Parshas Behar – On Top of the Mountain

 By Rabbi David Sterne

This week’s parsha is Behar – “On the mountain.”  The beginning of the parsha tells us that when the Jews enter the land of Israel and begin working the land, they should count seven years and declare a Shabbatical year, and after seven cycles of seven years, they should count a Jubilee year, which is the fiftieth year.  The question that arises is, what is the connection between the mitzvah and the mountain?  Why does the Torah juxtapose the commandment to keep a Sabbatical /Jubilee year with the events of Mt. Sinai forty years earlier, when the Jews received the Torah? Rashi explains that just as both the general outlines and the details of every mitzvah were given at Mt. Sinai, so the general outlines and their details were reviewed on the plains of Moav, just before the Jews entered the land of Israel (forty years after the Torah was given).  Since we don’t see the details of the Sabbatical year given in our parsha, it is necessary to inform us that the details of all of the commandments were given not only at Mt. Sinai, but also reviewed on the plains of Moav.

However, our sixteenth century sage, R’ Nosson Nata Shapira (author of Megaleh Amukot on the Torah), has his own take on the parsha, and he tells us what he thinks about Mt. Sinai and the mitzvah of Sabbatical/Jubilee years.  He does so in four parts, corresponding to the four categories of Torah study – simple textual study (pshat), rabbinic interpretation (drosh), alpha-numerical hints (remez), and of course the secret level (sod).

Regarding the pshat, or textual level, R’ Shapira mentions that the Jews were sunk in forty-nine levels of impurity while in Egypt, and therefore they needed to count forty-nine days of sefirat ha’omer after they left Egypt, in order to receive the Torah.  The forty-nine days of counting purified the Jews (like a mikveh) so that they could receive the Torah.  The fiftieth level, though is beyond our comprehension, and that is why even though the Torah tells us to count fifty days, we only count forty-nine, and the fiftieth comes down to us on its own, as it did when the Torah was given.  Similarly, when we are told to count the years, we count seven Sabbatical cycles, and then the Jubilee year is declared.  This is the reason for the juxtaposition in the beginning of the parsha – in both cases we count as much as is humanly possible (forty-nine), and then the fiftieth (that which is beyond our comprehension) descends.  The command to count the omer (the days leading to matan Torah) is given in the plural, because it applies to each and every Jew.  However, the command to dedicate the Jubilee year is given in the singular because it applies to the head of the Beit Din, or rabbinical court – he is the one who declares the Jubilee year.

On the second level of rabbinic interpretation (drosh), R’ Shapira mentions a Midrash; “As the Jews entered the land of Israel, the Torah asked God, ‘If this person runs to his vineyard, and that person runs to his field, what will be with the Torah?’ (Who will learn Torah?)  God answered, ‘Just as I gave the Shabbat so that people will take time to learn Torah, so I gave the Sabbatical and Jubilee years so that the Jews will learn Torah.”  That is, since we are forbidden to work the land during the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, we have free time on our hands, and we should use that time to study Torah.  And that is why the two are mentioned together – the Torah was given for the Jews to learn, but if they are always involved in working the land, they have no time to learn.  And therefore together with giving the Torah on Mt. Sinai, God also instructed the Jews to keep the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, so that during these years, at least, they Jews will learn Torah.

When it comes to the third level of Torah study, remez (alpha-numeric hints), R’ Shapira points out that the Sabbatical and Jubilee years are called Shabbat Le’Havaya (“Shabbat to God”), just as is the Shabbat of Genesis (the weekly Shabbat, the seventh day of creation).  And the comparison goes further; just as the weekly Shabbat corresponds to the entire Torah, so the mitzvoth of Sabbatical and Jubilee years correspond to the entire Torah.  In fact, that is the reason that the mitzvoth appear in the beginning of our parsha, together with the reference to Mt. Sinai.  Just as all the mitzvoth were given and explained at Mt. Sinai, so the commandments of Sabbatical and Jubilee years correspond to all the rest of the mitzvoth.  There are hints to this correspondence: The final letters of the words “prune your vineyard and gather…” (tizmor caremcha v’asafta) are Tarach (Tof-reish-cof) and carry the gematria (numerical value) of 620, which is the total number of Torah and rabbinic mitzvoth.  And of course, there are 620 letters in Ten Commandments, corresponding to the total number of mitzvoth.  Moreover, the final letters of the words, “six years sow” (shesh shanim tizrah) are shin-mem-eyn (shema), alluding to the kriat shema, which also corresponds to the entire Torah.  The lesson of the parsha is that even when we are unable to devote ourselves entirely to the Torah because we have to work the fields and the vineyards, nevertheless if we keep the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, and learn Torah and pray during those years, it is as if we are totally devoted to the entire Torah.

Finally, on the level of sod (“secrets” of the Torah), R’Shapira tells us that the mitzvah of Sabbatical and Jubilee years corresponds to the first hey of God’s four-letter name Havaya.  It also corresponds to the sephira of bina, or “analytic understanding.”  And the reason that these two mitzvoth are mentioned together with Mt. Sinai, is because when the Jews stood at Mt. Sinai in order to receive the Torah, they merited to the high spiritual level, called neshama yetera (“extra soul”), associated with bina.  In fact, the word for mountain (har) is an acrostic for hey rishona, or “first letter hey” (of God’s name), and the word Sinai is an acrostic for sod yetziot neshamot Yisrael (“the secret of the emergence of Jewish souls”).  From this, we see that the souls of the Jewish people emerged from the spiritual level of bina, associated with an “extra” soul.  R’ Shapira connects this level with the verse, “And I lifted you on the wings of eagles.”  The “eagles” allude to the two angels, Metat and Sandal, who are the angels of yetzira and asiya, respectively, who “lifted” the Jews up to the world of bria (associated with the first hey of God’s name, and with the sephira of bina and with the “extra soul” that they received).  In ascending from one world to the next, the Jews went from the soul-levels of nefesh and ruach to the third soul level, called simply neshama (which is equivalent to the “extra soul” that they achieved at Mt. Sinai).  Bina is also called the “world of freedom,” since it is here that the soul acquires full grasp of the “fifty gates of understanding.”  On the fiftieth day after emerging from Egypt, the Jews achieved the fiftieth gate of understanding and received the Torah (and that is why the verse tells us that “The children of Israel left Egypt chamushim…”  Chamushim alludes to the word chamishim, or “fifty”).  R’ Shapira offers another hint: Har Sinai is an acrostic for hey rishona sofrim Yisrael nun yom – “[to arrive at the] first hey, the Jews counted fifty days…”  R’ Shapira offers much more by way of explanation, but for our purposes, the mitzvah of Shmita and of Yovel are associated with the sephira of bina and with the first letter hey of Havaya, which is also the spiritual level that the Jews experienced at Mt. Sinai, and that is why they appear together at the beginning of our parsha.

Rabbi David Sterne is a prolific author on chassidic thought and has translated many of its seminal works. He resides in Israel and is the director of Jerusalem Connection. To read more of his work and to purchase his books visit  and 

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