19 Iyyar 5775
Erev Shabbat Kodesh
Day 34 of the Omer
Parashat Behar: The Shabbat of the Land
by Daniel Pinner
[Note: Due to the extra day of Pesach outside of Israel which this year fell on Shabbat, Jewish communities in the countries of exile are one week behind Israel in the Torah-reading. This will continue until Shabbat 27th Iyyar (16 May), when communities in Israel will read Parashat Bechukkotay (Leviticus 26:3-27:34) and communities in the exile will catch up by reading the double parashah Behar-Bechukkotay (Leviticus 25:1-27:34). My comments until then will focus on the Torah-reading appropriate for Israel.]
The 57 verses of Parashat Behar contain 24 mitzvot, 7 positive and 17 negative. Eleven of these are connected to the Shemitta (Remission) Year and the Yovel (Jubilee) Year:
Not to work the land in the Land of Israel every seventh year, the Shemitta Year (Leviticus 25:1-4);
Not to work the trees in the Shemitta Year (v.4: “…neither shall you prune your vineyard” applies to all trees, not just vines);
Not to reap any produce which grew on its own during the seventh year (v. 5);
Not to gather the fruits of the trees which grew on their own during the seventh year (v. 5; again the grape-harvest applies to all trees, not just vines);
For the Sanhedrin to count the years, year by year of the 50-year cycle and the “week” of years (the 7-year cycle) until the Yovel, in the same way that we count the days and weeks of the Omer (v.8);
To sound a blast on the shofar on the 10th of Tishrei, Yom Kippur, in the Yovel Year (v. 9);
To sanctify the 50th year (the Yovel) by not working the land and relinquishing ownership over all agricultural produce, the same as in a Shemitta Year (vs. 10-12);
Not to work the land or the trees in the Yovel Year (v. 11);
Not to harvest or gather the aftergrowth of the Yovel Year (v. 11);
Not to gather the fruits of the trees in the Yovel Year (v. 11);
And to return all land to its original owner in the Yovel Year (v. 24).
The Rambam, in the Introduction to Laws of Shemitta and Yovel, lists 22 mitzvot connected with Shemitta Yearand Yovel Year, nine positive and 13 negative:
That the land not be worked in the seventh year;
Not to work the fields in this year;
Not to work the trees in this year;
Not to harvest the aftergrowth;
Not to harvest the fruit of the trees;
To abandon all produce of the earth;
To rescind all monetary loans;
Not to demand the repayment of any monetary loan;
Not to avoid lending money before the Shemitta Year in order to avoid the financial loss;
To count the years, seven periods of seven years;
To sanctify the fiftieth year;
To blow the shofar on the 10th of Tishrei so that the slaves be released;
Not to work the land in this year;
Not to harvest the aftergrowth;
Not to harvest the fruits of the trees;
To redeem the land in this year (i.e. to return bought fields to their original owners);
Not to sell the land in perpetuity;
That houses sold in walled cities are not returned to their original owners;
The Tribe of Levi not settle together in the Land of Israel, but rather that they be given cities throughout the Land in which to dwell;
That the Levites not take any of the spoils of war;
To give the Levites cities and land-holdings in which to live;
And that the land-holdings in their cities never be sold, neither before the Yovel Year nor after it.
The Shemitta and Yovel years, then, have two general focuses. The first is the relationship between the individual Jew and the Land of Israel (the prohibition on working the land, harvesting crops, etc.), the second is the relationship between the individual Jew and his fellow-Jew (remission of loans, etc.).
Is there any connexion between these?
Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann (Austrian Empire and Germany, 1843-1921) posited that because the debtor is forbidden to work his fields during the Shemitta Year he is therefore unable to repay his debts, which is why the creditor is forbidden to demand repayment of loans.
The corollary, explains Rabbi Hoffmann, is that since a non-Jew’s income is not affected by the Shemitta Year, his loans are also not rescinded.
I suggest that two sentences in the midst of the mitzvot of Shemitta and Yovel clarify both the rationale for these two focuses, and also the connexion between them:
The first is, “You shall do My decrees, and My judgements you shall keep and do them – thus you will dwell securely on the Land” (Leviticus 25:18). On this, Rashi comments: “‘…thus you will dwell securely on the Land’ – because Israel are exiled for the sin of [violating the laws of] Shemitta [see Leviticus 26:37]… and the 70 years of exile in Babylon were a punishment for the 70 Shemitta Years that they violated”.
That is to say, keeping the Shemitta Year keeps us on the Land; if we abandon the Shemitta Year, we will be forced to abandon our Land. It’s as simple and direct as that.
The second verse is, “The Land shall not be sold in perpetuity, because the Land is Mine; because you are sojourners and temporary residents with Me” (25:23).
That is to say: even though God promised to our father Abraham that He would give him and his descendants this Land (Genesis 12:7, 15:7, 15:18); and even though He subsequently reiterated this promise to Isaac and to Jacob (35:12), and subsequently to all the Children of Israel (48:4, Exodus 6:4); and even though God defined the Land as the Land that He gives to the Children of Israel (Exodus 23:1, 25:2, Leviticus 25:38, Numbers20:12, and dozens more times); and even though the Tanach calls the Land “the Land of Israel” (1 Samuel 13:19, 2 Kings 5:2, 6:23, 1 Chronicles 22:2, 2 Chronicles 2:16, and many other places), suggesting the Land that belongs to Israel – nevertheless, we must never make the terrible mistake of thinking that we own this Land.
We don’t own it. We are but custodians of God’s Land. We are but sojourners and temporary residents on His Land, akin to a caretaker or janitor who, in return for looking after the building, is allowed to live therein.
Both aspects of Shemitta and Yovel – our relationship to the Land and our relationship to our fellow-Jews – affirm this. Land returns to its original owner, because God decides who receives which parcel of His Land. Though the Jew may sell his land (if he needs money, for example), the new owner may not take permanent possession of that land. With the Yovel Year, the land reverts to the Jew whom God decreed as its custodian.
Similarly with debts. By cancelling loans in the Shemitta Year, the Jew recognises and affirms that his money is not really his own – he is merely the custodian of God’s property.
As Rabbi Elazar, the man of Bartota said, “Give Him of that which is His, because you and what you own are His” (Pirkei Avot 3:7).
It is intriguing to note another context in which Rabbi Elazar’s saying is cited. The first Book of Chronicles concludes with King David’s final charge to Israel and his final prayer immediately before his death, part of which (29:10-13) has been incorporated into our daily Morning Service.
Among King David’s words is his recognition: “And so – who am I and who is my Nation that we should refuse to volunteer our strength for You? Because everything is from You, and from Your own hand we have given to You; We are but sojourners before You, and temporary residents like all our forefathers” (29:14-15).
Commenting on this, the Yalkut Shimoni (Chronicles 1082) cites Rabbi Elazar’s aphorism.
God tells us that because the Land is His, because we are but sojourners and temporary residents with Him, it is not in our power to sell His Land in perpetuity.
There is another aspect to the Shemitta and Yovel Years, an aspect of social justice and protection of thepeople.
Almost two years ago, commenting on Parashat Shoftim, we noted that the Torah system of government has inherent division of powers between the judiciary (local Sanhedrins in each city), the executive (the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, independent of the local Sanhedrins), the legislature (the king, independent of the Sanhedrin), and spiritual authority (the Levites and the Kohanim).
The legislation of the Shemitta and Yovel Years in Parashat Behar prevents a class of landed gentry evolving, an aristocracy which over sufficient generations acquires control over so much of the land that their political and economic power becomes unchallengeable.
(Indeed our “aristocracy”, the Levites and Kohanim, are severely trammelled precisely in land ownership: the Levites are confined to possessing land in their own cities, and the Kohanim are forbidden to own land at all.)
And this legislation also prevents the evolution of a class of serfs, bound to remain on the land belonging to a master.
It also prevents the rigid stratification of society into an economically depressed class, unable to breakout of the cycle of poverty and held in debt, generation after generation, to a class of capitalists who produce nothing, but who control the wealth of the nation.
Just as the Shabbat, every seventh day, week by week, testifies that God created the world in six days and ceased from creation on the seventh (Exodus 20:8-11) and that He brought us out of slavery in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:12-15), so too the Shemitta Year, every seventh year, and the Yovel Year, every seventh Shemitta Year, testify that this Land is God’s, and the nation that dwells on the Land is His.