Thursday, May 26, 2016

Parashat Behar ("On the mountain") Leviticus 25:1-26:2

Parashat Behar ("On the mountain")  Leviticus 25:1-26:2

The parashah begins with the Lord speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai. 
"Speak to the Israelites and tell them, 'When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land must observe a Sabbath to the LORD.'" (Lev. 25:1-2).

A Sabbath for the Land is called Shemittah (שְׁמִטָּה).  Certainly made famous by some Evangelicals last year due to an expected and much publicised economic crash (which did not occur), the Shemittah year is a rest for the land of Israel every 7 years.   I have seen some discussion as whether or not the command is for all lands of earth, but I think it is quite clear that the mitzvah is for Israel only. i.e “‘When you come into the land which I give you”.

Shemittah means "to let go" or "to withdraw." The Shemittah was a full calendar year in which Jewish farmers were to abstain from all farming in order to let the land rest – any produce which occurred naturally was free to for all man and beast to have.

The Shemittah year is determined with a bit of math.  Take the current Jewish year and divide by seven; if there is no remainder, it is a Shemittah year; otherwise it is not.  For example, if the Jewish year is 5768, you divide by 7 to get 824 with no remainder, so it's a Sabbatical year. The next year (that begins with Rosh Hashanah) is 5769; divide that by 7 gives 824 with a remainder of .15.

During a Shemittah year, no work on the land could be done (i.e., no farming, planting, or other cultivation). Any naturally occurring produce became free for the taking for both man and animals. The produce that grows during this year does not belong to the owner of the land, but is regarded as the LORD's, and therefore anyone who wants to can come a pick some without charge (i.e. the farmer cannot sell the fruit or control access to the land).
The Shemittah was not just about rest for the land, it was also the year to forgive debts.   Of course, this type of economics was hazardous for moneylending and some investments but the principal of the debt forgiveness was to always ensure that His people were free from financial burdens.    Ideally, it was also to deter His people from lending or borrowing money at all.     

Just like the weekly Shabbat, the Shemittah was a real test of faith, since it meant that the Jews had to completely trust that the Lord would provide for them.    However, the promise was, “I will command My blessing on you in the sixth year, and it will bring forth produce enough for three years.”  (Lev 25:1).   It was only when Israel abandoned this command that HaShem punished them with 70 years of Babylonian captivity. 

Having a break every seven years was just the beginning.  After seven Shemittah, the fiftieth year would be declared a “Yovel” – Jubilee year.  According to Rashi, from the sounding of the shofar. A ram's horn is called a yovel in Hebrew (Josh 6:4-14).  On Yom Kippur (i.e., יוֹם הַכִּפֻּרִים, Yom HaKippurim) of the yovel, a shofar blast would be sounded throughout all the land to proclaim liberty.

"You shall sound the shofar on the tenth day of the seventh month, on the Day of Atonement shall you sound the shofar throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee for you. And you shall return every man to his estate, and you shall return every man to his family." (Lev. 25:8-10)

The Jubilee year was a year of rest (so yes, there would be two rest years in a row), and it was also when the servants would be set free, and the original tribal inheritances in the land would be restored to their original owners.     The Yovel year is closely related to the freedom we have been given during Shavuot.    

It is believed that the underlying blessing from heaven is actually the gift of contentment (שְׂבִיעוּת רָצוֹן), or being completely satisfied with little.  Rashi stated that the preceding promise, "you will eat to be satisfied" (Lev. 25:19) meant that "in your intestines there will be a blessing."    Simply put, this is a promise to be satisfied - to be free of inner craving, to be unconstrained by lust, hunger, etc.

This is considered a greater miracle than even the threefold provision of harvest promised for observing Shemittah.     Often it is a curse to be well-off, since the rich tend to forget God and vainly believe that their own efforts bring them blessing.  As David wrote, "Let their table be a snare for them..." (Psalm 69:22; Rom. 11:9).

Rav Shaul put it this way in Phillipians 4:11,  “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content”.  Now THAT is Yovel.

But how can we experience Shemittah and Yovel in our everyday life?  Truly when we seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, contentment, rest and freedom will be added unto us. (Matthew 6:33 paraphrased.)


Jon Eaton.

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