The Principles and the Details of the Law

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion




The Principles and the Details of the Law

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish


At the beginning of the parasha, Rashi quotes the Torat Kohanim, asking:

"What is the connection between shemitta and Har Sinai? (I.e., why are we told explicitly, before the laws of shemitta are set out, that God said this 'at Har Sinai'?) Were not all the laws taught at Sinai?

[It teaches us that] just as the general principles, laws and details of shemitta were taught at Sinai, so the general ideas, laws and details of all the mitzvot were taught at Sinai."

Rashi and the Ramban differ in their interpretation of this explanation. According to Rashi, the Torah is teaching us here that even those mitzvot that were taught in the plains of Moav (at the end of the forty-year journey) were also taught at Sinai. The Ramban, on the other hand, follows a more literal interpretation of the Torat Kohanim, explaining that the Torah is teaching us that just as the general principles of shemitta were taught at Sinai ("In the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor or your nation may eat" – Shemot 23:11) and the details were taught there as well (as we see in our parasha), so it was with all the mitzvot – not only the general principles were taught at Sinai, but also all their details.

With this in mind, we need to understand why the Torah chooses to teach us this lesson specifically in the context of the laws of shemitta.

It seems that the Torah was concerned with the possibility that people would observe the general principles but not the details. People are sometimes prepared to accept the general principles of the Torah, but when it comes to the smaller details, whose relation to the overall idea is not immediately apparent, they have difficulty in fulfilling them. The general principles of Judaism are easy enough to "sell," but the details present much greater difficulty.

Let us take, for example, the laws of Shabbat. The idea of one day of rest from work every week is accepted and practiced today worldwide, but if it also entails a prohibition of switching on lights, etc., the whole package becomes less attractive. Rav Kook writes that the reason for secularization in his generation was not contempt for the ideals of the Torah, but rather that people were not prepared to live up to the detailed daily demands of the law.

On the other hand, the reverse phenomenon also exists: there are people who are so engrossed in the details that they lose sight of the general priniciples. Today, the search extra stringencies and the desire to set up new "boundaries around the Torah" has sometimes led people to ignore the goals of the mitzvot.

The Torah thus wished to stress the importance of both the general principles and the nitty-gritty details.

Many people have addressed the reason for the mitzva of shemitta, but the gemara itself already offered a reason:

"God said to Israel: Plant for six years and let it lie fallow the seventh so that you will know that the land is Mine." (Sanhedrin 39a)

Rashi there (s.v. Kedei) explains:

"So that your heart will not grow haughty with the prosperity of your land, leading you to forget the Yoke of His Kingship."

Essentially, this same explanation appears in the Torah itself:

"And the land shall not be sold for eternity, for Mine is the land, for you are strangers and sojourners with Me." (Vayikra 25:23)

The mitzva of shemitta thus comes to teach us that even if one works the land and makes it yield fruit, he must always recall that he is not its owner; it belongs to God.

In his Moreh Nevukhim (III:39), the Rambam writes that one of the reasons for shemitta is that the land becomes more fertile if we leave it fallow every so often. The Abarbanel and others take him to task for this: Do the mitzvot come to give us agricultural advice? In fact, the Rambam himself wrote (III:28) that the mitzvot come either to give us correct opinions (on matters of divinity), to improve our character traits, or to improve our society! Thus, it seems that we should interpret the Rambam along the lines we suggested above: the mitzva of shemitta tells us that it is God who determines how we should work the land, for the land is His and we are but "strangers and sojourners" on it.

In light of all of this, it is understandable why the Torah chooses the laws of shemitta as the opportunity to teach us that we are obligated to observe not only the general principles but also the details. Shemitta is one of the very few mitzvot where the function of every detail is understood - the Torah forbids us to sow, reap, prune, etc., in order that we should remember that we are not the real owners of the land. Every detail comes to teach the same lesson: that only God decides what will happen to the land, because the land is in fact His and not ours. Therefore, the Torah wishes to tell us that just as in the case of the mitzva of shemitta it is understood that we are to fulfill both the principle and all the details, likewise when it comes to all the other mitzvot, both aspects must be observed - even though sometimes the connection between them is less clear to us.

(Originally delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Behar-Bechukotai 5744 [1994].)


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