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Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25-27 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

In the penultimate parsha of the Book of Vayikra the text returns us to the locale where the Torah was given: Sinai. We cannot help but ask why the law taught in the beginning of Parshat Behar, as opposed to all of the other laws mentioned in the book of Vayikra, is specifically associated with Sinai. Perhaps understanding the law which is taught will help us understand why the location is significant.

And God spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them: When you come into the land which I give you, the land will keep a Shabbat to God. (Vayikra 25:1-2)

This is the law of shmitah, the sabbatical year, referred to as a type of Sabbath with which we are thus far unacquainted. Up to this point, "Shabbat" has referred to an appointed day of the week, or of the year, that is set aside as holy. The Sabbaths outlined in last week's parsha, Parshat Emor, were called mo'adim, appointed days, meeting points in time, as it were, which create a rendezvous with God. Like Shabbat, these days are imbued with kedushat hazman, "holiness of time" and hence just as Shabbat(1) may be called a mo'ed,(2) so can the holidays be called Shabbat.(3)

Parshat Behar presents a new kind of Shabbat, one which will affect the land. The land will lie fallow one year in seven, and it will be a "Shabbat" for God. But the Torah does not stop there: aside from this sabbatical cycle of rest for the land one year in seven, a larger cycle is revealed. After seven cycles of seven years, after the forty-ninth year, we arrive at the Jubilee year - the Yovel.

And you shall count for you seven sabbaths of years, seven times seven years; and you shall keep the days of seven sabbaths of years, forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the blast of the shofar (horn) in the seventh month on the tenth day of the month; on Yom Kippur, sound the shofar throughout your land. And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a Yovel (Jubilee Year) for you; and you shall return, every man to his possession, and every man shall return to his family. A Yovel shall that fiftieth year be to you; you shall neither sow nor reap that which grows of itself, nor gather the grapes of the undressed vines. For it is a Yovel; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat the produce of the field [in that year]. In this year of Yovel every man will return to his possession. And if you sell anything to your neighbor, or buy from your neighbor's hand, do not deceive one another. (Vayikra 25:8-14)

At the end of the forty-nine year cycle, on Yom Kippur of the fiftieth year, a shofar blast is sounded. The choice of Yom Kippur as the critical day requires some explanation. Had the last day of the previous year or the first day of the new year (either the first or second day of Rosh Hashana, respectively) been chosen, things would have been clear;(4) as it stands, Yom Kippur seems a strange choice. An analysis of this choice will shed light on this particular "Shabbat" - and other festivals as well.

Yom Kippur is a day of renewal. Historically, it is the day the Jews were forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf. On the Tenth of Tishrei, Yom Kippur, Moshe descended the mountain with the second set of Tablets, hence it is the day that the Jews (finally) accepted the Torah. Subsequently, this same day is the day of forgiveness for all generations, a day of unparalleled holiness that is referred to as 'the Sabbath of Sabbaths,' Shabbat Shabbaton.(5)

The term Shabbat Shabbaton is also found in our present parsha, in reference to the shmita cycle:

And in the seventh year the land will have a Shabbat Shabbaton, a Shabbat to God; you shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard. (Vayikra 25:4)

The language of the verses creates a connection between Yom Kippur and the Shmita/Yovel cycle, but as we shall see, the connection is more than merely linguistic.

Though a rare occurrence, Yovel seems to have a parallel in a more- frequently celebrated holiday. The cycle of seven times seven is reminiscent of another mo'ed (festival) enumerated in Parshat Emor: Shavuot, named for the seven weeks counted from Pesach, celebrating the Exodus, to the day of the Revelation. The Jubilee cycle may thus be seen as a macrocosm of the omer period that culminates in the festival of Shavuot,(6) also known as Atzeret or Hag haBikurim.

The word Atzeret is also used in the Torah(7) in reference to Shmini Atzeret, the holiday that follows the seven days of Sukkot; once again, a sanctified day that is celebrated at the end of seven significant, festive, holy days. In fact, the Ramban makes this connection explicit: in his writings, a parallel is drawn between the seven days of hol hamo'ed Sukkot and the seven weeks of the omer. The omer is a macrocosm of Sukkot; hence there is an intrinsic relationship between Atzeret and Shmini Atzeret.(8)

Thus far, we have noted that Shmita and Yovel, Shabbat and Yom Kippur, Shavuot and Shmini Atzeret, all seem to share something very significant. The intricate interplay of the "cycle of seven and eight" is an indication of this deeper connection, a connection that, once revealed, will give us greater insight into the festivals themselves and into the unique reference to Mount Sinai regarding the Shmita/Yovel cycle.(9)

The seventh day is Shabbat; the next day, the eighth day, is the first day of the following week. However, the eighth is not always seen as the first of the new cycle of seven; often, the eighth is considered a continuation or completion of the previous seven. When this is so, the number eight is associated with the metaphysical aspects that lie beyond the natural order expressed by seven; hence, circumcision, which completes and perfects the natural cycle of birth, is on the eighth day.

Shmini Atzeret belongs in this same category. As a festival in and of itself, it is not a "repetition" of the first day of Sukkot; Shmini Atzeret is imbued with a new type of holiness, which follows seven days of holiness. So, too, the cycle of the omer, which culminates in Shavuot: the fiftieth day follows seven weeks of seven days. The fiftieth day parallels the mystical, metaphysical number eight. We might say that Shavuot takes the "Shabbat model" one step further: If the seventh day is Shabbat, this fiftieth day, the day the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, is Shabbat Shabbaton. For this same reason, the day that the second set of Tablets was given - Yom Kippur - is also called "Shabbat Shabbaton". It should not be a surprise, then, that we celebrate the completion of the reading of the Torah on the "other" eighth day - Shmini Atzeret. It is on this day, the eighth day that completes the festival of seven days, that our sages instructed us to complete, and immediately renew, the yearly Torah cycle. Shmini Atzeret therefore bears a fundamental similarity to Shavuot: Shmini Atzeret is the day we rejoice in the gift of Torah and reaffirm our commitment to Torah, renewing the cycle of reading and learning the Torah that was first given to us on Shavuot and later re-transmitted on Yom Kippur. Each of these three occasions represents, or perhaps is represented by, the number eight, Shabbat Shabbaton, which concludes, perfects, and re-launches the natural order.

All of this brings us back to Yovel, the Jubilee Year. The term Yovel makes an earlier appearance in the Torah, in the book of Shmot. In preparation for the giving of the Torah, Mount Sinai was declared holy, separated by a boundary that was temporarily erected and was enforced to prevent anyone from entering a section that contained 'too much' holiness.

And you shall set bounds for the people all round, saying: Take care not to go up the mount or to touch its borders; whoever touches the mount will be put to death; No hand shall touch it, or he shall surely be stoned, or shot through; whether it be beast or man, it shall not live; when the Yovel is sounded long, they shall come up to the mount.' (Shmot 19:12-13)

Rashi explains the word Yovel as "ram's horn,"(10) a sound blasted to indicate a cessation of holiness.(11) Similarly, even today the shofar is blown at the end of Yom Kippur to indicate that the holy day has come to an end. This is no random custom: at Sinai, while the mountain was suffused in holiness, Moshe alone entered the cloud which signified God's presence. There, he heard the Word of God and received the Tablets of Testimony. In a very carefully scripted parallel ritual, each year on Yom Kippur the Kohen Gadol ventured into the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the Beit haMikdash that is beyond the boundary where all others may go. There, he burned incense, producing a cloud reminiscent of the cloud that covered Mount Sinai, and he prayed for atonement for the entire nation, just as Moshe did on Mount Sinai.(12)

In his comments on the verses that describe the first yovel, the ram's horn that sounded a warning at Mount Sinai, Rashi adds one additional piece of information: this shofar was the horn of the ram that Avraham sacrificed as a replacement for Yitzchak.(13) The Ramban continues this stream of thought by telling us that in fact there is a multi-faceted connection between Yitzhak and the sights and sounds experienced at Mount Sinai. The yovel is the first such connection - the horn of the ram sacrificed at the Akeida produces the warning blast at Mount Sinai - but it is not the only connection: the sounds that the Children of Israel heard at the foot of Mount Sinai were so awe-inspiring that they were described by the Torah in very particular language(14) - language that connects them with "pachad Yitzchak" the fear of Yitzchak.(15)

And on the third day when the morning came, there was thunder and lightning and a heavy cloud on the mountain, and the sound of the shofar was extremely loud, and all the people in the camp trembled. (Shmot 19:16)

Aside from this description of the scene at Sinai,(16) the only other use of the word vayeherad, the fear or trembling experienced by the entire nation, is found in connection with Yitzchak:

And Yitzchak trembled very exceedingly, and said: 'Who, then is the one that trapped game and served it to me? I ate it all before you came, and I blessed him; the blessing shall remain his. (Bereishit 27:33)

Yitzchak's fear is understandable; his world had been shaken. It was not Esav who had previously brought him his food, it was Yaakov. Yitzchak knew Esav, the rugged hunter; perhaps he feared for Yaakov's wellbeing, knowing what Esav's reaction would be:

And Esav hated Yaakov because of the blessing which his father blessed him. And Esav said in his heart: 'Let the days of mourning for my father be at hand; then will I kill my brother Yaakov.' (Bereishit 27:41)

"Pachad Yitzchak," the fear and trembling with which Yaakov reacted, was fear for the continuity of Israel, fear for the consequences of what Yaakov had done in order to take upon himself the blessings. This same fear is what caused his descendents to tremble at Sinai: they understood fully the consequences of taking upon themselves the commitment to Torah. Becoming the nation that lived on the high standards imposed by Torah law also brought with it a down-side: responsibility, accountability. Failure to fulfill their obligations would bring punishments which, when meted out on a national scale, could threaten the very existence of the Jewish people.

Yaakov runs away, and for many years he is safe from his brother's anger. When he finally returns to the Land of Israel, as he approaches the border, he is frightened:

Then Yaakov was very frightened and distressed. And he divided the people accompanying him, and the flocks, and the herds, and the camels, into two camps. (Bereishit 32:8)

He then prays to God, and in very particular language he expresses his fears:

Rescue me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav; I fear him, for he can come and kill us all, mothers and children alike. (Bereishit 32:12)

Yaakov is afraid that the children would be killed with their mothers; this term recurs later in the Torah at the end of the 22nd chapter of Vayikra - almost immediately preceding the discussion of the mo'adim (festivals):

When a bullock, sheep, or goat, is born, it must remain with its mother for seven days; Then, from the eighth day and thenceforth it may be accepted as a fire offering to God. And whether it be a bull, a sheep or goat, you shall not kill a female and its child on the same day. (Vayikra 22:27-28)

Here we have another law which discusses the idea of seven and eight. A calf cannot be killed during the first seven days of its life - the minimum duration that one must wait is eight days,(17) and even then a mother should never be killed on the same day as its offspring.

At the very core of this law, we may discern more than a linguistic connection to Yaakov's fears: When Yaakov entered the room to bring the food for his father, the action that started the cycle of events which led to his exile, Yaakov brought two goats.

Go now to the flock, and fetch me two good goat kids; and I will make from them savory dishes for your father, such as he loves. (Bereishit 27:9)

The Midrash points to these two goats as the forerunners of the goats which would be brought on Yom Kippur:(18)

R. Helbo said: "Two good goat kids" - good for you, and good for your descendants. Good for you, since you will receive the blessings through them; and good for your descendants, who will be pardoned through them on the Day of Atonement, as it is written, 'For on this day shall atonement be made for you, etc.' [Vayikra 16: 30]. (Bereishit Rabbah 65:14)

In their own way, the midrashic masters point to a much larger philosophical issue that resurfaces in numerous discussions of our forefathers' lives and behavior: Although they lived long before the historical events celebrated by Jewish festivals, our forefathers were spiritually sensitive individuals who were able to sense the holiness intrinsic in the particular days on which, generations later, great events would transpire.(19)

Elsewhere, the Pirkei d'Rebbi Eliezer speaks of even an earlier occurrence of someone who "sensed" the tremendous spiritual capacity of the 15th of Nisan - Pesach - and wanted to bring an offering to God on that day. His name was Adam. In fact, the first offering recorded in the Torah was brought by his sons. The Midrash teaches that Kayin and Hevel did not come to the decision to bring offerings randomly; the Midrash explains that it was their father Adam who instructed them to do so:

And at the end of days (or, less literally, "An era ended", the era of Eden) it came to pass, that Kayin brought someof his crops as an offering to God. And Hevel also brought of the firstborn of his flock, from the fattest ones; and God responded to Hevel and to his offering. (Bereishit 4:3-4)

The Midrash fills in the background: the date that would one day be Pesach was quickly approaching. Adam sensed this, and told his sons that one day the Jews will bring offerings on this day, and they should as well. Kayin brought leftover roasted flax seed, while Hevel brought his choicest "firstlings;"(20) Kayin's offering was rejected while Hevel's offering was accepted.

Kayin felt stinging humiliation, and took his anger out on his brother in a brutal act of murder. Apparently, the "custom" of people not getting along between Pesach and Shavuot has its origin at the very dawn of history.(21)

As a punishment Kayin is made to wander. When he complains that life as a fugitive will be untenable, God responds:

And God said to him: 'Therefore, whoever kills Kayin, vengeance shall be taken on him shiv'atayim (sevenfold). (Bereishit 4:15)

The meaning of the word shiv'atayim is debated among the commentators. The normative understanding is 'seven times' or seven generations.(22) Rav Zadok Hakohen uses this word in an unexpected context; he says that the counting of the omer, the counting of seven times seven, is shiv'atayim.(23)

This startling association seems less strange when we consider it in the context of the larger cycles at play: On Pesach, when Kayin killed Hevel, we begin counting the omer - seven times seven. This, in Rav Zadok's view, is the shiv'atayim that protected Kayin. We continue counting until Shavuot, when the offering of the First Fruits, Bikurim, is brought - precisely the sacrifice Kayin did NOT bring.

The culmination of the counting of the omer is celebrated on Shavuot, the very day the Torah was given. As we have seen, this was made possible by the total unity the Jews experienced at Sinai, where they stood united as one person with one heart.(24) This unity is a tikun for the discord between Kayin and Hevel, echoed many years later when the brothers sold Yosef and unwittingly brought about their own enslavement in Egypt.

The days between Pesach and Shavuot are windows of spiritual opportunity. These are days that should be used for individual and national introspection, when we work both on personal and interpersonal traits, and strive to create the unity that was once achieved at the foot on Mount Sinai on the day that has come to be known as Shavuot. This yearly process of counting the omer and building upon the intrinsic powers of these days is intertwined the other 'seven times seven,' the cycle of Shmita and Yovel: On Yovel we turn back the clock, as it were. We break through the artificial boundaries that are erected between Jews, and each man returns to his natural place, to his inheritance in the land of Israel, and to his family and tribe. Yovel, which is parallel to Shavuot, is also a time of unity:

And if your brother is destitute, and his means fail, then you must support him, stranger or resident alike, and he shall live with you. Do not charge him interest or increase; fear your God, that your brother may live with you. (Vayikra 25:35-36)

This law teaches mutual responsibility. Unlike brothers who could not get along, unlike one brother who killed another, unlike brothers who sold their own brother into slavery, this law creates unity, like the unity achieved at Mount Sinai. Here, then, is the completion of the circle, the reason our parsha stresses that the laws of Shmita and Yovel were transmitted at Mount Sinai: these are laws that recreate the unity of Mount Sinai, enabling us to live as harmony, as brothers, united by history and destiny.

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! (Tehilim 133:1)



1. See Vayikra 23: 2-3. "Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them: 'The appointed seasons of God, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, these are My appointed seasons. Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation; you shall do no manner of work; it is a sabbath to God in all your dwellings." Verse 2 speaks of mo'ed (in the possessive plural mo'adai) while the next verse speaks of Shabbat, placing Shabbat in this category as well; Shabbat is also a "mo'ed" - a meeting point with God.

2. The word mo'ed is also familiar to us regarding sanctity of place - the Ohel Mo'ed, the "Tent of Meeting." For example, see Shmot 28:43.

3. See Vayikra 23:15, where the verse was taken literally by some dissidents to mean "Shabbat" the realization that "mo'ed" can mean Shabbat, should have helped resolve this confusion, and point to the solution that at times "Shabbat" can refer to a mo'ed - holiday. Also see Vayikra 23:37-39.

4. This point is actually part of a much larger and far more complex discussion of Yom Kippur's place in the calendar, to which I hope to devote further analysis at a later date.

5. See Vayikra 16:31, 23:32.

6. See Devarim 15:9-10.

7. Vayikra 23:36.

8. See Ramban, Vayikra 23:36.

9. See Mishna Hallah 4:10.

10. Rashi, Shmot 19:13.

11. Ibid. (Rashi, Shmot 19:13).

12. For more on this theme, see Emanations, p. 249ff.

13. Yitzchak was, in fact, the first person to be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth.

14. The Ramban quotes only the last part of this verse, though ostensibly the first part of the verse seems more germane to the discussion on the sound of the shofar.

15. Ramban, Shmot 19:13.

16. This same word is also used two verses later in Shmot; this time, to describe the trembling of Mount Sinai itself when God descended.

17. The Zohar Vayikra 91a, observes that this applies to humans as well, and therefore the brit milah is done only on the eighth day.

18. Another Midrash, found in the Pirkei d'Rebbi Eliezer, sees the goats that Yaakov offered Yitzhak as related to the offering of Pesach. See Pirkei d'Rebbi Eliezer, chapter 31 (in some editions, chapter 32), cited by Rashi, Bereishit 27:9.

19. This implies that the events may have occurred on these particular days because of the spiritual power inherent in the day. We may say that certain days are hard-wired for spirituality; there are times that are "windows" to holiness.

20. Pirkei d'Rebbi Eliezer, chapter 21.

21. Regarding the students of Rabbi Akiva who died between Pesach and Shavuot as a punishment for their lack of mutual respect, see Talmud Bavli Yevamot 62b.

22. See Rashi and Ibn Ezra. The Radak thinks it simply means "many times"; Seforno understands the word to mean "times seven."

23. Pri Zadik Chag Shavuot section 3.

24. See Rashi's comments to Shmot 19:2.



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