B’har / B’chukotai (On the mountain/ By My Laws)

B’har – Leviticus 25:1 to 26:2
B’chukotai – Leviticus 26:3 to 27:34

The Sabbatical year (every 7 years) and Jubilee Year (every 50 years) are explained. The comments that follow show the effects of these celebrations on the people of Israel.

Again we have a double portion. These parshot conclude the book of Leviticus. B’har presents the laws relating to the Sabbatical year – occurring every seventh year – and the Jubilee Year – occurring after the seventh Sabbatical year … seven times seven years plus one – or every fifty years.

B'harDuring the Sabbatical year the land is given a rest. Fruit or grains that grow on the untended land may be eaten by any person. This includes the needy, the hungry, or the owners of the land…. Torah also states that the food can be claimed by any wild beast. This growth can not be stored by the owner… It is not the owner’s property, but that of the land which ultimately belongs to the Eternal.

During the Jubilee year the land continues to be in a state of rest for a second successive year. After this year the land returns to the original owners – or their heirs – as established by the Eternal when the Israelites entered the land.

Modern Torah commentator Baruch A. Levine (Professor Emeritus of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University) “explains the goal of the jubilee laws regarding the return of lands to the original owners as a means of insuring the Land of Israel for the Jewish people. The original family was understood to mean the families, or heirs of the families, at the time the Israelites entered Israel. It was not a matter of morality, theology, or agricultural renewal; it was a matter of politics.”

“Levine explains that this part of the Torah may have been composed after the Jewish people returned from Babylonian exile in about 420 B.C.E.. They had been promised by the Babylonian ruler, Cyrus, that they could repossess the land. In returning after nearly eighty years of exile, they found their holdings in the hands of other Jews and many non-Jews. A crisis faced them. How could they settle the land when it now ‘belonged’ to others?”

“The Jubilee law of returning the land to the original families, who had been given it at the time of Joshua, seemed to settle the issue. God had given the land to the people of Israel, family by family. While land could be sold, any land sale remained in effect until the next Jubilee year. At each Jubilee the land was to revert to the original family. When Jews returned to the Land of Israel from Babylonia, this meant that, at the Jubilee, all lands, whether owned by Jews or non-Jews, were to be returned to their original owners. As Levine says, ‘The goal was to regain control over the land.’ In this way rich and poor were equal. Both classes would regain their lands.” (JPS Commentary, Leviticus, pp. 270-274: as summarized in A Torah Commentary For Our Times,, Harvey J. Fields, Volume 2, p.355)

The Torah also tells us that any Israelites in slavery should also return to their families during the Jubilee year. … “For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude – You shall not rule over them ruthlessly; you shall fear your God.” (Lev. 25:42-43)

These ending thoughts of returning land to original owners and freedom for slaves offers a completely opposite situation that of the ending of Exodus where the Pharaoh, through Joseph’s actions, gained control of all the land and created virtual slaves out of all the land owners in exchange for food during the seven year famine. Nahama Leibowitz (Professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem) comments further on this idea. She quotes nineteenth-century America thinker Henry George by pointing out that the Jubilee was “a measure designed to maintain an even distribution of wealth.” Leibowitz looks back to Exodus and sees that Moses realized from his experience in Egypt that the masses were enslaved as a result of a monopoly of land ownership and the placement of wealth in the hands of the rich. According to Henry George’s view, the Torah’s actions during the Jubilee year of returning the land to its original owners, and freeing of the slaves was seen as the best means of promoting justice and equity. (Studies in Vayikra, pp. 260-261, as featured in A Torah Commentary For Our Times,, Harvey J. Fields, Volume 2, p.355)

It is also noted by Harvey Fields in A Torah Commentary For Our Times that these laws even though they are several thousands of years old, still challenge many of the social, religious, and economic policies and priorities of today.

…. And, as usual, at the end of each book of Torah we say … Chazak, Chazak, Venitchazak: From strength to strength we strengthen each other. May we continue to find strength and friendship through our “journey” through the Torah.

Earl Sabes

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