The first portion of the Sidra of Behar continues with the theme relating to sacred times. It speaks of the Jewish calendar being divided into seven cycles each consisting of seven years, with the fiftieth year being observed as a Jubilee year. The seventh and the 50th years of the cycle are holy. The Torah calls seventh year by the names of the ‘Shabbat of the Lord’ or the ‘Shabbat of the Land’. The Torah also calls it Sh'nat Sh'mittah, the year of release. This name stems from the fact that landowners release their property from their private possession and lenders release their debtors from the obligation of paying back their debts. The seventh and the 50th years of the cycle, actually represent the climax in the list of sacred occasions. The observance of the Sabbath of the Lord complements the Sabbath day of Bereshit. Just as the weekly Shabbat testifies to the holiness of the people of Israel; so the seventh year testifies to the holiness of the land of Israel. Because of length of time involved in keeping this mitzvah of Sh’mittah, this mitzvah it is by far the most difficult mitzvah to observe. It can cause considerable economic hardship.
The name of the Sidra, Behar, means 'on the mountain'. It highlights the fact that the Mitzvah of Sh'mittah was given on Mount Sinai, unlike other Mitzvot which were given on different occasions during the wandering in the wilderness. In order to explain its placement here, the mediaeval commentator, Avraham Ibn Ezra, invokes the well-established rule that the order of the Torah is not necessarily chronological. From a chronological perspective, this portion should have been placed after the Sidra of Mishpatim in the Book of Exodus, before the account of the building of the Tabernacle. Indeed, there is a brief reference to the year of Sh’mittah there. While Moses was still on Mount Sinai, God also made the covenant, which included the Curses as described in the Sidra of Bechukotai.
The two Sidrot of Behar and Bechukotai are linked. They have the same theme regarding the sanctity of the land and are, therefore, read together in most years. In the diaspora, they are only separated in leap years. Their theme has determined their inclusion in the Book of Leviticus. In the Sidra of Behar, God commands us to sanctify the land in order to ensure that we may remain on it in safety. The Sidra of Bechukotai focuses mainly on the terrible exile that will befall us if we fail to keep this charge.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the greatest Halachik authorities in the second half of the 20th century, advances an Aggadic interpretation for the Torah as emphasis that this mitzvah was given on Mount Sinai. He says that our commitment to the observance of the commandments should always be because the Torah is divine. We must not base observance of the Mitzvot on our own reasoning. Our own rationale would not be sufficiently powerful for the Jewish people to adhere to them so steadfastly for thousands of years. Only the belief in the divinity of the Torah, gives us the resolve and willpower to overcome all the challenges inherent in keeping it.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explains that, originally, mankind was given seven commandments through No'ach. They were based on reason and not on the principle of obedience to the Divine. However, this caused a great deal of confusion until, eventually, those 7 commandments lost their hold on people and were ignored. People thought that they knew better. The concepts of Individualism and relativism took root. This led to lawlessness that continued until the Revelation at Sinai, which stemmed the tide.
Many of our rabbis resisted the temptation to search for reasons for the Commandments. Maimonides, however, did believe in the importance of searching for reasons. In his philosophical work, The Guide for the Perplexed, he advanced many reasons for the Commandments. He asserts that the Mitzvah to leave the land fallow for an entire year is beneficial for the soil. If the land rests for an entire year, it regains its vitality and fertility. His theory was a forerunner to the ideas that we hear nowadays about not abusing the resources of the Earth. Many commentators and thinkers disagreed with Maimonides very strongly.
The Sidra of Behar contains many commandments which are very far from the economic concepts in western society today. Its laws describe a system which makes it impossible for individuals to become rich forever. In the seventh year, agricultural produce becomes ownerless. It cannot be used for commerce. Moneylenders have to give their money to the poor, as a gift. In the fiftieth year, property has to return to its original owner and all the slaves must be given their freedom.
It was always difficult to observe the restrictions of the Sh'mittah year. Many Jews tried to keep them throughout the ages, including in modern times. Nevertheless, there were also long periods in Jewish history when these laws were not observed properly. They were neglected, particularly, during the period of the first Temple. Our ancient rabbis believed that the destruction of the first Temple and the first exile from the land in 586 BCE were due to their neglect. When Ezra Hasofer, the Scribe, led the return to the land, in 516 BCE, after 70 years of exile, for seventh year began to be observed much more stringently, as was the whole Torah.
Nowadays, considerable efforts are being made to observe the Sh'mittah year in Israel. There are two main ways in which these laws can be observed. I estimate that about one million Jews, who live in Israel, keep them very stringently by only buying fruit and vegetables from shops which get their supplies from Arabs on the West Bank and in Gaza. These Jews belong to the Charedi camp. Unfortunately, as a result of this strict observance, they are giving livelihood to some of our enemies. However, they are continuing a practice that has been followed for many centuries, long before the state existed. The alternative manner in which these laws are kept is by buying products from shops which hold a certificate of kashrut from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. The chief rabbis sell all agricultural lands to a gentile. The basic idea is that if a non-Jew owns the land, it is permitted to cultivate the land, although some important restrictions still apply. The chief rabbis this practice on the ruling which was first given by Rabbi Avraham ltzchak Hakohen Kook, at the end of the 19th century. When he issued this ruling to the early Zionist Olim, it was extremely controversial. It is still very controversial and has caused a serious and unfortunate rift within the Orthodox world.