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Parashat Behar

Parashat Behar is the thirty-second weekly portion in the Torah and the ninth in the Book of Leviticus (25:1-26:2). It is the shortest portion in the book, at fifty-seven verses. Indeed, the entire portion is focused on these two numbers, seven and fifty — in particular, the seventh year of the agricultural cycle occupies the first seven verses; and the fiftieth year, known as yovel (jubilee), occupies the next fifty.

As we noted last week, the previous portion, Parashat Emor, deals with two vectors of sanctity: holiness of person (the priestly caste) and holiness of time (the festivals). Now, the third aspect is explored: holiness of place, namely the Land of Israel. Because the land has inherent sanctity, it has its own sabbath, every seventh year in which fields, vineyards and orchards are left to grow on their own, and any man or beast is allowed to enjoy the produce. This underscores that the land belongs to God.

After seven sabbatical cycles of forty-nine years, the fiftieth is the jubilee year. Yovel is also a year to let agricultural land lie fallow, but it has too additional aspects: any ancestral land which has been sold over the past half-century is returned to its original owners or their heirs, and any slaves return to their families. The Torah then goes on to explore the laws of selling real estate and slavery in general. While most of the portion’s laws apply to all Israelites equally, the Torah notes the special status of the Tribe of Levi (not only the priests, but all of their cousins as well): instead of ancestral land, they have cities among all the other tribal territories. This allows them to serve as teachers and preachers for the entire nation. Interestingly, this portion is the only one in all of Leviticus to talk about the Levites as a whole.   

By completing the triad of sanctity, Parashat Behar makes clear what it means to be holy. The Holy Land is not the only spot on Earth which belongs to God, just as the Sabbath and festivals are not the only times during which God is manifest. Similarly, the holiness of the priests or Levites or the Israelites as a whole does not indicate that the rest of humanity is distanced from God. Rather, the special laws of the Land of Israel, of the People of Israel, and of the Festivals of Israel are meant to be a template to bring the presence of God into every place, every person and every day.


The portion from the Prophets is Jeremiah 32, according to most customs, in which the prophet is told to purchase a field from his kinsman even as the Babylonians are about to invade. This expresses faith in the ultimate redemption of the Promised Land, a central theme of Parashat Behar. Italian and Yemenite Jews read a section from Jeremiah 17, threatening a very different type of release for the land, the deportation of its inhabitants — i.e., exile.

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