Hebrew Insights into Parashot Be’har/Bechu’kotai – VAYIKRA (Lev.) 25:1-26:2;26:3-Ch.27
The first verse of Parashat B’har (meaning, "In Mount…") serves to remind us that YHVH’s
words to the Children of Yisrael, via Moshe, were spoken in Mount Sinai.
The opening of the Parasha focuses on the seventh year suspension of all soil cultivation (known as “Shmita,” whose root sh.m.t is mentioned in Parashat Mishpatim Ex. 23:11. See Heb. Insights into Parashat Mishpatim Ex. 21-24). In spite of this edict regarding work cessation, it is stated, "the Sabbath of the land shall be to you for food…" (25:6). This declaration contains the familiar and principal thought, similar to the one that accompanies the weekly Shabbat, that YHVH is the Provider and thus the members of the community are afforded an opportunity to exercise faith throughout that year. In fact, contrary to ‘human logic,’ this very rest (of obedience) will result in abundance.
Secondly, every member of the community, as well as the livestock, is equally promised provision for that time period ( ref. 25: 6, 7). Again, not unlike the weekly Shabbat, the benefits of YHVH's year of land-rest apply to one and all without regard to status and origin. However, this “Shabbat of Shabbats” (v. 4) year, together with the 50th year Jubilee, the "yovel" to which the rest of this Parasha is dedicated - apply only in the Land of Yisrael.
In verse 3 we read: "You shall sow your field six years, and you shall prune your vineyard six years, and shall gather its produce." "Produce" or "provender" is “t'vua,” of the root b.o. (vet/bet, vav, alef), meaning “to come, come in or go in"; but also, in another conjugation, to “bring.” Thus, the term "produce" does not convey the idea of something which results merely from man's own productivity or effort, but rather it is that which "comes" or is "brought" to him from an outside source.
As already mentioned, following YHVH's instructions guarantees that “…you shall live on the land securely. And the land shall give its fruit, and you shall eat to satisfaction; and you shall dwell securely on it" (25:18, 19). To this promise, there will be an extra and supernatural blessing added: "I have commanded My blessing on you in the sixth year. And it shall produce the increase for three years; and you shall sow the eighth year, and shall eat of the old crop until the ninth year, until the coming [bo] in of its produce [t'vua]; you shall eat of the old" (21-22, italics added). Here again we see the connection between “produce” and the verb "to come" (remember, both originate in the same root).
The un-gathered harvest is called “that which grows of itself” – “safee’ach,” of the root s.f.ch (samech, fey, chet), literally “adding, attaching, joining” (25:5 ,11). In light of verse 25:23, where those addressed (the Yisraelites) are called, “strangers [gerim] and sojourners,” it is interesting to note how the verb s.f.ch is used Yishayahu (Isaiah) 14:1: For YHVH will have mercy on Jacob, and will still choose Israel, and settle them in their own land. The strangers (gerim) will be joined with them [nisfe’chu], and they will cling to the house of Jacob” (Italics added).
"Your unkempt grapes" (v. 5, 11) are called here “ee'nvey (“grapes of”) nezir'cha.” The latter term is rooted in the word “nazir” (Nazarite), whose restrictive vows include abstention from wine drinking or grape eating. Why are these grapes qualified by the term “nazir”? The connection is thought to be the Nazarite's hair, which was to be left uncut and unkempt, much like these grape vines. This is reinforced by the first part of verse 5 ("that which grows of itself," alluding to unkemptness).
The second part of the Parasha, as we noted above, deals with the Year of the “Yovel” ("jubilee," which is a direct derivative of “yovel”). The primary meaning of yovel is thought to be the word for “horned animal” or for the "horn" itself, which was used for multiple purposes in the ancient Israelite community. Quite possibly the role of the “horned animal” (such as the bull or ox), in leading solemn processions has branched off into nouns and verbs that share the root y.v/b.l (yod, bet/vet, lamed) and are therefore connected to “leading.” The verb “hovel” is to "lead," thus forming the noun for "stream" which is “yuval,” and for the "produce of the soil" – “y'vul” (the ‘issue proceeding out of the ground’). Another interesting derivative of this root is “tevel,” meaning "world." This renders the world and its elements (e.g. streams and produce) as mere ‘issues,’ or results that proceed (or ‘are led’) from that which has originally formed or produced them, but which exists outside of them. Notice the conceptual (and etymological) similarity to our former observation of the term "provender" - t'vua. “The earth is YHVH’s, and the fullness of it; the world (“tevel”), and those who dwell in it” (Ps. 24:1), affirms this very point.
Aside from letting the land lie fallow during the year of the “yovel,” that year was also to be “sanctified” (“vekidashtem”) for the purpose of "proclaiming liberty in the land to all its inhabitants…" (25:10). "Liberty" is “dror,” which is the same word for the bird known as "swallow" (e.g. Pr. 26:2), thus lending a graphic rendition to this term. The yovel year signifies and stipulates that all property, or its calculated value in another form, is to be returned to its original owner. “Dror” for “liberty” is also mentioned in Yishayahu 61:1-2a, where we read: The Spirit of Adonai YHVH is upon Me, because YHVH has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty [d’ror] to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of YHVH… This “acceptable” year, when “liberty” is proclaimed to the captives, etc. seems to be alluding also to a Jubilee, although of a grander scale.
But above all the human benefits attached to the yovel, there is a greater significance for its proclamation, a significance that at the same time also forms a ‘Divine paradox’ so typical of Hebraic logic. In 25:23 we read: “And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is Mine; for you are aliens and tenants with Me." "Perpetuity" here is “tzmi'toot,” stemming from the root tz.m.t (tzadi, mem, tav) which is “to end, put an end to something" or “to freeze assets.” Thus, reverting property to its original owner demonstrates the fact that it actually belongs to… YHVH, as we just learned from the above Psalm. And as much as the Torah stresses ownership rights, it also reminds us, almost in the same breath, who the real owner is and that “we have no permanent city here, but we seek the one to come" (Hebrews 13:14).
As already mentioned, following YHVH's instructions will ensure that…"you shall live on the land securely. And the land shall give its fruit, and you shall eat to satisfaction; and you shall dwell securely on it" (25:18,19). An additional and supernatural blessing will then be added: "I have commanded My blessing on you in the sixth year. And it shall produce the increase for three years; and you shall sow the eighth year, and shall eat of the old crop until the ninth year, until the coming in of its produce; you shall eat of the old" (21-22).
Another aspect of the yovel is redemption, “geula,” whose primary meaning is "kin" (denoted by “go’el”). It is the next-of-kin's duty to buy back that which a member of the family has lost - or perhaps even the family member himself, if he had been conscripted to slavery. In the case of a Hebrew servant, he is to be released on the yovel…"because they are My servants, whom I have brought out from the land of Egypt" (v. 42 italics added). The context of this verse deals accordingly with the releasing of slaves; Biblical Hebrew for "slave" and "servant" is one and the same - e'ved - from the root e.v.d (ayin, vet, dalet), meaning "work" or "labor" (and also rendering service/worship of YHVH).
Proper treatment of one's fellow fellow citizen, defined as "brother," prohibits charging usury, or interest (ref. v. 36, 37). The two words used are “neshech” and “marbit.” The root of neshech (n.a.ch, noon, alef, chaf) is also the root for the verb “to bite." "Those who bite" (e.g. Habbakuk 2:7) are therefore the oppressors and debtors. “Marbit” is from the root r.v/b.a (resh, vet/bet, hey) which literally means "much, many, to add, to make greater, to increase"; hence “marbit” is a "monetary increment."
As part of taking care of one’s “brother,” if one’s relative has lost his assets and was sold to “a stranger who sojourns with you, or to a member of the stranger’s familly who has become sufficient” (literal translation) the first party is obliged to redeem him (ref. 25:47). The “member of the stranger’s family” is called here “eker,” which is a most unusual term. The root a.k.r (ayin, kof, resh) basically means “to uproot,” and thus a “barren woman” is “akara.” However, since some shoots are plucked out from the parent plant and replanted, it also means “a shoot.” Its usage here, in relationship to the stranger’s family member could also point out to the fact that the stranger is “plucked out” from his natural environment and has been transplanted into a different soil. Further, should the misfortune, of being sold as a slave, become the lot of a native Israelite, he too would feel as though “plucked out” and “uprooted.”
Aside from instructions as to how to calculate his redemption payment (25:50-53), specifics are given as to the possible next of kin who is to redeem the one who has “become poor” (“mooch”, root of m.oo.ch – mem, vav, kaf – impoverish, become low). Having once been others’ servants, the sons of Yisrael are now the servants of the One who redeemed them from that lowly state (ref. 25:55), hence YHVH requires that that Redemption be continually operative by the means that He is providing for His people.
The topic of the Land, and its centrality in the life of the Israelites and their relationship with YHVH, continues in Parashat Bechukotai ("In My Statutes"), as seen in 26:3-12. The paradigm of keeping YHVH's statutes is destined to be reflected in the natural conditions of the Land of Yisrael. The correlation continues in the form of abundance of rain (and therefore of crops), the removal of dangerous carnivores, the ability to defeat the enemy, demographic expansion, abundance and prosperity. The other advantage resulting from faithfulness to YHVH and His Word will be peaceful conditions prevailing in the Land and its surroundings. Above all stands the (potential) fulfillment of YHVH's promise to have His tabernacle in the midst of His people, and to always walk among them (ref. 26:11, 12).
In 26:5 we read…”and your threshing shall reach [or overtake] the vintage, and the vintage shall reach [or overtake] the sowing time; and you shall eat your bread to satisfaction, and live in your land securely.” This is especially pertinent in light of the above, Parashat B’har’s sh’mita-year promise: “Then I will command My blessing on you in the sixth year, and it will bring forth produce enough for three years” (25:21 italics added). In a prophecy pertaining to a latter day, the Prophet Amos predicts: "The plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who draws along seed" (9:13). Moreover, echoing 25:22 (“and [you] shall eat of the old crop… until the coming in of its crop; you shall eat of the old") from the previous Parasha, verse 10 says, "And you shall eat very old provision, and clear away the old because of the new." In other words, not only will there be a long and lasting overabundance which will remain fresh and usable for the entire time period, but even before it is fully consumed there will be a fresh crop!
Above (in 25:36, 37) we examined one of the words for "interest," tarbit, whose root is r.v/b. Another word stemming from the same root is revava. Thus, as part of the promises associated with the Land (and with obedience to the prohibition to refrain from extorting one’s fellowman), we read in verse 26:8 "…and one hundred of you shall pursue ten thousand (revava)…" (emphasis added).
These promises are sealed with the familiar: "I am YHVH your Elohim, who has brought you out of the land of the Egyptians, from being their slaves; and I will break the bars of your yoke, and I will make you walk upright" (26:13). "Walking upright" is ko'memi'yoot, of the root k.o.m (kof, vav, mem), meaning "to rise or get up." In Parashot Va'ye'tze (Gen. 28:10-32:2) and Vayishlach (Gen. 32:3-36) we noticed the significance of Ya'acov's "rising up," as well as that of the special "place" - ma'kom (of the same root) - where he experienced some of this "rising" (see Gen. 28:11ff; 32:31). Here the sons of this Patriarch are promised "an upright walk" providing they do so in Elohim's chosen paths. Additionally, in 26:37 we encounter the word tkuma, translated "power to stand," the more modern usages being "resurrection" and "recovery."
But if Yisrael chooses to “...despise My statutes, or if your soul abhors My judgments, so that you do not perform all My commandments, but break [invalidate] My covenant” (26:15 italics added), a long list of punitive measures follow. “Abhor” here is “tig’al” (root g.a.l gimmel, ayin, lamed), making its first appearance in the Word in verse 11 (of chapter 26). Some may recognize the similarity of this verb to ga’al – redeem (gimmel, alef, lamed), a minor change in spelling and sound (ayin versus alef), and yet a world of difference! Making void the covenant signifies removing one’s self from under the protective umbrella of redemption, which can no longer be exercised. Further in verse 18 we read: “if you do not obey Me, then I will punish you seven times more for your sins.” The chastisement of “seven times over” is also mentioned in verses 21, 24 and 28. As part of YHVH’s covenant with His people, provision for national atonement for sin was made available by the high priest sprinkling seven times the blood of a goat on the mercy seat on the Day of Atonement (ref. Lev. 16:15). Hence, their nullifying of the covenant would result in a similarly seven-fold outcome.
Thus YHVH will not "make them walk uprightly" (as we saw above), but instead will inflict upon them a series of blows. Moreover, He will also "walk contrary" to them (ref. v. 24). The expression "walking contrary" is used nowhere else except in this chapter, where it appears… seven times! The word used for "contrary" – keri - probably stems of the root k.r.h (kof, resh, hey), meaning "to happen." Rashi comments on this: “Our rabbis said: ‘This word signifies irregularly, by chance, something that happens only occasionally. Thus [meaning], 'if you will follow the commandments irregularly…’” Menahem explains it as an expression for refraining, cf…”Refrain (hoker) your foot from your neighbor's house” (Prov. 25:17), or of a refraining (va'yikar) spirit…."1. “Keri,” therefore, may refer to an avoidance of performing YHVH’s Word, along with a casual and a nonchalant attitude which was also condemned by Yeshua in Revelation 3:15,16, where we read: "I wish you were cold or hot… So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot I will spew you out of my mouth," leading us to the curse of eventually being spewed out of the Land (26:32 – 39, and also Lev. 20:22). The “contrary walking” incurs “seven-fold chastisement.”
The list of curses (26:14-43) is somewhat parallel to the list of the blessings, albeit much longer. It is divided up into several progressive categories: diseases, defeat, draught, carnivorous animals, and a combination of war, plagues and famines which will cause parents to consume their own children's flesh. Finally, after the destruction of the idols and pagan images, the People of Yisrael will be dispersed among the Gentile nations. Under these conditions, and once the Land has been emptied out of its inhabitants, its Shabbats will be repaid (as the Israelites did not keep the Sabbatical years that we read about in the former Parasha above). These Shabbats will "appease" the land, with the word used here being tirzeh (of the root “ratzon” - “will or acceptance”). Thus, the land "will be appeased" (v. 34, 35) and “accept” its inhabitants. Accordingly, the "year of acceptance" (that we looked at above in Isaiah 61:2) is “sh'nat ratzon.” The same word for “acceptance” appeared in Parashat Emor, where we read in 23:11 about the Omer: "And he [the priest] shall wave the sheaf before YHVH, to be accepted [lirtzon'chem] for you…" (italics added). As we saw above, negligence to observe the Shmita on the seventh year is what makes the figure ”seven” stand out, relative to sin and the penalties subsequently incurred. The usage of seven here reminds us of some of the commands, which the Israelites will be transgressing, that are related to the figure seven, such as the seventh day of the week, the seventh year of rest, and the seven years multiplied by seven leading to the Jubilee, the 50th year of release of all debts and property
The last part of the Parasha deals with laws concerning vows to YHVH (chapter 27), among which are those that pertain to the tithes. In verses 32-33 we read: “And all the tithe of the herd, or of the flock, all that passes under the rod, a tenth shall be holy to YHVH. He shall not search whether it is good or bad; neither shall he change it…” (italics added). Y’chezkel (Ezekiel) 20:37-38 echoes the terms we encounter here, applying them to YHVH’s sheep and to the land of their inheritance: “And I will cause you to pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant. And I will purge out from among you the rebels and those who sin against Me. I will bring them out from the land where they reside, and they shall not enter into the land of Israel” (italics added). In the above Vayikra (Leviticus) text, we encountered “He shall not search” – “lo ye’vaker” (v. 33). Y’chezkel 34:11-12 reiterates this phrase, though this time with a positive intent, and so we read: “For so says Adoni YHVH: Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out – uvikarteem, as the seeking out – kevakarat – of the shepherd of his flock in the day that he is among his scattered sheep, so I will seek out – a’vaker - My sheep and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered …” (literal translation, italics added)
The final verse, which is similar to the opening verse of Parashat B’har (referring to Mount Sinai), seals off the Parasha, and indeed the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) with the words: "These are the statutes which YHVH made between him and the children of Israel in Mount Sinai by the hand of Moses" (v. 34 italics added).
 New Studies in Vayikra, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner
Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed
Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.
Some of the word meanings were gleaned from:
The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon, Francis Brown
Hendrickson. Publishers, Peabody, Mass. 1979
Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris, Moody
Press, Chicago, 1980.