Parashat Behar

May 27-28, 2016 – 20 Iyyar 5776
Annual (Leviticus 25:1-26:2): Etz Hayim p. 738; Hertz p. 531
Triennial (Leviticus 25:29-26:2): Etz Hayim p. 742; Hertz p. 535
Haftarah (Jeremiah 32:6-27): Etz Hayim p. 759; Hertz p. 539

PDF Behar 5776

Words Can do Damage – Beware
Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, CY Faculty

Parashat Behar presents two important economic institutions intended to promote social justice and equality in the land of Israel: Shemitah – the seventh year during which the land is given rest from farming and the fields and orchards are open to all [in Deut 15:1-2 this is broadened to include the remission of loans], and Yovel – the fiftieth year, in which slaves were to be freed and land that had changed hand in the last 49 years returns to its original owners.  In the course of detailing their regulations, the Torah lays down a rule prohibiting ona’ah (אונאה) – “wronging” others.  In fact it is stated twice:

“When you sell property to your neighbor or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong (AL TONU) one another” (Lev. 25:14).

Do not wrong (V’LO TONU) one another; but fear your God, for I am the Lord, your God” (Lev. 25:17).

The English translation of the term ona’ah here “wronging” is correct but too broad. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch defines it as taking advantage of the weakness of another in order to deprive him (לקפח) financially.  In relation to the ger [the stranger], e.g. Ex 22:20, it means more “afflict.”  The Rabbis took the close repetition of the prohibition here to indicate two major categories of ona’ah.  As Rashi explains, the first verse refers to financial misdeeds (אונאת ממון), whereas the second verse refers to verbal wronging (אונאת דברים).

The Talmud deals with commercial dishonesty at length (Bava Metzia Ch. 4).  For example, a seller is not allowed to deceive a customer by disguising old or low-class produce as new or high quality. Nor is one allowed to overcharge: a price one-sixth over the market rate is grounds for cancelling a sale, even though the buyer had agreed to it.

The gravity of financial misbehavior can be understood from what the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) says will be the first question one is asked on getting to heaven, for the final judgment: “נשאת ונתת באמונה Did you conduct your business dealings with integrity?”

Verbal ona’ah includes saying things which, without justification, cause other people pain, ridicule or inconvenience, such as asking a vendor the price of a product where one has no intention to buy it or reminding a repentant sinner of his prior misdeeds or a convert to Judaism of her previous religion. Maimonides forbids one to ask another person about a subject which the latter does not really understand, lest this cause embarrassment or discomfort.

The Rabbis attached great severity to ona’at dvarim, verbal misdeed.  Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai said: verbal ona’ah is more heinous than monetary ona’ah,” since its verse in the Torah says “and you shall fear your God.”  Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani agreed, explaining that while compensation is possible for monetary wrongs, it is not for the pain of insult and humiliation.

The common characteristics of both types of ona’ah are the exploitation of another’s weakness and insensitivity to his feelings. The prohibitions of ona’ah set high moral standards for society and reflect great sensitivity to the dignity and emotions of others, particularly those in weaker or lower positions in society.  The modern world would do well to learn from these laws in order to improve relations, both between individuals and between nations.

A Vort for Parashat Behar
Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, CY Faculty

On integrity in dealings (Lev 25:14), the story is told of a young grandson of R’ Avraham Landa of Tshechenov (19th C, north-central Poland) whose intended bride was from a well-to-do family in Pultusk. One day, in R’ Avraham’s absence, the youth took some small change from his grandfather’s coat pocket. When R’ Avraham realized what had happened he immediately summoned the girl’s father. The gentleman came quickly, worried that some flaw had been found in the bride’s family. R’ Avraham told the story of the grandson, offering the option of cancelling the shiduch. “No problem,” said the relieved father. “I just wanted to be sure that there is no basis for a claim that the engagement was agreed to under false pretenses,” R’ Avraham concluded.

Table Talk
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, CY Faculty

In our Parasha we meet several laws that if fully observed in their utopian form, would have helped make society less divided into socio-economic groups.

1)  The Parasha opens with the instructions regarding the Sabbatical year that takes place once every 7 years in the Land of Israel (25:1-7). Who is ‘observing’ a Shabbat that year? How do we practice this Shabbat? What gave God the ‘right’ to demand this from us (v.2)?

2) After 7 Sabbatical cycles, the Torah requires a Jubilee year. This is similar to the Sabbatical year in agriculture, but there is an additional important component regarding the land. What happens to land during the Jubilee year (v.13)? What effect does this have on people’s socio-economic positions?

3)  The restrictions on agricultural activities in the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year cause certain challenges. What might they be? Did your idea match the question that the Torah anticipated (v.20)? What is the concern? What is the answer (vv.21-22)?

4)  Land cannot be sold permanently. What reason does God give for this (v.23)? How does this idea fit attitudes about land today? How do you feel about this idea?

5)  If a person becomes so poor that he has no options left other than to sell himself into slavery, when is his exit date (vv.39-42)? Why is this a logical time for him to leave his position as a slave?