Monday, May 9, 2011

Hebrew Insights into Parashat B’har – Vayikra (Leviticus) – 25 – 26:2

Hebrew Insights into Parashat B’har – Vayikra (Leviticus) – 25 – 26:2

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 also 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.

Secondly, every member of the community, as well as the livestock, is equally promised provision for that time period (v. 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" which the rest of this Parasha is dedicated to - 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.

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" (21-23, italics and emphasis 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,” “safee’ach, of the root (samech, fey, chet), literally “adding, attaching.” In light of verse 23, where those addressed (the Yisraelites) are called, “strangers and sojourners,” it is interesting to note how the verb 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 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 grapes. This is reinforced by the first part of verse 5 ("that which grows of itself," alluding to unkemptness). These two prohibitions (namely, "not to reap that which grows of itself," and to "not gather the grapes of your unkempt vine") no doubt refer to harvesting for profit making-during that particular season.

As mentioned, the second part of the Parasha 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 similarity to our former observation, in 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.

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).

Regarding this issue, “the Biur explains the different elements manifested in the two clauses of the verse: a) Elohim’s sovereignty – the land is Mine; b) the transience of man and his brief sojourn upon earth… The author of Sefer haHinukh considers the educational message of the commandment… The Torah reminds man [who is inherently materialistic] that [property is] not really his, and that eventually all land must return to those who possessed it by the will of Elohim in the first place, for ‘His is the land’.” According to American 19th century economist, Henry George, “the Torah as a Code of Law aimed at ensuring justice, equity, and happiness for those who follow it. It sought to avoid the concentration of land, the source of life, wealth, and power in the hands of the few. “ Rav Kook, focusing on the spiritual aspects, claims that “all that economic disequilibrium… is but a synonym for ‘deviation and turpitude’[baseness or depravity, can refer specifically to: Moral turpitude, a legal concept in the United States] which call for ratification. They suppress…. the radiance of the spiritual splendor of the Divine soul that dwells in the nation, and the nature of those deeds dim the resplendent light of its splendor. For the supreme purpose of reaching the nearness of Elohim, He gave the Shabbat to every individual, the Shemitah year law.... and the laws of the yovel year… in order to rectify all ‘deviations’ of the past and to imbue the nation ‘with the spirit of forbearance and repentance’ that it may endeavor ‘to rectify the distortions of the past’”. [1] Repentance in connection with the yovel is quite pertinent, as the yovel is announced by blowing a shofar “in the seventh month, on the tenth day, on the day of atonement” (v. 9, literal translation).

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).

As part of the proper treatment of one's fellow countryman, defined as "brother," there is a prohibition against charging usury, or interest (ref. v. 36, 7). The two words used are “neshech” and “marbit.” The root of neshech (, 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."

The centrality of the Land in the life of the Israelites and their relationship with YHVH, are brought to bear in some of the terms we discussed above. In contrast, the “ger,” the sojourner, the one who merely resides, is called in verse 47 “eker,” which is translated “son or descendant of a sojourner.” However, “eker” is related to the verb “akor,” meaning “pluck out,” hence the sojourner is seen as an uprooted person. At the same time, the sons of Yisrael are not totally exempt from this definition either, as the Owner of the Earth says of them: “you are aliens and sojourners with Me” (verse 23).

Just as our Parasha opened up with the “When you come into the land which I give you, then the land shall keep a Sabbath to YHVH” (Leviticus 25:2 Italics added), so now it ends with the command to keep “My Sabbaths, I am YHVH” (26:2 Italics
added). Thus we see that not only are the Land (and its produce) and the People belong to YHVH, but so are the times and seasons, especially the ones that He had singled out.

[1] New Studies in Vayikra (II), 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.