Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat BeHar-Behukotai 5764/ May 15, 2004

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,




“Give the Land Redemption”


Menahem Ben-Yashar

Ashkelon College

      The Institute for the History of Jewish Bible Research


The commandments in Parashat BeHar belong to the relatively small category of mitzvot whose rationale is given along with them.  The laws concerning a Hebrew slave, listed at the end of BeHar (Lev. 25:39-55), are given an explicit reason in verse 42:  “For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude.”   The principle is stated even more clearly at the end of the passage:  “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants:   they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I the Lord your G-d” (v. 55). 

These verses must be viewed within the context of the regime of the times, when slavery was considered legitimate.   Having taken the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, the Lord naturally acquired them as His servants.  It is clear from the verse in Psalms,   O servants of the Lord, give praise; praise the name of the Lord” (Ps. 113:1) that servitude to the Lord is unlike servitude to another person.  The formal status of being servants of G-d has two consequences:   first, that an Israelite cannot be sold to another Israelite into perpetual servitude, but only into temporary servitude, which is more like being a hired hand (v. 42); second, that as servants of G-d we are obliged to obey our Lord’s commands.

The first part of this week’s reading contains laws pertaining to land ownership – the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, and redemption of the land.  The explicit rationale behind them is stated as follows:   “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Lev. 25:23).  Absolute ownership of the land of Israel belongs to G-d; the people of Israel do not own the land, rather they are like lease-holders, “strangers resident” (gerim ve-toshavim ) in the words of Scripture.

This principle finds expression in the two aspects of the laws of the Sabbatical year ( shemittah ):  first, ceasing to till the soil, thus temporarily returning the land to its owner, the Lord; second, leaving the produce of the land to be taken by the poor, and even by animals, thus acknowledging that also the produce of the land belongs to the Lord, and He may apportion it among His creatures.   An additional principle applies to the Jubilee year:  by abrogating all transactions by which Israelites buy and sell land among themselves, inheritance of the land returns to the original holders.

Returning the entire family to its inheritance has another objective, as finds expression in the story of the daughters of Zelophehad:   “but the Israelite tribes shall remain bound each to its portion” (Num. 36:9).  Every tribe, every extended family and clan would return to the inheritance given them by G-d, would thank G-d for the yield that He gave them on their inherited portion; when they go on pilgrimage to the Temple for the festivals, they would bring of the yield of their land as an offering, a sort of tax, to the Lord of the land.

In addition to the religious purpose, there is also a social purpose:   on the Sabbatical and Jubilee years the poor benefit equally with the rich from the produce of the fields, and thus, at least temporarily, there is equality in the land.   According to the passages in Deuteronomy, this equality is enhanced by remission of the debts of the poor who have had to borrow money (Deut. 15:1-12).  Almost complete equality (in an agrarian society) is achieved by the Jubilee year; then all transactions of buying and selling land are abrogated in an aspiration towards achieving equal distribution of the primary means of production – agricultural land; and Hebrews who sold themselves into the servitude are set free so that they may return to their own land holdings.

As with other themes in the Torah, such as the Sabbath, so too the themes of Sabbatical and Jubilee years incorporate values reflecting relations between man and G-d as well relations between one person and another.   I would say that both in essence and in terms of educational principles, one should not dwell on this distinction between “religious” and “social” commandments.  The Sages made this distinction with respect to one subject alone – forgiveness and atonement on the Day of Atonement.

The Jubilee year automatically restores the land to its original owners, but “the zealous are quick to perform the commandments,” and it is a commandment to redeem the family land and restore it to its original owners or family even before the Jubilee year.  The theme of redeeming the family land appears is this week’s reading, is recapitulated in the Prophets in this week’s haftara (Jeremiah 32), and appears a third time in the Writings, in the Book of Ruth.  The parasha contains the letter of the law, Jeremiah and Ruth attest to its implementation. 

From both of these accounts we see that redeeming land was a common practice in Israel and had fixed rules.   The accounts in Ruth and Jeremiah are specifically brought because of their unique aspects.   In Jeremiah the redemption of the land figures as a symbolic prophetic act; it was legally proper but in actuality had no tangible consequences.  It was done in besieged Jerusalem , when access to the field in Anathoth was cut off and Jerusalem itself was about to fall into the hands of the Babylonians; the city’s inhabitants would be exiled and there would be no one to implement the redemption.  Hence, redemption of the field illustrates the Lord’s prediction voiced by the prophet, that the exiles were destined to return and “houses, field, and vineyards shall again be purchased in this land” (Jer. 32:15).

The redemption in the Book of Ruth is both tangible and unique in that it also involved levirate marriage, so that the son born of the union of the redeemer with the young widow, who survived from the family that was wiped out while living in a foreign land, would inherit the family’s estate and rehabilitate the family on its land.

Be that as it may, the redemption in Jeremiah and the redemption in Ruth are similar; in both cases the redeemer purchases the field directly from its owner, who has had to sell it.  Jeremiah purchases the land of his relative who, with Jerusalem under siege, no longer wishes to continue holding land in Anathoth, now cut off from him.   In the Book of Ruth, Boaz buys from Elimelech’s widow Naomi, who has just returned from foreign lands, the land that belongs to her family and is still in her possession, even though during her absence it was worked by others.

In contrast to this direct redemption, designed to prevent the field being transferred to owners outside the family, this week’s reading deals with corrective redemption.  The law concerns a landowner who had become impoverished and had had to sell his land to some other Israelite, not in his family; then the relative who is a redeemer comes, or the seller himself, if in the meantime he has obtained the necessary means, and redeems the field from the person who bought it.   This sets right the distortion of the proper order which occurred in transferring ownership of the field to an outsider.   It seems proper and logical that direct, preventive redemption, was the main practice, as is shown by what we read in Jeremiah and Ruth.  Why, then, does the Torah not deal with it?

One could say that direct redemption is self-evident and learned by deducing from the easy case to the hard one (kal vahomer ):  if, for the sake of redeeming the land, the Torah allows a possession to be removed from the hands of its direct purchaser, surely it wishes that the family’s inheritance be redeemed from the outset, before it ever leaves the hands of the family.  Verse 24, “Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land,” is viewed by some as a concluding statement, giving the reason for the laws of the Jubilee that precede this verse, and by others as an introductory verse, preceding the laws of redemption which follow.   To us it seems best to interpret it as an independent statement, commanding or recommending direct, preventive redemption, as if to say:  give the land redemption.  A landowner who has come upon hard times should always turn first to his relative who is a redeemer and should try to persuade him to buy the field so that it not fall into the hands of outsiders, as Hanamel did, according to what we read in Jeremiah 32.  The person who is a redeemer should always try to accede to his poor relative’s request and buy the land from him, as indeed Jeremiah did, and as Boaz did in the Book of Ruth, and as would also have been proper for the anonymous relative mentioned there, if redeeming the field had not been tied to marrying Ruth as well.