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Vayikra - Behar

Behar presents us with the Torah’s radical vision for society, which isn’t capitalism or socialism, but is a utopian vision of its own:

שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְרַע שָׂדֶךָ וְשֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְמֹר כַּרְמֶךָ וְאָסַפְתָּ אֶת־תְּבוּאָתָהּ׃ וּבַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן יִהְיֶה לָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַיקוָק שָׂדְךָ לֹא תִזְרָע וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תִזְמֹר׃

Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the LORD: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. (Vayikra 25:3-4)

In addition to this, all loans were written off in the shmitta year, that seventh year when the land rests. And then in the 50th year, right on the back of the shmitta 49th year (seven cycles of seven), is another year of cessation from farming. But on top of this:

וְשַׁבְתֶּם אִישׁ אֶל־אֲחֻזָּתוֹ וְאִישׁ אֶל־מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ תָּשֻׁבוּ׃

…each of you shall return to their ancestral land and each of you shall return to his family. (Vayikra 25:10)

The vision is a daring one. Nobody really owns anything in the long term. We are but tenants on God’s land. And every seven years we submit entirely to trusting God that enough will grow in the sixth year to sustain us for the seventh. As a Pardes teacher R. Meir Shweiger taught, “for six years we are capitalists, for the seventh, we are socialists.”

We are in a shmitta year currently (127 days remaining from Shabbat Behar!) and yet over the years, shmitta has, sadly, proved almost impossible to keep. Divrei HaYamim (Chronicles) tells us that the Israelites were exiled from the land for 70 years in order to make up for 70 missed shmitta years that were not kept. In that time of exile, with no Jewish farmers around, the land finally, ironically, gets its rest.

Then in Second Temple times, we do have sources which suggest that agricultural shmitta was being kept. However, Hillel saw that people were reluctant to lend money to the poor, knowing that loans would be written off in the shmitta year. Hillel created his famous prozbul, a contract where, even in the shmitta year, loans had to be repaid. The end result protected the poor, but in the process undid a key part of shmitta.

And so to our current times, where Rav Kook, seeing how the farmers of the early Yeshuv (modern resettlement of Jews in the land of Israel) would not last through a year without farming, allowed the heter mechira, which enables Jews to sell their land to a non-Jewish person for the year, therefore still technically being able to farm and sell the produce. Today, walk around Israeli supermarkets and farms and you will see signs informing consumers that the right boxes have been ticked to discharge the heter mechira.

How far we are from the original bold utopian vision of the Torah. It is not that Jewish farmers historically or today are to blame - they need to subsist, as do all of us who expect the luxury of full supermarket shelves. And our rabbinic tradition is accustomed to honing the Torah to something more livable - think about “an eye for an eye,” the stubborn and rebellious son or the Torah’s laws around marriage - all of these have been given rabbinic treatment to bring them into line with how post-Biblical societies operate.

But are we left impoverished of the vision the Torah had for social levelling, releasing people from crippling debt or slavery, and treating the land as something worthy of just “being” without the need for endless production and profit?

A saying goes “one who sows utopia, reaps reality” - if you set out to build a dream world, you will end up with something demoralisingly banal. But perhaps the opposite needs to be true too. If you sow reality, (employing prozbul or heter mechira for example) make sure you do so in such a way as to reap utopia. Do not become what the Rambam called a נבל ברשות התורה, a scoundrel with the permission of the Torah.

How we balance our responsibility as a rabbinic religion to make Judaism livable, with our responsibility as God-fearing people to be true to the spirit of the Torah - this is the big question that follows me around these days. I have no clear answers, but perhaps these words of the Chazon Ish can serve as guidance:

כל מצות התורה וחוקיה, ניתנו ללמד מהן מלבד פרטי מצותן, את חפץ ד' מאיתנו בהנהגתנו

All the commands of the Torah and its laws - it is possible to derive from them, beyond the details of the commandments, what God's desires from our behaviour.


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