Parshat Behar/Bechukotai: Shemitah

And Hashem spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai saying: Speak to Bnai Yisrael and say to them, “when you come to the land that I am giving to you, you should rest the land. It is a Sabbath to Hashem.” (VaYikra 25:1-2)

Our parasha discusses the laws of Shemitah. The Shemitah year is observed in the Land of Israel every seven years. The Shemitah is a Sabbatical year. The land cannot be worked. The produce that is produced without cultivation is shared by everyone.

The first passage of the parasha explains that the laws of Shemitah were given to Moshe at Sinai. The commentaries are concerned with this comment. Why does the Torah specify that this mitzvah was given at Sinai? The Midrash discusses this issue. The Midrash explains that the Torah is using Shemitah as an example. The Torah is communicating to us that this mitzvah was given at Sinai in its entirety. We are to extrapolate from this example that just as this mitzvah is derived entirely from Sinai, so too all other mitzvot were revealed in their entirety at Sinai. This revelation encompassed both the general principles of the commandments and their details.[1]

The comments of the Midrash are somewhat enigmatic. The Midrash seems to assume that one would presume that the mitzvot are not derived completely from Sinai. Our passage is designed to correct this misimpression. Why would we assume that the mitzvot are not derived, in their entirety, from Sinai?

The commentaries offer a variety of answers. Nachmanides explains that the manner in which the Torah discusses some mitzvot can lead to a misunderstanding. The Torah does not always deal with a mitzvah in a single comprehensive discussion. Often the discussion of a mitzvah will be dispersed among different locations in the Torah. Shemitah is an example of this treatment. The mitzvah is first encountered in Parshat Mishpatim.[2] Our parasha continues this discussion. Furthermore, there is an important relationship between the two discussions. The passages in Parshat Mishpatim outline the general concept of Shemitah. Our parasha provides detail. Nachmanides explains that the casual reader can easily misinterpret this presentation and conclude that only the general outline of the mitzvah was revealed at Sinai. This outline is the discussion in Parshat Mishpatim. However, this reader might incorrectly assume that the details, discussed in our parasha, represent Moshe’s interpretation and implementation of the general principle embodied in the commandment. In order to dispel this misconception, the Torah explains that even the details, discussed in this week’s parasha are from Sinai. This example serves as a model for understanding the Torah’s treatment of other mitzvot. Even in cases in which the discussion of the mitzvah is dispersed in the Torah, the entire mitzvah, with all of its details, is derived from Sinai.[3]

Gershonides offers an alternative answer to the original problem. Why is it necessary for the Torah to specify the origin of the mitzvah of Shemitah? Gershonides maintains that, in general, the origin of the mitzvot is clear. The mitzvot are derived from Sinai. Sinai is the source of the general outline and the details. There is no need for the Torah to reiterate this point. However, at the opening of our parasha, there is a specific basis for confusion. He explains that the cause for this confusion is found at the end of the previous parasha – Parshat Emor. There, the Torah relates an account of a person that blasphemed that name of Hashem. The nation did not know the punishment for this crime. The people appealed to Moshe. Moshe could not respond. He turned to Hashem. Hashem instructed Moshe that the blasphemer should be stoned. In this instance, Moshe was confronted with an issue that he could not resolve based on the revelation at Sinai. A further prophecy was needed. Moshe received this prophecy in the wilderness. The reader might assume other mitzvot were also revealed in the wilderness and not at Sinai. Our parasha resolves this issue. The parasha begins with the declaration that Shemitah was revealed at Sinai. Sinai is the source for the Torah. The punishment of the blasphemer represents an unusual and relatively isolated exception to this rule.[4]

The land may not be sold permanently. For the land is Mine and you are foreigners and residents with Me. (VaYikra 25:23)

The Torah deals extensively with laws governing the Land of Israel. One of these laws is the mitzvah of Yovel – the Jubilee year. The Yovel is observed through a number of practices. These include resting from working the land, freeing all Jewish slaves, and restoration of the land to its owners. This last practice is discussed in our passage. In order to understand this aspect of the Jubilee year, an introduction is needed.

The Torah explains that once the Land of Israel is conquered, it is to be divided among the Shevatim – the tribes. Then, the Shevatim are to divide the land among its member families. Finally, the land is to be distributed to the various qualifying members within each family. As subsequent generations inherit the land, it is divided among the heirs. The owner may sell the land to a person from another family or Shevet. However, at the Yovel the land returns to the seller or his heirs. Through this system the land remains equitably distributed throughout the nation.

Our pasuk tells us that the land may not be sold on a permanent basis. In other words, at Yovel the land is returned to its appropriate owner. What is the reason for this restriction? Our pasuk addresses this issue. It states that the land is Hashem’s and the people are only foreigners or residents. What exactly is the intent of this statement? What is his pasuk telling us about Yovel?

The commentaries differ on this issue. Rashi seems to indicate that the message is very simple. The land is Hashem’s. It is not ours. In order to impress upon us this idea, our use and dominion over the land is restricted. Through restricting the sale of the land, the Torah demonstrates that the land is truly Hashem’s.[5]

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno offers a similar explanation. Hashem told Adam that he should conquer the earth.[6] Sforno explains that Hashem gave humanity the right to rule over the earth. We have the authority to use the land and other natural resources for the benefit of humanity. We are relatively unrestricted in our authority. However, this authority does not extend to the Land of Israel. Our right to rule over the Land of Israel is far more restricted.[7] Apparently, this is because the Land of Israel has a specific designation. It is designated as a place for the development of a Torah society. This must be the primary function of the land. In order to reinforce this message – that we do not have complete sovereignty over the land – our ownership is restricted. We may not sell the land on a permanent basis.

Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra offers a completely different explanation of the restriction on selling the land permanently. He explains that the restriction reminds us of our own mortality.[8] How is this accomplished? Apparently, Ibn Ezra maintains that the accumulation of vast wealth and enormous estates is based upon a fantasy of immortality. A person who recognizes the finite nature of our time in this world does not indulge in such extravagant ventures. The person who is fully in touch with one’s mortality provides for the finite life in this world, but does not attempt to amass a permanent fortune. The restriction in our passage prevents the accumulation of land in permanent large estates and discourages fantasies of immortality.

Let us consider another issue regarding our passage. Assume a seller enters into an agreement to permanently sell his land. Is this agreement binding? The answer is that the sale does not permanently convey the land to the buyer. At Yovel, the land reverts to the seller.[9] However, our passage is not merely telling us that the land cannot be permanently conveyed. The pasuk is stating a commandment. According to Rashi, this commandment is directed toward the buyer. The purchaser cannot retain the land. The land must be returned at Yovel.[10] Nachmanides disagrees with Rashi. He observes that the passage states that the land should not be permanently sold. This seems to address the seller. According to Rashi, the passage is addressing the purchaser. If so, the pasuk should state that the land should not be permanently purchased. Based on this analysis, Nachmanides concludes that the passage certainly addresses the seller. However he acknowledges that perhaps, the buyer is also included in the prohibition. In other words, the passage definitely prohibits the seller from entering into an agreement to permanently convey the land. Possibly the buyer is also included in the prohibition.[11]

It seems that Nachmanides is raising a valid objection to Rashi’s interpretation of the pasuk. If the mitzvah in the pasuk is directed to the buyer, why is it expressed as a prohibition against a permanent sale? It should be stated as a prohibition against a permanent purchase. In order to explain Rashi’s position we must understand a basic concept. In order to permanently convey land, two things are necessary. First, the parameters of the sale must be defined. This is done by the seller. The seller owns the land and decides what will be sold. Therefore, the seller must decide to sell the land permanently. Second, the buyer must retain the land. It is the retention of the land by the purchaser that produces the actual effect of permanent conveyance. In short, the decision to make the land available for permanent sale is made by the seller. The effect of a permanent conveyance is the result of the actions or omissions of the buyer. Rashi maintains that the permanent sale or conveyance of the land is prohibited. However, he argues that the mitzvah does not prohibit the agreement. It prohibits the effect. The buyer produces this. The effect takes place when the buyer fails to restore the land at Yovel. Therefore, Rashi reasons that the prohibition is directed against the purchaser.

There is still a difficulty with Rashi. We can understand the reason the Torah addresses this commandment to the purchaser. However, the wording of the passage remains difficult to explain. We would expect the pasuk to explicitly address the buyer. The passage should say that the land may not be permanently bought. Chizkuni offers a brilliant answer to this question. It is important to remember that our problem is based on the assumption that the passage refers to the sale of the land and not its purchase. Chizkuni explains that the Hebrew word in the pasuk is mecher. This term is generally translated as sell. However, mecher is related to the term karait or keritut. These words mean to permanently cut-off.[12] Based on this analysis we can better interpret the intent of the passage. An exact interpretation is that the land may not be permanently cut-off from the seller. The term mecher is used because it expresses the concept of complete and absolute conveyance. This effect is produced by the actions of the purchaser.

We can now easily understand Nachmanides’ position. He contends that the passage clearly addresses the seller. Why does Nachmanides insist the seller is the primary party in the violation of this mitzvah? Apparently, Nachmanides does not agree with Rashi’s basic premise. Rashi contends that the mitzvah prohibits the effectuation of the permanent conveyance. Nachmanides asserts that the mitzvah prohibits creating or designing a sale that contradicts the designation of the land. The land is designated to return to its owner. The seller defines the parameters of the sale. Once the seller defines these parameters as a permanent sale, a sale is created that contradicts the land’s designation. The purchaser is not included in this prohibition. This is because the buyer does not define the parameters of the sale.

Nachmanides acknowledges that the mitzvah may include both the seller and buyer. This is Maimonides’ position.[13] This is the simplest formulation of the mitzvah. According to Maimonides, the agreement is prohibited. Two parties are needed to create an agreement. A seller and purchaser are required. Therefore, both parties are included in the mitzvah. In a permanent sale of the land, both violate the mitzvah.

[1] Midrash Torat Kohanim, Parshat BeHar, parsha 1.

[2] Sefer Shemot 23:10-12.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban/Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 25:1.

[4] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag/Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1997), p 365.

[5] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 25:23.

[6] Sefer Beresheit 1:28.

[7] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 25:23.

[8] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 25:23.

[9] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam/Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Shemitah Ve’Yovel 11:1.

[10] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 25:23.

[11] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban/Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 25:23.

[12] Rabbaynu Chizkiya ben Manoach (Chizkuni), Commentary on Sefer Vakikra, 25:23.

[13] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam/Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Shemitah VeYovel 11:1.