Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
“Give the Land Redemption”
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
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
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
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
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
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.