Parashat Behar – The Property Law of Man and God

לַצְּמִיתֻת לַקֹּנֶה אֹתוֹ


Parashat Behar discusses a variety of laws all based upon the idea of ‘א’s property rights. The laws of Shemittah assume that ‘א owns the land and thus Bnei Yisrael must treat it in accordence with His wishes (Vayikra 25:23). Similarly, the laws of the redemption of properties and the return of ancestral lands in the Yovel is due to ‘א being the one true owner of the land, and thus has the unique ability to apportion it as He sees necessary (Ibid.). Even the laws of the slaves are included, as ‘א has taken Israel to be in His service, and thus they cannot serve others, at least not as formal slaves (25:42). This in itself, the idea that ‘א owns things and that people therefore cannot treat those things however they wish, is of great importance. But it is the exception to the rule of property return that teaches us perhaps the most important idea of all.

The exception to the return of property in the Yovel is any property inside a walled city. This property can be redeemed within a year of its sale, but after that it belongs fully to its new owner (25:29-30). If the law of the return of property is based on the idea that the land belongs to   ‘א, then it seems a little incongruent that there would be an exception to this rule. It seems to imply that urban properties don’t get returned in the Yovel because urban land doesn’t necessarily belong to ‘א but rather whomever legally acquires it. Due to its location, what would otherwise be the property of ‘א is instead the property of Man.

An argument against this might be that ‘א as Creator of the World owns everything in it, and thus there must be some other explanation for this exception. However, ‘א’s conditional ownership is clear from the contrast between the laws of Israelite and non-Israelite slaves in Vayikra 25:39-46.

39 And if thy brother be waxen poor with thee, and sell himself unto thee, thou shalt not make him to serve as a bondservant. 40 As a hired servant, and as a settler, he shall be with thee; he shall serve with thee unto the year of jubilee. 41 Then shall he go out from thee, he and his children with him, and shall return unto his own family, and unto the possession of his fathers shall he return. 42 For they are My servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as bondmen. 43 Thou shalt not rule over him with rigour; but shalt fear thy God. 44 And as for thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, whom thou mayest have: of the nations that are round about you, of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. 45 Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them may ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they have begotten in your land; and they may be your possession. 46 And ye may make them an inheritance for your children after you, to hold for a possession: of them may ye take your bondmen for ever; but over your brethren the children of Israel ye shall not rule, one over another, with rigour.

Israel belongs to ‘א as a result of His taking Israel out of their slavery in Egypt. By contrast the nations who live around Israel are not ‘א’s, and can thus be taken as slaves. Clearly not everything belongs to ‘א as a result of being created by Him.

While it is clear that urban property has left the realm of ‘א’s property and moved over into that of man, it is far from clear whether or not this is a good thing. On the whole, cities in Tanakh are not depicted very positively. The first city ever mentioned is Bavel, in the Tower of Bavel narrative in Bereishit 11. That city is so negative that ‘א has to personally intervene and destroy it. The next big city mentioned is Sodom, which is also destroyed by ‘א. It continues like that, with really the only positive city being the priestly city of Nov until the founding of Jerusalem by King David. The prophet Tsephaniah in particular takes a harsh view of city life, considering it to be innately evil and corrupt. He predicts the total destruction of the cities of Israel, utilizing imagery from the Flood and Tower of Babel narratives in order to make it clear that the destruction is due to the absolute corruption of the cities. In their place he suggests that society move back toward the more pastoral, shepherding lifestyle of the forefathers. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch suggested that this tension between cities and shepherds is a theme throughout the entirety of the Tanakh, going all the way back to the first conflict in the Torah. While Abel was a Shepherd, Cain was a farmer, whose descendants would go on to develop much of civilization (Bereishit 4:21-22). When the Jews go down to Egypt, the fact that they are shepherds is appalling to the Egyptians, who maintaine an agricultural society (Bereishit 46:31-47:4). The one real exception might be Yeshayahu’s prophecies on Jerusalem. Much like Tsephaniah, Yeshayahu uses imagery from the Tower of Bavel to demonstrate the total corruption of the city. However, instead of predicting the city’s destruction, Yeshayahu declares that the city must become better. It seems that in Yeshayahu’s view, urban life is not innately corrupt, and could in fact be ideal if the people acted properly. Thus the portrayal of cities in Tanakh is definitely not particularly positive, but also doesn’t have to be negative.

Just as the Tanakh’s view of cities seems more complex than simply ‘good or bad’, we can’t really determine if the nature of urban land as the property of Man is positive or negative. Certainly, it could potentially be either, which highlights the incredible fact of the exception itself. The Torah describes the laws of Shemittah, Yovel, Redeeming the Land, and the Return of the the Land, as all being based on ‘א’s ownership of the land. And then it says that by building walls and cities, the land becomes the property of Man. Bnei Yisrael are apparently able, in this case, to overwrite ‘א’s ownership with their own. This is an example of a much larger theme in Tanakh and Judaism, that of the importance and value of human initiative. Human initiative is real and has meaning, despite the presence of an all-powerful god. In Sefer Shoftim, the measure of a good leader is how little he requires ‘א’s involvement in saving the people. When ‘א helped the people conquer the land, the Kedushah was only temporary, but when the people returned of their own volition in the period of Bayit Sheni, the Kedushah was permanent. The ability for Bnei Yisrael to make property their own through urbanization is an incredible demonstration of the power of human actions. However, the Tanakh makes it clear that this has the potential to be either incredibly good or incredibly bad, and it might even be easier for it to go bad. If humans have such great power, then incumbent upon them is also great responsibility. We are meant to build a perfect world, and we have the power to do so. This by definition means we also have the power to ruin the world we’ve been given to work with. This is the great challenge of humanity. We’ve been given great ability and the material to utalize. What we do next is up to us.


[1] Translations from

[2] One could still argue that ‘א, as Creator, owns everything, but one still has to explain the distinctions between the the rural and urban properties and the Israelite and non-Israelite slaves as per Vayikra 25 as being somehow different levels of ownership, and so nothing has really been accomplished in terms of ‘א’s ownership.

[3] ספר שמואל א’, פרק כ”ב, פסוק י”ט

[4] Divrei HaYamim Alef 11:4-5

[5] Rabbi Hayyim Angel, “Zephania’s use of the Genesis Narratives”, available on

[6] As a massively agricultural society, Egypt was actually the first civilization to develop leavened bread, which may explain the prohibition of Chametz on PEsach. For more information, see this link:

[7] Rabbi Hayyim Angel, Op cit.

[8] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Yevamot, 82b.

[9] Voltaire, “Œuvres de Voltaire, Volume 48.” Lefèvre, 1832; Uncle Ben, Amazing Fantasy #15.


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