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Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25-27 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Modern colloquial Hebrew uses an ancient rabbinicism when asking what two seemingly disparate subjects have to do with one another. The phrase, drawn from comments on the first verse of Parashat B'Har, is: "What does Shmittah have to do with Mount Sinai?"

This week's Torah reading begins with what seems to be superfluous information: "God spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai, saying…" In fact, every single communication in the 30 chapters preceding this parashah occurred at Mount Sinai - from chapter 19 in the Book of Shmot. Why, then, does this geographic place-marker appear specifically in this chapter, which deals with the laws of the sabbatical and Jubilee years? What, indeed, is the connection between Shmittah and Mount Sinai?

When the Jews arrived at Mount Sinai they were nothing more than a ragtag group of former slaves, dazed by the wonders they had seen but broken in spirit by hundreds of years of servitude and abuse. They knew that they were, in effect, an extended family, descendants of the twelve sons of Israel, but when they arrived at Sinai, something magical happened: They became united, and came to realize that in addition to their shared history, they have a shared destiny. At the foot of Mount Sinai, they accepted the challenge of that shared destiny, and expressed their willingness to accept the Torah, the means through which that destiny would be brought to fruition.

It is that magical moment of realization and comprehension that is celebrated in the words we sing at the Seder on Pesach: "Had God brought us to Mount Sinai and not even given us the Torah, it would have been sufficient." - Dayenu! The Sinai experience was not solely a question of receiving the Torah. Receiving the Law, the charter for this newly emerging nation, was only possible after the people assembled at the foot of the mountain realized that they were in the process of becoming a covenantal community that would create an enlightened, spiritual society that would change the world. The Revelation at Sinai was predicated by this experience of unity, of acknowledging their shared history and accepting the mantle of their shared destiny. Had they achieved only this at the foot of Sinai - the unity of purpose and mutual responsibility for their destiny - it would have sufficed.

The laws of Shmittah and Yovel (Jubilee) create unity. Every seven years the farmer is reminded that the land does not ultimately belong to him; it is the property of God. The farmer is commanded to let the land lie fallow, and all its produce becomes ownerless. We are all forced to reconsider the basic concepts of ownership and property; in the seventh year, everything that grows in the Land of Israel belongs to every Jew equally; more accurately - it belongs to God, and He forces us to share it in the seventh year. The mighty, wealthy landowner and the poor, unemployed or itinerant worker have equal claim to the produce of the Shmittah year. Social strata and divisions are broken down, and the core of unity that lies at the heart of Jewish nationhood rises to the surface. Shmittah forces us to reconnect with the unity we first found at the foot of Mount Sinai.

In modern times, Shmittah observance is quite a challenge. My late great teacher Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein lamented (1) that there really is no ideal "solution" in the modern state that satisfies all the halachic and social principles of Shmittah observance. One approach sees the national economy or the welfare of Israeli farmers as the major concern, while another approach subordinates these concerns, preferring produce of venders whose economic success may be suspected of posing a threat to the security of the Jewish State.

The result of these divergent and often opposing approaches to the laws of Shmittah results in a situation that runs counter to the very spirit of Shmittah: Religious Jews who would otherwise dine at one another's tables and take part in one another's celebrations refrain from these most basic expressions of unity and community during the Shmittah year. The situation is further exacerbated by sincere Jews and Kashrut organizations around the world whose scrupulous observance of their interpretation of the laws of Shmittah leads them to unwittingly participate in a boycott of Jewish produce at least during the Shmittah year - a boycott instigated by the greatest of Israel's enemies.

To be clear: the sincerity or validity of these positions are beyond question, and I personally would not dream of standing in judgment of those who follow the opinions of the various rabbinic authorities who support the divergent resolutions of the modern Shmittah quandary. On the other hand, the lesson of this week's Torah reading should not be disregarded: "What does Shmittah have to do with Mount Sinai?" At the foot of Mount Sinai, we stood as one - with one heart, a people united by history and destiny, intensely aware of our mutual responsibility - and now, every seven years, with the onset of Shmittah, we become a people divided. "What does Shmittah have to do with Mount Sinai?" These days, apparently very little indeed.

For a more in-depth analysis see:


1. See Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein "Thoughts about Shemittah," Leaves of Faith, volume 2 (2004), pp. 179-188, Reflections on Shemitta, 5761, VBM Sichot, The Dilemma of Shemitta Today," Alei Etzion 15 (2007), pp. 15-21.


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