Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Behukotai 5763/ May 24, 2003

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.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Parashat Behukotai 5763/ May 24, 2003
Land and Person, Land as Personality

Rabbi Yaakov Ariel
Midrasha for Women
Chief Rabbi, Ramat Gan

Generally the readings of Behar and Behukotai are combined, and the two together conclude Leviticus, the book concerned with sanctity. Holiness is generally perceived as subjective-- the reverence we accord to a specific time, space or person. In the chapters at hand sanctity is objective. The place-in our case, the Land of Israel-- is intrinsically sacred, and therefore we are obligated to relate to it as holy. Whereas Parashat Behar deals with the commandments of shemitta (the sabbatical year) and the Jubilee year proper, Parashat Behukotai deals with the reward for observing these commandments. In Parashat Behar, the land itself is commanded to rest.[1] The land is the object (heftza) of the commandment, human beings are the subjects (gavra) who perform the commandment.

There is a higher level, however, at which the land becomes a subject. It is as if the land were a living thing, capable of being commanded, acting, obeying precepts or transgressing, able to receive and spew out. This finds expression in the halakhah that forbids selling agricultural land in Israel to gentiles because they release the land from the obligation to pay terumah and tithes.[2] It is also expressed in Scripture in several places, in the prohibitions against incest[3] and in the severity with which bloodshed is viewed.[4] In the latter two cases, the land as it were reacts to severe violations of its holiness by spewing out the violators.

A Sabbath of the Land

The Torah imposes the commandment of resting on the land. "The land shall observe a Sabbath of the Lord... the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest... it shall be a year of complete rest for the land... But you may eat whatever the land during its Sabbath will produce - you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you..." (Lev. 25:2-6). What is the significance of this rest? Surely one cannot expect the land to cease all activity. In the sabbatical year the trees cannot be prevented from growing, the flowers from blooming, or the weeds from growing. In fact, Scripture says explicitly: "But you may eat whatever the land during its Sabbath will produce" (Lev. 25:6). If nothing grows, how is one to eat? Thus we are forced to say that the land rests not by cessation of its normal activity, but by eliminating human ownership of the land for a year. This is the meaning of the land's rest, and this expresses the sanctity of the land. Indeed, this idea is formulated explicitly with respect to the Jubilee year: "for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me" (Lev. 25:23). The sabbatical and Jubilee years have the same underlying rationale: returning the land to its supreme Master.[5]

Some people say that even if human beings do not disclaim ownership of their produce in the sabbatical year, nevertheless the produce is free for all of its own accord.[6] The soil does not acknowledge human owners, it rids itself of them, whether they wish or not. Even for those who hold that it is human beings who disown the fruit of the land,[7] the reason for disclaiming ownership (hefker) is one's duty to the holy soil of the land of Israel. In this year the soil deserves to be free of its owners; yet human beings must do this of their own free will.

The punishment for not observing the commandments of shemitta amounts to paying up one's debt to the land. The land claims what is due it from those who have been exploiting it. "Then shall the land make up for its Sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its Sabbath years" (Lev. 26:34). The land, as it were, must make up the years of shemitta during which it did not rest.

The Jubilee year

Continuing with the idea that the Land is a personality, the Jubilee year as well is more than a law of social justice for human beings; it is a law of justice for the land: "But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me" (Lev. 25:23), and the one depends on the other. The Torah does not require the Jubilee or shemitta to be observed abroad, but only in Israel. This is because the source of social justice is not merely human need: The source is in divine justice.

The land of Israel does not belong to human beings; it belongs to G-d. He is the land's true Sovereign, and by virtue of His sovereignty equality and justice between human beings are obligatory. Outside of Israel it is possible to have absolute human sovereignty, as was customary in feudal Europe. The land of Israel does not acknowledge this as an option,[8] for the land is intrinsically free and the reign of flesh and blood cannot apply. In any event, it makes free and equal distribution of the land obligatory among those who inherit it and eat of its produce. Hence the duty of redemption-ge'ulah. It is the land that demands to be redeemed from those who have taken hold of it illegally: "Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land" (Lev. 25:24).

The prohibition against interest

From the above discussion we can now understand the connection between the prohibition against interest in Parashat Behar and the commandments concerning the land: "Do not lend him money at advance interest, or give him your food at accrued interest. I the Lord am your G-d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your G-d" (Lev. 25:37-38). The prohibition against interest is actually in effect everywhere in the world, but it is binding only on those persons who are obliged to lend to each other free of interest, i.e., Jews who inherit the land. Since, according to halakhic definitions, commandments that depend on the person are also observed outside of Israel, naturally this commandment is valid also in the Diaspora. The roots of the commandment, however, grow deep into the soil of the land of Israel, since it is the land that obliges and creates the unity of the people who settle it.[9]

This prohibition is mentioned adjacent to the subject of withdrawing ownership over the fruits of the land once in seven years and remission of debts (although the latter is not mentioned here, but only in Deuteronomy; nevertheless it follows naturally from the requirement of the farmers that they relinquish ownership over their produce. Logic and Justice require that the farmers, who cannot sell the produce of their land during the sabbatical year and who borrowed money beforehand to subsist, also be accorded consideration to have their debts forgiven in that year), and remission of the land in the Jubilee year. Thus the land calls for placing limitations on personal acquisition (but socialism and capitalism are not the issue. The Torah does not intervene in economics, save for the sabbatical and Jubilee years, in which the Torah requires that things be restored to their prior egalitarian condition. There can be no doubt, however, that these two commandments certainly inspire a moral sensitivity for one's fellow in other years, as well).

The Maharal of Prague had an interesting explanation in this regard:

When the Israelites entered the land, they were completely united as one people, and proof of this is that as long as the Israelites had not crossed the Jordan River and come to the land, they were not punished for hidden transgressions, until they crossed the river and became responsible for each other; and the Israelites did not become completely united into a single people until they came to the land and lived together in the land, and had a single place, namely the land of Israel. Through the land of Israel they became totally united as a single people, and therefore it is written "to be your G-d," for they have only one G-d; hence, "Do not lend him money at advance interest, or give him your food at accrued interest."[10]

The land of Israel is the cement that binds the people of Israel into one and likewise makes the oneness of G-d obligatory. In the land of Israel it is necessary to reduce social gaps and to have a strong sense of mutual responsibility. Prohibiting interest serves this function.

The unity of G-d and people

The explanation for the obligation to have unity in the land is that the land requires of its residents more true faith in the oneness of G-d. The demands of faith in Israel are not like the demands of faith outside of Israel. This was explained by Nahmanides (on Lev. 18:25):

He, revered and blessed is His name, is G-d of all gods in the word, and G-d of the land of Israel, which is the inheritance of the Lord. Thus it is taught in Sifra (Kedoshim 11:14): So let not the land spew you out - the land of Israel is not like other lands; it will not tolerate those who transgress. And in Sifre (Ha'azinu 315): No alien god at His side (Deut. 32:12) - that no other ruler of the nations have the right to come rule over you; which is as they said (Ketubot 110a): Anyone who dwells outside of the Land is like someone who has no G-d, for it is said: To give you the land of Canaan, to be your G-d (Lev. 25:38), and it says (I Sam. 26:19): For they have driven me out today, so that I cannot have a share in the Lord's possession, but am told, "Go and worship other gods."

From the unity of G-d naturally follows the unity of the people. You are one, and Your Name is one, and who is like Your people Israel - one nation in the Land.

Reward and punishment

The system of reward and punishment for observing the Torah as stated in our Parasha belongs to this world and is placed upon the soil, except its consequences affect human beings: "... the earth shall yield its produce ... I will grant peace in the land ... I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land" (Lev. 26:4-6). Likewise punishment: "I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper, so that your strength shall be spent to no purpose. Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit" (Lev. 26:19-20).

Further on it says: "I will lay your cities in ruin and make your sanctuaries desolate, ... I will make the land desolate ... Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin" (Lev. 26:31-33).

As we noted above, the land requires compensation for the years of shemitta that were not observed on it: "Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your Sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it" (Lev. 26:35). But when the time comes for remembering, also the land shall be remembered along with the patriarchs who are remembered, as if the land were human as well: "Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land" (Lev. 26:42).

Redemption of the Land

The idea that the Land is a subject forceful expression in Ezekiel. In his prophecy the land itself is the subject of Redemption and is addressed directly, the prophet speaking to it as if it were flesh and blood. It is the land that was defiled, and it is the land that shall be purified; the land is charged and the land is exonerated; the land is laid waste and the land shall be rebuilt. Its mountains became a desolate waste and its mountains will blossom and reach out their arms to embrace the Israelites returning from exile, as if embracing a wayward child:

Thus said the Lord G-d to the mountains and the hills, to the watercourses and the valleys, and to the desolate wastes and deserted cities ... But you, O mountains of Israel, shall yield your produce and bear your fruit for My people Israel, for their return is near. For I will care for you: I will turn to you, and you shall be tilled and sown ... the towns shall be resettled, and the ruined sites rebuilt... And men shall say, "That land, once desolate, has become like the garden of Eden; and the cities, once ruined, desolate and ravaged, are now populated and fortified." ... I the Lord have rebuilt the ravaged places and replanted the desolate land. I the Lord have spoken and will act. (Ezek. 36:4-36).

[1] Some people take the idea of the land resting to mean that it also rests from gentiles working the land (Maharshal, Hokhmat Shelomo, Bava Metzia 90b; Minhat Hinukh mitzvah 325. Others say that the obligation only devolves on persons, that they not work their land, see Shabbat Ha-aretz, vol. 1,1.
[2]Avodah Zarah 21a.
[3] Leviticus 18:25, and Nahmanides, loc. sit.
[4] Numbers 35:33-34.
[5] Sanhedrin 39a.
[6] Ha-Mabit (Moses ben Joseph Trani). See next note.
[7] Resp. Avkat Rokhel 24.
[8] Cf. Ran (Nissim ben Reuben Gerondi) on Nedarim 28a.
[9] Cf. Resp. Avnei Nezer, Yoreh De'ah 126, who on this basis explained the opinion that one is not responsible for apostates because they have no portion in the land. There he notes that this also indicates that we are forbidden to lend to an apostate for interest. Perhaps we should say that his explanation actually better suits the position that one is allowed to lend to an apostate for interest, in line with what the Maharal wrote, which shall be cited below and on which Avnei Nezer based his arguments there.
[10 ] Netivot Olam I - Netiv ha-Tzedakah 6.