SALT Behar 2015/5775

  • Rav David Silverberg



This week's SALT shiurim are dedicated in memory of
David Moshe ben Harav Yehuda Leib Silverberg z"l,
whose yahrzeit is Thursday 18 Iyar, May 7



            The Torah in Parashat Behar (25:35) commands us to support the needy members of our nation: “If your brother becomes impoverished and his position becomes unstable with you, then you shall support him…so that he may live among you.”  Rashi, commenting on the words “ve-hechezakta bo” (“you shall support him”), writes that the Torah commands us not to wait until our fellow falls into complete financial ruin.  We are to “support” him while he is still just “unstable,” before he reaches a state of poverty.  Rashi writes:

Do not let him decline and fall such that it will be difficult to lift him up.  Rather, strengthen him from the time of instability.  What does this resemble?  A load on a donkey.  While it is still on the donkey, one person can hold it and make it stable, but once it falls to the ground, even five people cannot pick it up.

The command here is not to assist the poor – a mitzva which the Torah presents in other contexts – but rather to assist those who are at risk of becoming poor, so that this does not happen.

            Rav Gedaliah Silverstone, in his Regesh Leiv, adds that this explains the Torah’s repeated use of the word “imakh” (“with you”) in this verse.  The Torah describes a person who has fallen into financial straits “with you,” and commands us to support him so that “va-chai imakh” – “he may live with you.”  Following along the lines of Rashi’s interpretation, Rav Silverstone explains this emphasis to imply that the individual in question is still “with you” – he is still on the same socioeconomic plane, as he has yet to fall into outright poverty.  This person is not a beggar, but rather “imakh,” somebody who is more or less like the rest of us but has either lost a job or sees his business take a serious downturn.  We should not ignore his plight thinking that this person’s family still has their needs generally cared for.  We need to have the foresight to recognize where the situation could lead, and lend support even while the person is still “imakh” in order to ensure that he stays this way.

            Needless to say, we are obligated as well to assist those who have already fallen into poverty.  But the Torah here reminds us to look out for those who are “imakh,” who are not necessarily much worse off than we, but nevertheless need help.  Without ever forgetting our obligations to the poor, we must also look around within our own circles to identify those in need of assistance and see how we might be able to lend it.


            Yesterday, we discussed the Torah’s command in Parashat Behar to help support those who have fell upon hard times and are at risk of falling into poverty.  In such a case, the Torah instructs, “ve-hechezakta bo geir ve-toshav va-chai imakh” (25:35).  The common interpretation of the verse, as Rashi explains, is that we must support the person, even if he is a “ger ve-toshav” – a foreigner who resides among us.  According to this reading, the Torah commands “ve-hechezakta bo” – to support a person who endures financial hardship – and then adds that this applies even if he is a “ger ve-toshav.”

            The Ramban, however, claims that Onkelos understood this verse differently.  Citing a different version of Onkelos’ translation than that which appears in common editions today, the Ramban writes that Onkelos translated the phrase “ger ve-toshav” as, “yidor ve-yetotav” – “he shall dwell and reside.”  Meaning, this phrase is part of the Torah instructions for how to assist our fellow dealing with financial struggles.  We are to support him and have him “dwell, reside and live among you.”

            Rav Chaim Dov Chavel, in an article in Ha-darom (Tishrei, 5737), suggests that Onkelos’ translation of this verse may have formed the basis of the Rambam’s famous ruling in Hilkhot Matenot Aniyim (10:7) concerning charity.  The Rambam there writes that the highest form of charity is enabling a struggling individual to regain financial stability and independence, either by lending him money to launch a profitable enterprise, by employing him, or by entering into a partnership with him.  As the source for this ruling, the Rambam cites this verse in Parashat Behar – “ve-hechezakta bo.”  Curiously, however, the Rambam found it necessary to cite not only these two words, but rather the entire clause – ““ve-hechezakta bo geir ve-toshav va-chai imakh.”  Quite possibly, Rav Chavel notes, the Rambam – who elsewhere expresses special affinity for Targum Onkelos – followed Onkelos’ translation of this verse, and understood “yidor ve-yetotav” to refer to the kinds of assistance the Rambam described – creating a partnership or offering a job.  The Rambam may have interpreted this verse to mean that ideally, we should assist a person in need by turning him into a “ger ve-toshav,” having him join us as a “partner,” however this is done – an actual partnership, financial participation in a new venture, or employment.  The Rambam therefore cited the entire verse, as it is from the phrase “ger ve-toshav” that he inferred the ideal of assisting a person in need by partnering with him, as opposed to simply giving him his immediate needs.


            The Torah in Parashat Behar (25:8) commands counting “seven sets of seven years” and then declaring the jubilee year on the fiftieth year.  Different opinions exist among the Rishonim as to whether this verse should be read as requiring a formal counting, similar to sefirat ha-omer, when we count forty-nine days from the second day of Pesach until Shavuot.  Tosefot, in Masekhet Ketubot (72a), write that the Sanhedrin must indeed conduct a formal counting with a berakha, like the counting of the omer.  This is also the view taken by the Ra’avad and the Ra”sh Mi-shantz in their respective commentaries to Torat Kohanim.  Likewise, the Rambam writes in Hilkhot Shemita Ve-yovel (10:1), “There is an affirmative command to count every seven years and proclaim the fiftieth year sacred.”  The Rambam clearly considered it a mitzva to formally count the years.  Later, the Rambam clarifies that this mitzva is charged specifically to the Sanhedrin.  (See also Sefer Ha-mitzvot, asei 140.)  By contrast, the Behag did not include in his list of the 613 Biblical commands an obligation to count the years of the yovel cycle.  It seems that in his view, the Torah did not command that we conduct a formal counting, but rather that we keep track of the years so that we can properly observe the laws of yovel.  Rav Yerucham Perlow, in his work on Saadia Gaon’s listing of the mitzvot (asei 51), notes that this was also Saadia Gaon’s position.

            The Ramban, in his commentary to Parashat Emor (23:15), expresses some uncertainty in this regard.  He cites Chazal’s comment in Torat Kohanim that the command to count is charged upon the Sanhedrin, and then writes:

I do not know if this is to say that the High Court is obligated to count the years and sets of seven years at the beginning of each year and recite a berakha over it as we do for sefirat ha-omer, or to say that that the court must exercise care with the counting [of years] and then proclaim the fiftieth year sacred.

            Interestingly, in presenting the possibility that the Torah here requires a formal counting similar to sefirat ha-omer, the Ramban assumes that this counting would be done “at the beginning of each year.”  This point is made explicitly by the Ra’avad, in his commentary to Torat Kohanim, where he writes that the counting was made each year on Rosh Hashanah.  The Ra’avad also writes that the Sanhedrin would count by saying, “Hayom kakh ve-kakh shanim ba-shamita” – “Today is such-and-such years in the shemita [cycle].”  We might wonder, at first glance, why the Sanhedrin should say, “hayom” – “today” – when counting years.  Seemingly, there is no significance to any particular day when we count forty-nine years.  The likely answer is that since, in the Ra’avad’s view, the counting was done specifically on Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the year, the court refers to “today” insofar as it begins the new year.

            The Minchat Chinukh (330), however, ruled that in truth, the counting could be done at any point during the year.  He claims that the sources which speak of counting on Rosh Hashanah refer to the general rule of “zerizin makdimin le-mitzvot” – mitzvot should be performed at the earlier possible time.  In principle, however, the mitzva of counting years to the yovel can be done at any point during the year.

(Based on a shiur by Rav Asher Weiss)


            Yesterday, we noted the Torah’s command in Parashat Behar (25:8) to count the 49 years from one jubilee year to the next, a command which some Rishonim understood as requiring a formal counting, similar to the yearly sefirat ha-omer from Pesach until Shavuot.

            Chizkuni, commenting on this verse, notes a distinction between this counting and the counting of sefirat ha-omer.  He writes: “Since here there is only one counting, which is done by the High Court, there is no need to recite a berakha.  But the [counting of] the omer, regarding which two countings are mentioned…one must recite a berakha.”  Chizkuni here asserts that as the Torah issues the command of sefirat ha-omer in two different contexts (Vayikra 23:15-16, Devarim 16:9), there are actually two different obligations: one upon every individual, and another obligation upon the High Court.  Counting the years from the yovel, by contrast, is a requirement assigned only to the Sanhedrin.  As such, Chizkuni contends, no berakha is required when the Sanhedrin counts the years, as opposed to sefirat ha-omer which is indeed preceded by a berakha.

            Chizkuni does not explain the connection between these two properties – the fact that only the Sanhedrin counts the years, and the fact that no berakha is recited.  How does the exclusively public nature of this mitzva yield the conclusion that no berakha is recited?

            Rav Yerucham Perlow, in his work on Saadia Gaon’s listing of the mitzvot (asei 51), explains these comments to mean that there is in fact no actual requirement to formally count the years.  He understood Chizkuni to be saying that the Torah does not require us to count the years of the yovel, but rather assigns the Sanhedrin the responsibility to keep track of the years to ensure that yovel is observed at the right time.  As such, since there is no actual mitzva to count, as the counting is necessary simply as a practical measure to facilitate observance of yovel, no berakha is recited over this counting.

            However, this seems to be a far-fetched reading of Chizkuni’s comments, in which he clearly seems to assume that the Sanhedrin is obligated to conduct a formal counting.

            Rav Asher Weiss explains Chizkuni’s comments differently, claiming that, according to Chizkuni, berakhot are recited over personal mitzva acts, as opposed to mitzvot charged upon the Jewish Nation as a whole.  Unlike sefirat ha-omer, the command to count the years of the yovel is issued as a collective obligation upon the nation as a whole, and the Sanhedrin acts as the nation’s representative fulfilling the mitzva on their behalf.  It seems that in Chizkuni’s view, Chazal did not institute the recitation of a berakha over public mitzvot as they did over individual mitzvot such as tefillin, sukka and the like, and thus the Sanhedrin did not recite a mitzva before counting the years.  Rav Weiss notes that a different view seems to emerge from the Avudraham (Sha’ar 3), who writes that a berakha was recited over the declaration of the new months, as well as over the mitzva of egla arufa – two public mitzvot performed by the nation’s leadership on its behalf.  Regardless, it appears that Chizkuni disagreed, and maintained that Chazal instituted the recitation of berakhot over personal, individual mitzvot, and not over communal or public obligations.


            The Torah in Parashat Behar issues the command the support our fellow Jew who has fallen into financial straits, requiring “ve-chei achikha imakh” (25:36) – that we support him so he “shall live together with you.”

            The Gemara in Masekhet Bava Metzia (62a) cites the famous ruling of Rabbi Akiva who inferred from this verse the fundamental rule, “Chayekha kodemin le-chayei chaveirkha” – “Your life takes precedence over the life of your fellow.”  The fact that the Torah requires enabling our fellow to “live together with you” indicates that our own needs take precedence.  Therefore, one is not required to give charity to his impoverished fellow if this requires sacrificing his basic sustenance.  The famous case regarding which Rabbi Akiva issued this ruling was one of two desert travelers dying of dehydration, one of whom had enough water to save either himself or his fellow.  Whereas Ben Petura required the traveler with water to share his small ration with his fellow, even though they would both then die, Rabbi Akiva argued that one is permitted to preserve his own life before sharing with his fellow in need.

            It is perhaps noteworthy that this ruling was issued specifically by Rabbi Akiva, who, as we know from elsewhere in the Talmud, felt passionately about martyrdom.  The Gemara in Masekhet Berakhot (61b) tells the famous story of Rabbi Akiva’s execution at the hands of the Romans, a fate he suffered due to his insistence on teaching Torah in violation of the Romans’ edict.  As the executioners tore the flesh off his body with iron rakes, Rabbi Akiva told his students who were with him, “All my life I was distressed over this verse – ‘[you shall love the Lord…] with all your soul’ – even if He takes your life.  I said, ‘When will I have the opportunity to fulfill it?’  Now that I have the opportunity, shall I not fulfill it?”  Rabbi Akiva attests to the fact that throughout his life, he longed for the opportunity to fulfill the requirement of “u-v’chol nafshekha,” to sacrifice his entire being for the sake of God.  And yet, despite the importance he afforded to martyrdom, Rabbi Akiva did not advocate sacrificing one’s life for the sake of the mitzva of charity.  He insisted that one has the right to preserve his own life and wellbeing before sacrificing on behalf of his fellow.  The ideal of martyrdom – like all religious ideals – is subject to halakhic guidelines.  Just because martyrdom was warranted when the Romans banned Torah study and observance does not mean that it is warranted in the case of the two desert travelers.  Each situation must be carefully considered on the basis of the guidelines established by Halakha.

            Not every sacrifice we make is necessary, wise or admirable.  Sometimes we choose to devote a great deal of time and effort to a certain undertaking, and feel gratified and proud over the sacrifices we make, without carefully considering whether they are in fact appropriate.  Rabbi Akiva reminds us to decide very carefully which sacrifices are noble and which are foolish, when we are indeed called upon to give of ourselves for a lofty purpose, and when an inherently important objective is not worth the sacrifices entailed.


            The Torah in Parashat Behar issues the prohibition of ona’a, which forbids overcharging or underpaying for merchandise.  After presenting the laws of yovel, which includes the return of purchased lands to their original owners, the Torah commands that people who sell lands must determine the price based on the number of years remaining until the jubilee, when the transaction will effectively be voided.  This warning of “lo tonu” (25:14) has been understood as a general prohibition against unfair buying or selling.

            Several verses later (25:17), the Torah seems to repeat this prohibition: “ve-lo tonu ish et amito.”  While this appears, at first glance, as nothing more than a reiteration of the law of ona’a, Chazal explained differently, claiming that here the Torah warns against ona’at devarim – hurting people with words, through offensive, humiliating or misleading talk.  (See Bava Metzia 58-59.)

            The question naturally arises as to the connection between these two prohibitions.  Why would the Torah introduce the law of ona’at devarim in the context of discussing ona’at mammon – abusing people through unfair prices?  What does one have to do with the other?  While we readily understand that both practices are wrong, and the word “ona’a” (“oppressing” or “hurting”) is appropriate for both contexts, why would the Torah present these two laws together?

            Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the common denominator between the two prohibitions is taking unfair advantage of a person’s compromised position.  After noting several examples of ona’at devarim that appear in the Gemara, such as reminding a person of his iniquitous past, calling him offensive names, or arousing false hopes, Rav Hirsch then writes:

All these and similar hurting the feelings of others by words have this in common with the sin of ona’a in business affairs, that it is misusing or taking advantage of some weak spot in somebody else, there, his lack of knowledge of the wares, here the susceptibility of his feelings.  And the Law condemns even much more severely, and considers even more punishable, this ona’at devarim than it does ona’at mammon

In the case of ona’at mammon, one leverages his advantage for the sake of financial gain at his fellow’s expense; in the case of ona’at devarim, one leverages his advantage for the sake of boosting his ego and pride at his fellow’s expense.  Ona’at devarim essentially means exploiting a person’s emotional fragility, a crime that people commit in order to feel superior.  It thus resembles ona’at mammon, where a merchant exploits his fellow’s ignorance for personal gain.

            Rav Hirsch then proceeds to insightfully explain why these prohibitions appear here in Parashat Behar, in the context of the laws of shemita and yovel.  The clear and direct connection, as mentioned, has to do with the fluctuating price of land due to the eventuality of its return to its original owner with the onset of the jubilee.  Rav Hirsch, however, claims that there is also a deeper connection:

The admonition addresses all members of the nation together and says: they are not to hurt one another in any way, each one is to fear his God, is to know that God has His Eye and His Ear directed to each of them, and also that He is equally the God of each of His brethren.  Thereby is described what is to be the direct result of the institution of shemita and yovel for the whole social life of the people in the Land.  Inasmuch as these institutions interweave the thought “God” into all business transactions, and inasmuch as they bring the though continually to mind that all are living together on the same soil of God, in the same Land of God, where He is the Master and Owner of all possessions, and that in the exercise of this ownership He demands the tribute of acknowledging Him in the whole of business life: these institutions immediately beget the twin thought of these thoughts, viz. that the whole of one’s life takes place under God’s Eye, that God is present not only in the Temple but in the midst of all intercourse between people, that He only bears and blesses this intercourse and each individual of it in His Land if the intercourse tends to the happiness of all, where none hurts the other, no one misuses the position he may have won, or the breath he draws, in the Land of God, to the loss or mortification of others…

The laws of shemita and yovel serve to remind us that the Land of Israel belongs to God, who allows us to reside in His land and enjoy the benefits it offers.  The awareness of our status in Eretz Yisrael, as lowly surfs who till the land only by the Master’s will, must inform all our interactions with other people, recognizing that ultimately, no individual is superior to the other.  We are here together as joint “tenants” upon God’s land.  Accordingly, no one person is given the right to capitalize on the disadvantage of another, because we must see ourselves as equals, and not as competitors, neither for resources nor for respect and prestige. 


            Parashat Behar begins by presenting the basic laws of the septennial shemita year, when agricultural work is forbidden, and when land owners are required to disavow ownership over their produce and allow all people free and open access to it.

            The Sefer Ha-chinukh (69) gives several different reasons for the particular obligation of declaring one’s produce ownerless.  One reason, he writes, is that this practice helps engender within a person “midat ha-vatranut” – the quality of being “foregoing” and willing to part with his possessions.  There is no higher form of generosity, the Chinukh writes, than giving without anticipating anything at all in return.  This is precisely what is demanded by the laws of shemita, which require a farmer to invite people to come and take the food which he toiled to produce, and which thus help a person develop the character trait of generous giving.

            The Chinukh does not explain why this effect is unique to shemita.  There are many mitzvot which require one to give portions of his material benefits to others without anticipating anything in return, such as the numerous different requirements of charity, as well as the percentages given to the kohanim and Leviyim.  It seems, however, that the obligation of shemita in particular builds within a person the quality of “vatranut.”  The reason, perhaps, is that shemita requires giving one’s possessions not to one particular person or group of people, but to anyone who wants.  In fact, the Torah here in Parashat Behar includes the animals in its list of those for whom produce is intended during shemita.  The farmer’s obligation on shemita is not to give away his possessions, but to withdraw from his possessions, to pull away and see himself as no more privileged to partake of his produce than anyone else, or even than the beasts of the field.

            Of course, this aspect of shemita relates to the theme emphasized on several occasions in Parashat Behar, that of “ki li ha-aretz” – that the land ultimately belongs to God.  Unlike the obligations of charity, which stem primarily from the need to care for the underprivileged, the mitzva of shemita stems from the need to acknowledge God’s ownership over the world and our status as temporary residents.  The fact that the Chinukh extended the message of shemita to the quality of “vatranut” reminds us that this awareness should affect the way we relate to our possessions generally.  People tend to feel a strong emotional attachment to their material possessions, and find it difficult to part with them.  The mitzva of shemita teaches us not just about generosity, but something more fundamental – to loosen the emotional bonds that attach us to our possessions, recognizing that ultimately, everything we have and everything in the world belongs to the Almighty.  This recognition will then lead us to give more generously, but also to be more flexible and indulgent when financial conflicts arise, and to be less frantic and anxious with regard to the accumulation and preservation of wealth.  And by reducing our level of anxiety over money, we will be able to devote our time, our minds and our emotional energy into the more important and meaningful areas of life, rather than into an endless pursuit of wealth.


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