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Reaffirming God's Dominion Over the Land

Rav David Silverberg
21.09.2014

 

"For the Land is Mine"

 

            Parashat Behar is devoted almost exclusively to the related topics of "shemitta" and "yovel," observed every seven and fifty years, respectively.  On every seventh and fiftieth year, farmers must refrain from agricultural activity (25:4) and large-scale harvesting (25:5).  Furthermore, they must open the gates of their fields to allow any man or beast free and unlimited access to all the crops (25:6-7).  The "yovel," or jubilee, year features two additional elements: the return of all real property to its original owner (25:10) and the emancipation of all indentured servants (25:28).  The duration of the parasha details the effects of these final two laws on real estate transactions and the sale and purchase of indentured servants.  As any transaction of land or servants is temporary, effective only until the jubilee year, the point within the fifty year cycle at which the transaction occurs will determine the price.  Namely, property sold shortly after the jubilee year will carry a higher price tag, as the buyer purchases use of the land for a substantial period of time.  A landowner selling property shortly before a jubilee year must lower the price, as the buyer enjoys rights to the land for a shorter time.

 

            The anonymous Sefer Ha-chinukh, which attempts to identify the underlying reasoning behind each of the 613 commandments, raises no fewer than four goals or reasons for the mitzva of shemitta.  One idea he poses relates to the "socialist" element of shemitta: this institution helps one develop a sense of "vatranut," a selfless preparedness to forego that which is rightfully his and give it to others.  A somewhat more obvious variation of this approach is postulated by Maimonidies, in his "Guide to the Perplexed": quite simply, shemitta serves to assist the poor, by allowing them free and unlimited access to, quite literally, all the produce in the Land of Israel.  This indeed emerges from the brief description of shemitta in Parashat Mishpatim: "Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield.  But in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow.  Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beast eat" (Shemot 23:10-11). 

 

            This approach, however, explains only one of the two principal agricultural requirements of shemitta - the renunciation of practical ownership over one's property.  This provides no explanation for the requirement to let the land lie fallow.  To the contrary, the cessation of agricultural activity over the course of an entire year (or two years, in years 49-50) could, potentially, spell disaster for the nation's entire economy, sending prices soaring and thus harming particularly the poor. 

 

            Rambam, therefore, adds a separate explanation for the prohibition against agricultural activity during shemitta: a one-year respite is beneficial for the land itself, resulting in greater productivity during the interim years. 

 

            As many later writers have noted, however, this claim - even assuming its scientific accuracy - does not satisfactorily explain the concept of shemitta as presented in the Torah.  Were the soil's health to have been the Torah's primary concern, then, logically, it would have mandated a rotation by which every year one-seventh of the lands would be granted a rest from farming.  This would achieve the desired reinforcement of the soil without threatening the nation's food supply. 

 

            It would seem, therefore, that this institution involves an additional, purely theological element.  The Sefer Ha-chinukh expresses this component as follows: "… in order that the person remember that the land which produces for him the fruit… does not produce them with its own strength, but rather there is a Master over it and its masters."  This appears already in an earlier source, Midrash Lekach Tov (introduction to Parashat Behar): "The Almighty said, plant for six years and on the seventh refrain, in order that you know that the Land is Mine and I bequeathed it to You as an inheritance."

 

            This general theme, of God's ownership of the land, upon which the presentation in our parasha focuses, unquestionably forms the basis for both shemitta and yovel.  First, twice the Torah speaks of the shemitta year as "a sabbath for the Lord" (25:2,4).  This year "belongs to God," as it were, because it is when man withdraws from the land, thereby allowing the Almighty to reclaim His dominion over it.  Indeed, Midrash Lekach Tov explains this phrase to mean, "to show that God owns the land."  Moreover, the clear association drawn in this parasha between the agricultural laws of shemitta and the economic provisions of yovel emphasizes this underlying theme.  The Torah explicitly invokes God's ownership of the land as the basis for the restoration of property to original owners: "The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me" (25:23).  During the jubilee year, nobody owns land because we acknowledge the Almighty as the exclusive Landholder.  By association, this also forms the basis of shemitta, the "sabbath of the Lord," when we dare not establish personal ownership over our fields.  Instead, "the sabbath of the land shall be for your consumption - you, your male and female servants, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, and your cattle and the beasts in your land may eat of its yield" (25:6-7).  The Almighty invites all His creatures - man and beast - into His lands during the sabbatical year.  The so-called landowner may partake of the produce, as well, but only as a guest of God Himself, who now reclaims His property.

 

            The same concept underlies the emancipation of servants on the fiftieth year.  While intuitively we would have perhaps attributed this requirement to the Torah's concern for the dignity and independence of the servants (and it is hard to deny this component of yovel), the Torah seems to point us in a different direction: "For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into [lifelong] servitude" (25:42); "For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants whom I freed from the land of Egypt" (25:55).  Lifelong servitude violates not the personal dignity of the servant, but rather the "property" of the Almighty.  Just as He owns the land, He owns its inhabitants.  Both must therefore be returned to Him on the fiftieth year.

 

            This analysis gives rise to one basic question: if, indeed, shemitta and yovel express God's dominion over the land and its residents, why do these institutions apply only in the Land of Israel?  Is not God the King, Ruler, Owner, and Master over the entire world?  Why need we not reinforce our acknowledgment of His dominion over all lands?

 

Shabbat/Shemitta; Yom Kippur/Yovel

 

            There exists one familiar institution that does serve to reinforce our sense of God's power over the universe.  The presentation of shemitta in Parashat Behar - "Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield.  But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord" (25:3-4) - immediately brings to mind the description of Shabbat in the Ten Commandments: "Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God" (Shemot 20:9).  The very next verse explains, "For in six days the Lord made the heaven and earth and sea… and He rested on the seventh day."  While Shabbat features many different aspects and themes, among the most central is this concept of "a sabbath to the Lord," a day that we "give" to the Almighty.  By refraining from mundane production and disrupting our routine of cultivating the earth's resources, we declare God's exclusive ownership over the natural world. Shemitta accomplishes a similar goal only on a narrower scale: what Shabbat expresses regarding the universe, shemitta expresses regarding the Land of Israel. 

 

            We may extend the shemitta-Shabbat parallel to include the jubilee year, as well.  As we saw, yovel reflects the same theme as shemitta, only to a greater extent; not only must one refrain from agricultural activity, one must renounce claims to purchased lands and servants.  Shabbat, too, finds more extreme expression in a less frequent but related institution - Yom Kippur, referred to by the Torah as "Shabbat Shabbaton" (Vayikra 16:31).  On Yom Kippur, we must not only refrain from those same activities forbidden on Shabbat (as opposed to other festivals, when the laws concerning forbidden activity are less strict), but we must also "afflict our souls" (Vayikra 16:29).  We withdraw from physical life to the furthest extent possible, denying ourselves of even the most basic of man's necessities.  (The Mishna (Yoma) notes that the high priest, the nation's representative before God on Yom Kippur, would not even sleep on Yom Kippur eve.)  Yom Kippur is Shabbat taken to the extreme: the day on which we return the world to the Almighty, thereby reaffirming His absolute control and authority over earth.

 

            For good reason, then, Parashat Behar not only describes shemitta as a "sabbath to the Lord," but draws a clear association between yovel and Yom Kippur: "You shall count seven weeks of years - seven times seven years… a total of forty-nine years.  Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month - the day of Atonement - you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land" (25:8-9).  The merging of yovel and Yom Kippur is perhaps meant to draw this analogy between the two systems, of shemitta-yovel and Shabbat-Yom Kippur.  Yovel is the Yom Kippur of shemitta, that is, its most extreme expression.

 

            Shemitta and yovel reflect God's unique ownership over the Land of Israel.  While He clearly "owns" the entire world, as well, as we acknowledge through the observance of Shabbat (and the "Shabbat Shabbaton" of Yom Kippur), His dominion over the Land of Israel assumes a unique quality.  To understand this quality, we must review the content and structure of Sefer Vayikra, and the role of shemitta and yovel therein.

 

Interaction with the Shekhina

 

            We have explained in previous shiurim that Vayikra presents the guidelines for Benei Yisrael's interaction with the Shekhina - God's Presence - which descended upon the Tabernacle at the conclusion of Shemot.  Vayikra's first half (through chapter 17) deals with the requirement and restrictions governing the Tabernacle itself, how and under which circumstances one may enter the sacred ground of God's abode.  Chapter 18 marks a fundamental shift in Vayikras focus from the Tabernacle to rules governing conduct throughout the land.  The recurring theme through this sefer's second section is kedusha (sanctity).  God's Presence in the Mikdash (Sanctuary; the place of kedusha) affects the entire land, which must be treated with kedusha in a manner corresponding to - albeit less intense than - the sanctity of the sanctuary itself.

 

            Shemitta and yovel remind the people that the land on which they live is God's:  "You are but strangers resident with Me."  Am Yisrael reside only as a guest, as it were, on the Almighty's turf.  He chose the Land of Israel as His own, and He allows us to stay on condition that we acknowledge His authority.

 

The "Tokhecha": Reward and Punishment for Shemitta Observance and Neglect

 

            Parashat Bechukotai, the second of the two parshiyot we read this Shabbat, contains primarily the section known as the "tokhecha," literally, "reproof," or as the "berakhot u-klalot" - the blessings and curses.  God here vividly describes the blessings He will bestow upon Benei Yisrael if they obey His commandments and the curses that will befall them should they rebel.  In VBM shiurim in past years, various authors have demonstrated that this section directly continues and relates to the laws of shemitta.  Namely, the laws, whose observance or neglect determines the nation's blessing or curse refer specifically to the rules of shemitta. 

 

            Several proofs support this claim, including literary parallels between the promise of reward for shemitta observance mentioned in Parashat Behar (25:18-19) and several verses towards the beginning of Parashat Bechukotai (26:3,5).  Far more explicitly the Torah itself attributes the exile foreseen in the "tokhecha" to the neglect of laws of shemitta:

 

Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin.  Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years.  Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it. (26:33-35)

 

For the land shall be forsaken of them, making up for its sabbath years by being desolate of them, while they atone for their iniquity. (26:43)

 

Likewise, the verse towards the end of Divrei Hayamim II (36:21) describes the unfortunate fulfillment of this curse with the destruction of the First Temple: "… in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Yirmiyahu, until the land paid back its sabbaths; as long as it lay desolate it kept sabbath, till seventy years were completed."

 

If Benei Yisrael do not uphold their obligation of "returning" the land to God, then He will forcibly seize it by banishing them from His territory.

 

            Based on our discussion, one particular element of the tokhecha becomes clearer.  A quick comparison between the "blessings and curses" in Parashat Bechukotai and its counterpart in Sefer Devarim (Parashat Ki-Tavo - chapter 28) reveals several differences.  Most striking is the elaboration and detail of the "tokhecha" in Devarim, which far surpass those of the comparatively brief presentation here in Vayikra.  This quantitative distinction underscores yet another difference between the two.  Despite its relative brevity, the tokhecha of Vayikra includes one element that appears nowhere throughout the extensive description of Devarim: mention of the Shekhina.  The blessings of Parashat Bechukotai, like the corresponding section in Devarim, promise economic prosperity, military success and peace, but also add several "spiritual" promises: "I will establish My abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you.  I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people" (26:11-12).  (Granted, one clause related to these general themes does appear in the blessings of Sefer Devarim: "The Lord will establish you as His holy people" - Devarim 28:9.)  Later, in the description of the curses that will befall people should they disobey, we find the converse: the destruction of the Temple and cessation of the sacrificial rituals (26:31).  The tokhecha in Devarim makes no mention of the Temple's destruction.

 

            Ramban (26:15), in a lengthy analysis of the nature of the two tokhechot, explains that they foretell two different exiles.  Parashat Bechukotai warns of the Babylonian exile, the destruction of the First Temple, while Sefer Devarim predicts the fall of the Second Temple at the hands of the Romans.  For one thing, the Ramban writes, this explains why only the curses in Vayikra conclude with the promise of redemption (26:42,44-45).  The first exile lasted for less than a century; after only seventy years a sizable group of Jews returned to resettle the Land and rebuild the Temple.  The second exile, of course, has yet to reach its conclusion; the Torah, therefore, revealed no "light at the end of the tunnel," and did not end its prophecy of this second destructiwith a comforting promise of redemption.

 

            Furthermore, Ramban claims, this distinction also accounts for the omission of the Temple's destruction from the curses in Devarim.  The First Temple was never fully restored; the Second amounted to but a humble replica, falling far short of thcomplete residence of the Shekhina that characterized the original Temple built by King Solomon.  Therefore, the Second Temple's destruction constituted a relatively marginal aspect of the Roman exile, unworthy of inclusion within Sefer Devarim's prediction of this calamity.

 

            In light of our discussion we may add an additional reason for mentioning the Shekhina specifically in the blessings and curses of Vayikra.  These blessings and curses are God's response to the nation's observance or neglect of the laws of shemitta, which, as we have seen, reflect the people's recognition of the Land as God's chosen "residence."  If Benei Yisrael properly observe these laws, God will reside among them; in not, He will destroy the Temple and refuse to accept the people's sacrifices - that is, He will no longer invite them into His "home."  For the same reason, He will banish them from His land.

 

            Thus, the tokhecha, forms a most suitable conclusion to the Vayikra, the book that establishes the guidelines for the nation's interaction with the Shekhina.  This interaction is particularly complex and delicate; the requirements are demanding and intricate, and the consequences of their neglect are severe.  Shemitta and yovel address the most basic, perhaps elementary, demand of Benei Yisrael as they reside in the Land of Israel: that they acknowledge the Land's true Owner and their status as guests and foreigners.  Only with this perspective will the Owner allow them to live peacefully in His land and bestow His blessing of success and prosperity upon His loyal tenants.

 

For Further Study:

 

In the shiur we drew a parallel between the two systems of Shabbat/Yom Kippur and shemitta/yovel.  The first involves God's dominion over the universe, while the second reflects His unique ownership over the Land of Israel.  Especially as we will soon observe Shavuot, we should perhaps consider the inclusion of the seven-week omer period into this group.  The connection the omer period establishes between Pesach (which commemorates the Exodus) and Shavuot (which commemorates the receiving of the Torah) expresses the theme of Benei Yisrael's subjugation to the Almighty.  He redeemed Am Yisrael from Egyptian slavery (on Pesach) only for them to become His slaves (as occurred formally on Shavuot).  Thus, the seven-day cycle of Shabbat expresses God's dominion over the universe; the seven-year cycle of shemitta expresses His dominion over the Land of Israel and its inhabitants; and the seven-week period of the omer expresses God's ownership over Benei Yisrael, who are His slaves.

 

            This may help explain why the Torah, in describing the mitzva of counting the omer, refers to Pesach as "shabbat" (see Vayikra 23:15 and Rashi there).  Shabbat as described in Sefer Shemot (20:11; 31:17) commemorates God's creation of the world, as discussed in the shiur.  In Sefer Devarim (5:15), however, Shabbat serves as a reminder of the Exodus.  On the basis of this perspective in Sefer Devarim, explain the association between Pesach and Shabbat as it relates specifically the omer period - which connects Pesach to Shavuot.

 

The final verse in Parashat Behar briefly mentions the observance of Shabbat and the requirement to show proper respect for the Temple grounds.  See if our analysis may help explain the relevance of these laws to Parashat Behar (= shemitta and yovel).  See Chizkuni, who explains the word "Shabbat" in this verse as a reference to shmitta, and the term "Mikdash" as connoting the jubilee year.

 

3)  Due to space considerations, we did not address the final chapter of Sefer Vayikra, chapter 27, which forms the second half of Parashat Bechukotai.  This chapter deals with the laws of "kodshei bedek ha-bayit," whereby one can consecrate an item or a given sum of money to the Temple treasury.  Though this point requires more comprehensive analysis, we may suggest that this chapter effectively brings Sefer Vayikra full circle, merging together the sefer's two halves.  The institution of "hekdesh" allows for all individuals and property throughout the Land to contribute towards the Shekhina's dwelling, thus reinforcing the nationwide impact of God's residence among the nation.  This power granted to the entire nation expresses how the Temple itself, the focal point of the first half of Sefer Vayikra, integrally relates to the entirety of life in the Land of Israel - addressed in the second half.  (Rav Avraham Walfish addressed this question at length in his VBM shiur for Parashat Bechukotai in 1997.)

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