Behar-Bechukotai: Moving Worlds

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Globe in Hand
05 May 2010

Two major concepts, Shemitta and Yovel are linked in text, time and tone. Consider that Shemitta [7th year] and Yovel [50th year]:

  1. are juxtaposed in the parsha [25:2-7,25:8-13]
  2. contiguous in time [years 49 & 50]
  3. require the land lie fallow in the identical halachic manner and the Torah uses the same verbs/nouns to describe the nature of the prohibition [sowing, pruning, harvesting – zeriah, zemirah, ketzirah]

And yet, in ways obvious and subtle, they differ far more than they converge.

First the obvious:

  1. At Yovel the Hebrew slaves are freed – no matter what; not so for Shemitta
  2. At Yovel, most lands return to their original ancestral owners; not so for Shemitta
  3. At Shemitta [the end of it], all debts are annulled; not so for Yovel

Now, the subtle:

  1. Yovel must be declared by Beit Din. Shemitta need not 1
  2. Yovel commences partially when the Shofar blasts on Yom Kippur
  3. Beit Din must count the years [1,2,..49] preceding Yovel for Yovel to be in force [Rambam, Shemitta-Yovel, 10:1]
  4. Yovel does not apply today, while Shemitta remains in force perhaps even on a Torah level 2

These differences loom large and beg for explanation:

Meshech Chochma [R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, 1843-1926] presents a profoundly beautiful rational approach. For R. Meir Simcha, the Shemitta-Yovel dichotomoy is best understood through the Shabbos/Yom Tov analogy. A classic gemara is the key:

Our Rabbis taught: If a Festival fell on a Shabbos, … Rabbi says: He should conclude [the blessing] with [Hashem] ‘Who sanctifies the Shabbos, Israel and the Holidays.’ A tanna recited in the presence of Rabina: ‘Who sanctifies Israel and the Shabbos and the Holidays.’ He said to him: Does then Israel sanctify the Shabbos? The Shabbos has already been sanctified [from the creation] and so continues! Say rather: ‘Who sanctifies the Shabbos, Israel and the Holidays.’ R. Joseph said: The halachah is as Rabbi and as Rabina explained it.

Shabbos sanctity happens. Ready or not, here it comes! Before a Jew trod upon this earth, Shabbos existed. Shabbos, the quintessential present given by Hashem to his people, is [like all good gifts] to be kept [shamor], cherished [zachor], and enjoyed [oneg]. Shabbos however, is not ours for the creating. Thus no beis din declaration is necessary.

What classical Shabbos is in time, Shemitta (aka the Shabbat Ha’aretz) is in place 3. A Midrash notes the remarkable linguistic equation the Torah makes between Shabbos and Shemitta4. [Torat Kohanim, 1:2]

Just as it says regarding Shabbos “a Shabbos for Hashem [Shemot 20:10], so by Shemitta does it say a Shabbos for Hashem [Vayikra, 25:2]

In contrast, Yom Tov demands our active participation. We control the calendar which yields the date of Yom Tov Theoretically, a passive Bnei Yisrael yields a Yom Tov-less world. Indeed, both Ramban and Rambam5 struggle with the question of how a world without a Sanhedrin [High Court] can produce the Torah obligation of Yom Tov?

As Yom Tov goes, so Yovel! Note the wording of the Torah. [25:10]

You shall sanctify the year of the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom in the land for all of its inhabitants; ..

Yom Tov echoes [23:7 A holy calling it shall be for you] lurk in the background. Just as Yom Tov needs us, so Yovel require human input. Thus the shofar blast is needed to release the slaves. We must count up the years to approach yovel. More remarkably, if the slaves are not sent away and yovel is not declared and the shofar is not blast, then the prohibition of working the land does not apply6 . Indeed Yovel today is not even a rabbinic obligation. Why? Once again, it’s the people, or lack thereof! We need rov yoshveha aleha, –i.e. the majority of Jews must live on the land [in classic tribe formation].

In Yovel as in Yom Tov, we are in partnership with Hashem whereas in Shabbos and Shemitta, we are recipients/employees.

Why is Yovel associated with Yom Tov? Meshech Chochma links it to Pesach and liberation. Both celebrate themes of redemption. Yovel is the personal yetzias mitzrayim of many thousands of Jews.

Two other obvious Yom Tov – Yovel associations: Yom Kippur [when the shofar is blown] and Shavuos. Consider that Yovel, the 50th year is a culmination of seven seven-year cycles while Shavuos, the 50th day concludes seven seven-day cycles. We shall yet return here, but first we take a mystical break… for Yovel is more than a number, apparently it is a world unto itself

Remember that our parsha teaches that at Yovel, we release the servants7. [Vayikra, 25:10]:

You shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all of its inhabitants; it shall be the Yovel year for you….

Earlier on, however the Torah describes the servant [who pierces his ear and] wants to stay – forever.

The text says forever (l’olam)– but the oral law teaches us until yovel! Apparently forever is not always forever?

Ibn Ezra, ever the rationalist, redefines l’olam to simply mean an extended period of time. Yovel is the longest block of time in the Jewish calendar; Ibn Ezra’s approach is personally underwhelming, for while technically correct, we may still question why the Torah opts for the ambiguous “olam” while ignore the more pristine “yovel”?

Ramban’s cryptic words entice:

The enlightened one will understand that L’olam is [to be understood] literally – for one who works until Yovel has worked all the days of the world. And the words of the Mechilta: Rebbe says: “Come & see that the world is only fifty years old as it says and he shall work forever – until the Yovel”

I want to be enlightened, but I do know people above the age of fifty (one of these days, I hope to become an eyewitness). In these enigmatic words, Ramban adjures that l’olam is the more precise formulation! Penetrate the term and you shall discern why the natural world, only exists for a mystical fifty years.

With Rabbeinu Bechayei’s help, we present Ramban’s essential point – the short story. In Jewish numerology, what separates 49 and 50 is a world of difference. A world, mamash.

Fifty days marks the extraordinary transformation of Bnei Yisrael from lowly slaves to noble mekablei hatorah. Fifty represents metamorphosis8. Every year henceforth, we personally bridge Pesach to Shavuos with an omer period, where we kabbalistically ascend seven emanations from Chesed (kindness) to Malchus (kingdom). On day 49, we have scaled the highest peak – we are at malchus shebimalchus, the kingdom of kingdoms. Now what?

We start again. This time, however we are in a different world9.

Yovel the messages teaches that after seven cycles of shemitta – each a new rung of perfection within the world, we are now ready for the dawn of a completely new one10 [We can indeed be the very people whom we thought we never can be!]

At yovel, ready or not, the eved ivri is forced out. He, for whom the world has turned so dark, he, who is at the mercy of another human, he, who may have lost his sense of destiny and independence, is now taught that a Jew never wallows in cursed “fate”. New worlds and new hopes beckon.

Meshech Chochma’s rationale may now be wed with Ramban’s mysticism.

First note that Yovel is a liberating as Pesach, but is Shavuos-like in the sense that it requires personal work and effort. That slave who wants to experience meaningful freedom has to work beforehand and undergo a gradual upward ascent. Finally, the freedom inherent in Yovel can only be found in the Yom Kippur shofar blast, for nothing liberates man as much as a life of utter connection to the Master of the Universe, (i.e. leading a Yom Kippur type life)

We come full circle.

Meshech Chochmah teaches that Yovel as Yom Tov requires active input and gradual ascent. Ramban’s notion reminds us that we can make new worlds [perhaps most significantly our very own].

May Hashem give us that power and wisdom to transcend worlds in our very lifetime.

Good Shabbos


1 Ba’al HaMaor argues on this, but his is a lone opinion

2 Most Rishonim assume it is Rabbinic today

3 Thus Shemitta annuls debts without any pronouncement and need not be declared by the beit din.

4 While Yom Tov is often called Shabbaton, it is never called Shabbos l’Hashem

5 Cf. Sefer HaMitzvot 153 Rambam/Ramban

6 c.f. Rosh Hashana 9b and Rambam 10:13 Laws of Shemitta and Yovel

7 Rashi based on Kiddushin 15a] clarifies that the onset of the yovel releases all who carry the title of eved ivri, including the nirtza [4], [the Jewish servant who extended his term beyond the initial six year obligation] must be freed

8 It is that transformation that is the line one of the 10 commandments

9 Consider that Moshe Rabbeinu attained the highest level of wisdom known to man Vatichasreihu me’at me’elokim [6] – the 49th level. He was a bit short of Hashem (whatever that means). According to the Zohar, Bnei Yisrael were on the 49th level of impurity and had to be rushed out of Egypt; one rung lower and they sink into oblivion. For at the fiftieth level, one is transformed, in either direction. Is it not interesting that the Levi may only serve in the beit hamikdash until the age of fifty ? In some way his world too has been completed. The notion is even a comsic one! Davar tziva l’eleph dor [7]. (The matter [of the world] He commanded for one thousand generations), Ramban calculates that a generation is fifty years [8]. The Midrash [9] teaches that our universe has experienced 6 previous existences, each of which lasted for a total of 7,000 years [10]. Our world too will last for 7,000 years. Thus the totality of this Universe’s existence will cease at its Yovel.

10 It is indeed striking that while prohibiting labor in the Shemitta the Torah still cedes ownership to man [Vayikra, 25:5] “your field you shall not sow, . . .”, while in prohibiting labor in the Yovel the Torah revokes that ownership [Vayikra,25:11-12] you shall not harvest its aftergrowth; … from the field you may eat its crop” . In Yovel, we have entered a new world with no prior ownership and no shackles of the past.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.