Parashat B’har 5784

23 May 2024 – 15 Iyyar 5784

Rabbi Mark Goldsmith


The Sabbatical and the Jubilee – rest a while to achieve more.

Most Jews are familiar with the cycle of the Jewish year and indeed in last week’s Torah portion, Emor, we heard all about the yearly journey from Pesach to Shavuot to Rosh Hashnah and Yom Kippur and onwards to Sukkot and Simchat Torah, the festivals at the time of the Torah.

Our potion this week, Behar introduces the cycle of years to the Israelite people.  Every seven years, the Sabbatical, the land should be allowed to rest and be restored from intensive agriculture.  At the end of every forty-nine years the Jubilee year would be declared and all would return to their ancestral holdings, meaning that no one could accumulate a large land holding beyond a single generation.

In ancient Israel we can know for sure that the Sabbatical year took place.  There are mentions of Sabbatical year observance in the writings of the Roman Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (Antiquities 12.378; 23.234; 14.202-206) and 1 Maccabees (6:49).   In these years those who observed would only eat the natural growth of their fields and would not work the land as normal.

In the modern State of Israel there are a number of kibbutzim and moshavim which observe the Sabbatical year, with signs put up on temporarily barren fields saying ‘here we observe the Sabbatical’.   When you buy a bottle of kosher wine from Israel, such as Palwins, it will often have written on the label, in Hebrew, that you can be assured that, in the vineyards, the Sabbatical year was observed.   No reason for the observance is given in the Torah.  However, before knowledge of crop rotation was established, the idea of resting land periodically was a sensible way to improve future harvests.   The concept has, of course, entered professional life, particularly for academics and clergy where a Sabbatical is a period where the person can restore themselves, dedicate themselves to learning or to a long term project before returning to their customary work.   Last year I was on Sabbatical for some months from Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue and was able to make a major contribution to the new Reform Machzor (High Holy Days prayer book) as a result.

It is unlikely that the Jubilee land restoration was ever observed, especially after the destruction of the first Temple when the tribal, ancestral, holdings could no longer be identified (BT Arachin 12b).   Perhaps those who had accumulated land were never willing to give it up.   Perhaps those who had relocated elsewhere in the land of Israel did not wish to return to the area where there family had come from.   The extra-biblical Book of Jubilees, possibly compiled in the second century BCE, is partly a polemic to say that some of the woes of Israel stem from the land restoration never having occurred, or at least not in the ‘right’ year.

These ancient traditions can still have much meaning for us today.    An overexploited Earth without regard to its natural cycles cannot, in the long term, be a productive Earth that can support life sustainably.   Nor can an overexploited person be productive and creative to the best of their abilities.   The Sabbatical idea of rest and a change of pace is good for our planet and all of us.

In Leviticus 25:14, apparently referring to the calculation of leasehold terms for land during the period of years leading up to a Jubilee, Torah says:  When you sell property to your neighbour, or buy anything from the hand of your neighbour, you shall not wrong one another.  Mishnah (Bava Metzia 4:4) turns this into a requirement for all buyers and sellers not to overcharge each other nor take advantage of a undercharge to an extent of more than one sixth of the proper value of an object (ona’ah).   It does not matter if you are a Jewish buyer or seller, you must deal in good faith.  Our aim for exemplary business ethics is rooted in putting the Torah of Behar in all our transactions.

Share this Thought for the Week