Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 16 May 2020 / 22 Iyyar 5780

Parshat Behar - Bechukotai

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Library Library Library

Zero Tolerance for Abuse

Parshat Behar deals mostly with the laws of Shemitta and Yovel, but then segues into prohibitions against commercial fraud and verbal abuse. At first glance, these may appear disparate, but upon consideration of the fundamental aims of these commandments, the internal connection is apparent.

The Shemitta year, the “Sabbath of the land,” was an expression of homage to G-d. By ceasing from all agriculture activity and by relinquishing ownership over his land, the Jew remembers that his land belongs to G-d, and that he is merely a stranger and sojourner with G-d. He neither works his land nor gathers in its produce to ensure his livelihood. The entire soil is stamped as ownerless, so that the nation as a whole, and each individual landowner, would come to recognize the true Owner and Master of the land.

The Jubilee (Yovel) year, which occurred at the conclusion of seven Shemitta cycles, effected the return of all landed property to its original owner. This restoration of property had a profound effect on the nation’s internal and external affairs, not least of which was stemming the propagation of social class differences and unequal distribution of property.

After presenting the laws of, the Torah warns of commercial fraud that may Shemitta result from the Shemitta and Yovel cycles, particularly regarding the sale of land. Both buyer and seller must understand the value of the property, which progressively diminishes during the fifty years of the Yovel. Both buyer and seller must understand that sale of land is essentially sale of the right to years of produce from the land, as the land will return to its original owner with the commencement of Yovel.

The Torah’s term for fraud — ona’ah — can be defined, based on its phonetic roots, as exploitation of the weakness of one’s fellow man, in order to cheat him. After the Torah sets forth prohibitions on ona’ah in financial dealings, the Torah then extends the prohibition of ona’ah to verbal abuses — exploitation of the other party’s weakness, namely, his personal sensitivity. Examples of verbal abuses include reminding someone of his or his fathers’ misdeeds, embarrassing another in public, calling another by a derisive name, giving misleading advice, and raising false hopes, such as by asking the price of an article that one has no intention of buying.

Both forms of ona’ah — commercial abuse and verbal abuse — exploit the other’s weakness. But verbal abuse is even more serious than commercial fraud, because it damages his friend’s heart and soul, whereas commercial fraud affects only his money. The latter can be restored, whereas the former cannot.

This section of the Torah concludes with a warning: You shall fear your G-d, for I, G-d, am your G-d. This warning addresses all members of society: Do not aggrieve one another; each of you is to fear G-d; each person should keep in mind that G-d’s eye and ear are directed toward each and every person, and that He is equally the G-d of all of his brethren.

This is the fundamental teaching of Shemitta and Yovel: All men live and work together on G-d’s soil, and as tribute He demands that His rule be implemented in every phase of life. He is in the midst of the people and watches over them, blessing their commerce. When G-d is Master, abuses and grievances against others will not be tolerated — blessing will devolve only when the truth of all truths — I am your G‑d — is realized in every aspect of communal and commercial life.

  • Source: Commentary, Vayikra 25:4, 14-17

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