Preparing for the Torah

PARASHAT BEHAR-BECHUKOTAI: What are the characteristics of Shemitta that lead to it being singled out?

By Rabbi Ian Shaffer

The story is told about the famous Mashgiach, R’Elya Lopian zal (d.1970 in Israel) who was teaching his students an important lesson based on the sefer Sha’arei Teshuva of Rabenu Yonah. When he was asked, the Mashgiach mentioned that he is ‘holding’ at the second level of the sefer, and this is after 70 years of studying the book from his earliest days in Lithuania. What did he mean by this?

In the parsha of Behar we read:

א  וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בְּהַר סִינַי לֵאמֹר.

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses in mount Sinai, saying:

ב  דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם–וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ, שַׁבָּת לַה’.

2 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the LORD.

Rashi raises an obvious question on this introductory verse to the laws of Shemitta as found in our parsha.

בהר סיני. מָה עִנְיַן שְׁמִטָּה אֵצֶל הַר סִינַי? וַהֲלֹא כָל הַמִּצְוֹת נֶאֶמְרוּ מִסִּינַי?  אֶלָּא מַה שְּׁמִטָּה נֶאֶמְרוּ כְלָלוֹתֶיהָ וּפְרָטוֹתֶיהָ וְדִקְדּוּקֶיהָ מִסִּינַי אַף כֻּלָּן נֶאֶמְרוּ כְלָלוֹתֵיהֶן וְדִקְדּוּקֵיהֶן מִסִּינַי, כָּךְ שְׁנוּיָה בְּתֹ”כֹּ; וְנִרְאֶה לִי שֶׁכָּךְ פֵּרוּשָׁהּ: לְפִי שֶׁלֹּא מָצִינוּ שְׁמִטַּת קַרְקָעוֹת שֶׁנִּשְׁנֵית בְּעַרְבוֹת מוֹאָב בְּמִשְׁנֵה תוֹרָה, לָמַדְנוּ שֶׁכְּלָלוֹתֶיהָ וּפְרָטוֹתֶיהָ כֻּלָּן נֶאֶמְרוּ מִסִּינַי, וּבָא הַכָּתוּב וְלִמֵּד כַּאן עַל כָּל דִּבּוּר שֶׁנִּדְבַּר לְמֹשֶׁה, שֶׁמִּסִּינַי הָיוּ כֻלָּם, כְּלָלוֹתֵיהֶן וְדִקְדּוּקֵיהֶן, וְחָזְרוּ וְנִשְׁנוּ בְּעַרְבוֹת מוֹאָב:בהר סיני

[AND THE LORD SPOKE UNTO MOSES] ON THE MOUNT SINAI — What has the matter of the Sabbatical year to do with Mount Sinai that Scripture fell compelled to expressly state where it was commanded? Were not all commandments given on Sinai? But this statement is intended to suggest the following comparison: How is it in the case of the law of Shemittah? Its general rules, [its specific prescriptions] and minute details were ordained on Mount Sinai! So, also, were all commandments with their general rules and their minute details ordained on Mount Sinai. Thus is in taught in Torath Cohanim (Sifra, Behar, Section 1 1)

Rashi is concerned that the Torah repeats the origin of the Mitzvot mentioned here (Mt Sinai), which is surely the same origin as the other Mitzvot which we have seen until now, from God on Mt. Sinai. Why is this fundamental belief repeated here?

Rashi explains that the repetition is significant here as the law of Shemitta is not repeated later in Sefer Devarim, and therefore must have been totally related at Mt. Sinai and this becomes a paradigm for all the other Mitzvot, which all originated from God at Sinai.

Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin zal(d.1979, Jerusalem, who was the first editor of the Encyclopaedia Talmudit), raises a question on Rashi. If the Shemitta law becomes the paradigm for all other Mitzvot and their origin, why was this specific Mitzvah chosen for this lesson? Surely something more mainstream (Shabbat, Kashrut) could have taught us the same lesson, so why was Shemitta chosen specifically for this lesson as to how Torah was given?

In his sefer, Letorah Ulemoadim, he answers this question in a most magnificent way.

He explains that in the categorization of Mitzvoth, there are actually 3 sections.

a)      Bein Adam Lemakom-Between man and God

b)      Bein Adam Lechavero-between man and man

c)      Bein Adam le’atzmo-between man and himself.

The 3 catagories are linked to a comment of the Maharsha on Masechet Bava Kama(30a):

מהרש”א חידושי אגדות מסכת בבא קמא דף ל עמוד א

. קאמר רב יהודה מאן דבעי למהוי חסידא לקיים מילי דנזיקין דאז יכול לתקן מעשיו שיהיה טוב לבריות ורבא קאמר דלקיים מילי דאבות דאז יתקן מעשיו שיהיה טוב לעצמו במדות ואמרי לה דלקיים מילי דברכות דאז יתקן שיהיה טוב לשמים וכל אחד מהני אמוראי נקט כל א’ מהני ג’ מיני חלוקים במעשים טובים של אדם וק”ל

The Gemara is giving us 3 ways to become a ‘chasid’(a Jew who goes beyond the letter of the law).

a) Fulfill the laws of blessings (this is the component between man and God)

b) Fulfill the ideas as expressed in Pirkei Avot(this is the component between man and himself-working on his middot to become a better person)

c) Fulfill the laws/’words’ of damages (this is the component between man and his neighbor)

Rav Zevin argues that the Shemitta law is unique in the Torah, in that it contains all 3 elements as mentioned above.

a)      It is a ‘Sabbath to God’- between man and God

b)      It has the effect of declaring everything that grows in the 7th year hefker(ownerless)-between man and man, as everyone is allowed to take my crop (and vice versa)

c)      It is a law which demands the Jew to stop working the land and concentrate on his own spiritual development-between man and himself.

This uniqueness of the law of Shemitta makes it the perfect paradigm for other Mitzvoth. Just as all the 3 elements of Shemitta were said at Sinai, so too were all other Mitzvot said at Sinai, each one fitting into one or more of the above characteristics which define the unique Shemitta law.

This is also what I believe R’Elya was saying in his response to the student. We may even have learned the whole of Talmud, but what has the whole of Talmud really taught us? It is the demands of honest self-appraisal as expressed by the concept of ‘bein adam le’atzmo’ which R’ Elya is demanding of himself and therefore he commented that he had actually ‘internalized’ only up to the middle of the Shaarei Teshuva. It is this honest self-appraisal which we are being asked to do by the Talmud in Bava Kama and the commentary of the Maharsha. It is the same honesty which is required during Shemitta year, to make the experience a meaningful one.

It is also what we are required to do as preparation for Kabalat Hatorah which we are now going through, in the days of sefira. R’ Leib Gurvitz zal (Gateshead Rosh Yeshiva d.1982) commented that the sefira days correspond to the 48 ways through which we prepare to receive the Torah, as found in the 6th perek of Pirkei Avot. The 49th day becomes the time to review of all 48 elements, which we are to do on the eve of Shavuot.

Although these levels of awareness seem very far from our lives, it is the matter of honest self-appraisal which I believe we can all benefit from in our preparation to receive the Torah. Are we sincere in our beliefs and acts of Mitzvot, or are they being done by rote? Where are we ‘holding’ in our religious lives? Do we have set times to learn and are we rigid in the commitment this may take? These are certainly stirring thoughts to keep in mind as we come closer to the day of truth, the festival of the receiving of the Torah on Shavuot. This is the ultimate application of bein adam le’atzmo as explained by Rav Zevin in his beautiful comment on the law of Shemitta.

Originally appears on YUTorah

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