all lenders are capable of doing so.  Indeed, just as in the seventh year, “when people ceased granting loans,” Hillel instituted the prozbul, so too in the gemara we find a parallel:  “So that the door not be shut in the face of the borrower” (Bava Kama 8a) – a regulation instituted to make loans possible by improving the terms of repayment.  Dov Rappel notes that this phrase appears in the gemara eight times, and includes Hillel’s words.  Rappel stresses the dual nature of loans – as philanthropic and economic. [11]

Another way of making loans possible is the iska, or transaction agreement, based on a partnership between the borrower and the lender ( Bava Metzia 104b, and parallel texts).  The notion of iska has been further developed in recent times to a heter iska, or waiver for transactions. [12]   This sort of regulation is used today and has been signed by the banks in Israel and many branches throughout the world.

Despite the strict prohibition against charging interest, rabbis throughout the generations have found ways to enable a free economic activity, growth and development, to the benefit of borrower and lender.  When loans became tight, care was taken not to shut the door in the face of borrowers, and the iska and heter iska were instituted. [13]

The jubilee year

“You shall hallow the fiftieth year.  You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants.   It shall be a jubilee for you” (Lev. 25:10).  Aside from the laws of the sabbatical year and liberation of slaves (who were not released in the seventh year), the jubilee carries with it a progressive social idea, namely restoring land to its original owners (except for houses in walled cities).   Thus it appears that the object of the jubilee was to preserve the familial and tribal structure.   Therefore one could say that the laws of the jubilee were aimed at times when tribal life pertained.

Tractate Arakhin says:  “Once the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh had been exiled the jubilee years were cancelled” (gemara and baraitha, 32b).  Rashi’s commentary on this text explains that it referred to the exile by Sennacherib (681-704 B.C.E.).

In Scripture there is no detailed evidence attesting to observance of the jubilee year.   Ezekiel mentions the year of release as a time when inheritance reverted to its owners (46:17).   A similar reference may be found in Jeremiah, as well.  Shmuel Safrai drew an instructive conclusion that even though the jubilee year was not implemented in actual fact, it had an impact on agrarian relations in Israel and therefore most of the land remained in the hands of the farmers and did not pass to large landowners. [14]   The idea of the jubilee year, called by some a utopia even though it apparently was never fully realized, still serves as an ideal to which one should aspire.  If we accept Safrai’s conclusion, we could say that an important objective has been achieved, namely reducing the gap between rich and poor in society.  One could say that this was also the intention of the commandments of the sabbatical year and the prohibition against charging interest.


We began by noting the fact that the subject matter discussed here has not always been observed according to the strict letter of the law.  This is not to be taken as a positive or negative value statement, but simply as indicating the greatness of our Sages.   The concept of “laws to live by” was understood by the Sages as advocating continuity in the cycles of life and coping with a changing reality.  Men of stature among the great tannaim, such as Hillel and Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, Rabban Gamaliel and Rabbi Simeon, and amoraim such as Rabbi Yannai, took a leading role in change, be it by way interpretations adapting to reality, or by way of regulations enacted either in response to specific needs of the time or in general.

Chapter 4 of Tractate Gittin for the most part deals with the regulations instituted “for the sake of improving the world,” showing us the prowess and wisdom of the tannaim and amoraim.

In conclusion, we note the interesting approach taken by the Vilna Gaon, who subscribed to the Talmudic principle that halakhah can even circumvent Scripture (Sotah 16a), [15] and in this vein quoted a passage from Tractate Makkot (22b) which reads, “How foolish are people who rise for the Torah scroll, but do not rise for the rabbis who have the power to change what is written in Scripture.”           

[1] Shalit edition, Jerusalem 1973, Book XI.8, p. 30.

[2] Gedaliah Elon, Mehkarim be-Toledot Yisrael, Tel Aviv 1967, Vol. 1, p. 183 (see sources cited there).

[3] A. Uffenheimer describes this process, as well as the regulations instituted by Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, in his book, Rabbi Judah ha- Nasi, Jerusalem 2007, p. 69ff.

[4] Perakim be-Hishtalshelut ha-Halakhah, Ramat-Gan 1992, chapter entitled, “Be-Hishtalshelutah shel Takkanot Prozbul,” pp. 219-220.

[5] Torat Rabbenu Samuel Salant, Jerusalem 1992, Vol. 1, p. 22 (published by his grandson, Rabbi N. Tokachinsky).

[6] Sefer ha-Shemitta, Jerusalem 1958, p. 60.

[7] Amudim, Tammuz 1972.

[8] For greater detail, cf. Uffenheimer, loc. sit.   This exemption applied to the settlements especially in the Beth She’an Valley, due to their location.  See the Jerusalem Talmud, loc. sit., ch. 2, 22c.

[9] Loc. sit., p. 82.

[10] Thus ruled Rabbi Zerahya ha-Levi and Rabbi Abraham ben David in the 12th century, and following them, Menahem Meiri in the 13th century.

[11] See his article, “Lifnim mi-Shurat ha-Din,” Mahanayim 12 (a) 1996.

[12] A regulation instituted in the 16th century by Rabbi Menahem Avigdor of Cracow.   My mentor Rabbi Y. D. Gilat defined this and similar circumstances as reflecting the impact of reality on the Halakhah.  See his article, “Zikat ha- Halakhah la-Metziut,” loc. sit.

[13] Cf. Uffenheimer, chapter on “halbanat ha-ribbit” (“laundering interest”), loc. sit., p. 88.

[14] See under Yovel¸ Encyclopedia Ivrit, vol. 19.

[15] Aderet Eliyahu, Parashat Mishpatim , first edition, 1804.