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Between Emor and Behar

The end of Parashat Emor and the beginning of Parashat Behar leave us with many questions. By and large, the book of Vayikra is full of laws. Certainly that is the case since the death of Aharon’s sons in Parashat Shemini, and it will continue that way from Parashat Behar until the end of the book. So why at the end of Emor do we find the story of the blasphemer and his punishment (Vayikra 24:10-23)?

And regarding the beginning of Behar, there is a famous question – why does it begin with “The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai” (Vayikra 25:1), if it goes on to talk about the laws of the sabbatical year?

Many answers have been offered for the above questions, and I can’t go into all of them here. But this is an explanation that makes sense to me.

The book of Vayikra is dedicated to the subject of holiness. After the chapters dealing with the sacrifices and the mishkan, there are a series of laws dealing with the holiness of people – first through the foods they eat, then via the rules of purity and impurity, and followed by the behavior of holy people. The next section deals with a class of people who have even higher demands for holiness – the kohanim.

The book then turns to a different realm of holiness – holiness in time, with the laws of the holidays and associated practices as listed in Parashat Emor.

It would therefore be expected that following the laws of the holy days during the year, we’d move directly to the laws of the holy years themselves – the sabbatical year and the jubilee year. There are many parallels between the two sections dealing with holiness of time, most notably the repeated use of the number seven: shabbat is the seventh day, several holidays happen in the seventh month (Tishrei), and the seven by seven cycle of days and weeks that leads up to Shavuot. This of course is continued in Behar with the seven year cycle of the sabbatical year, and the jubilee year coming after seven sabbatical cycles.

So why interrupt that seamless set of laws with a story, particularly one that doesn’t seem to be related at all?

I think that the story comes to provide us with an important distinction between the laws of the holidays and the laws of the sabbatical. The holiday rituals are focused around the mishkan (and later the Temple), which fit the themes we’ve seen previously in the book. But the sabbatical year is less focused on the rituals and more on the issues of justice and social equity. Aside from the cancellation of debts and the return of ancestral property, in Behar we read about how to treat the poor and those who sold themselves into slavery.

By placing the story of the blasphemer in between Emor and Behar, the Torah is instructing us to think about the role of justice in society. Beyond the actual nature of the blasphemy, that passage also tells us that citizens and strangers need to be treated equally under the law, that all acts of violence must be addressed, and that even damaged possessions (like animals) deserve restitution.

Some religions would let the state (or society itself) deal with the issues of justice, and let religion be concerned with rituals. Perhaps even Moses and the people had similar questions, since they did not know what to do in this case, and asked God. But the Torah makes it very clear that God is concerned with every aspect of the way we live our lives – from the holidays in the Temple or in our homes – to the workers in our fields and our monetary loans.

This can also help us answer our question as to the opening words of Behar. I think on the most basic level, the Torah mentioned that these laws were given at Sinai, to distinguish them from the ruling about the blasphemer, which was delivered at the time the incident occurred. But looking at the wider picture, the reason isn’t so far from Rashi’s famous answer – “the laws of the sabbatical year were given at Sinai, just as all the other commandments were given at Sinai.” The ritual laws and the ones meant to protect the weakest members of society have the same level of divine authority.

About the Author
David Curwin is a writer living in Efrat. He has been writing about the origin of Hebrew words and phrases, and their connection to other languages, on his website balashon.com since 2006. He has also published widely on topics relating to Bible and Jewish philosophy.
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