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The Sanctification of Place and Man

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion

This parasha series is dedicated
in memory of Michael Jotkowitz, z"l.


Dedicated l'iluy nishmat R' Chanoch ben R' Baruch Ya'akov (Mr. Henry Schiffmiller) whose fourth Yahrtzeit is on 13 Iyar.

Dedicated in honor of the yahrzeit of my mother, Charna bath Morthe and Szore Reiter, which will be on 15 Iyar, - "from those who remember her".


The Sanctification of Place and Man

by Rav Yonatan Grossman

The different topics scattered throughout the parasha can essentially be related around one central theme - the Shabbat of the land; in other words, shemitta and yovel (the sabbatical and jubilee year). The parasha opens with the command to observe the shemitta year, consisting of a prohibition to work the land, followed by a description of the fiftieth year - the yovel. After the yovel, the Torah analyzes various complications of the laws of the yovel year, when properties return to their original owners and slaves are emancipated.

The structure of the parasha is as follows:

1. Laws of shemitta

2. The law that property returns to its original owner in the yovel

2a. Redemption of property

2b. Special provisions for redemption of houses in a walled city and the Levite cities.

[3. The prohibition of interest (in order to preclude the enslavement of a Jew in the first place)].

4. Emancipation of slaves during yovel.

4a. Redemption of slaves

4b. The prohibition of fraud when redeeming a slave.

Following these four clauses, which form one integrated unit centered on the two central laws of the yovel year - liberation of property and liberation of slaves - the Torah adds another unit that does not belong to the general theme of the parasha. This unit consists of three commands (Vayikra 26:1-2):

1. Idolatry - "You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon for I am Hashem your God."

2. Shabbat - "You shall keep my Shabbats ..."

3. Relationship to the Holy Place - " ... and venerate my sanctuary, I am Hashem."

These three commands - the prohibition of idol worship, Shabbat, and honoring the mikdash, conclude the parasha of shemitta and yovel, even thought there does not seem to be a clear connection between the resting of the land and these laws. We will discuss this next week (Bechukotai). Today I would like to compare the connection of shemitta and these laws to the cluster of identical laws in Sefer Shemot (parashat Mishpatim) where the focus is different.

In Shemot (23: 9-18) we read as follows:

"You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. Six years shall you sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves." (shemitta)

"Six days shall you engage in your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor: in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed." (Shabbat)

"Be on guard concerning all that I have told you. Make no mention of the names of other gods; they shall not be heard on your lips." (Idolatry)

"Three times a year you shall hold a festival for Me.....none shall appear before Me empty...Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Sovereign, Hashem. You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifices with anything leavened; and the fat of My festal offering shall not be left lying until morning. The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of Hashem your God." (Mikdash)

Our parasha opens up with the laws of shemitta and ends with Shabbat, idolatry and veneration of the mikdash. In parashat Mishpatim, the same commandments are found together in one unit.

In order to understand why these commands are bound together, we must understand why they are repeated after having been written in Mishpatim. If we carefully compare the content of the commands in Mishpatim with those in Behar, we will discover a different focus for each set of commands:

In parashat Mishpatim, the emphasis of the shemitta year is social. This is an opportunity to enable the poor in the society, whose financial situation does not allow them to own land, to enjoy fresh and quality produce. The purpose of the shemitta year is joined with other laws of public welfare. This emerges clearly from the reason given for the shemitta year: "In the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow; and the needy of your people shall eat of it."

One who reads parashat Mishpatim without reading parashat Behar receives the impression that the owner of the field is himself prohibited to eat the produce of his field. He must abandon his produce to the poor. Following the verse, "six years shall you sow your land and gather in its yield," we read regarding the seventh year, "let the needy among your people eat of it." The right to sow and gather the produce of the field appears to be denied during the seventh year. This impression, of course, stems from focusing on this parasha from the social point of view, as one of the obligation to support the poor.

In contrast to this, in Behar we receive a completely different impression. The emphasis here is not on gifts to the poor that result from abandoning one's field, but on the resting of the land. "The land is Mine" - therefore the land rests a "Shabbat of God." The sanctified aspect of the land requires a sabbatical from work every seven years, returning it to its true owner and to its Creator. In consequence of this "Shabbat of God," which is a declaration of God's ownership of the entire world, the text also lists those who may partake of the field's produce. But here, who may eat is a result of, and not the reason for, the mitzva. The list itself does not emphasize "the needy," as appear in Mishpatim, but simply states, "you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, and YOUR CATTLE AND THE BEASTS in your land may eat all its yield" (Vayikra 25: 6-7). The text specifies that people of lowly rank can eat from the field, since it is ownerless for this year, but it does not refer to economic status, in contrast to parashat Mishpatim, where the only trait mentioned is "THE NEEDY among your people."

In other words, in parashat Mishpatim shemitta is an act of kindness to poor people while in Behar, the emphasis is on the resting of the land as a religious obligation reflecting God's ownership of the world. The command of shemitta in parashat Mishpatim focuses on man, while the command in parashat Behar focuses on place, on the land itself.

If we come to examine the commands that close the parasha, both in Mishpatim and in Behar, we will find a parallel difference in the two parshiot, although perhaps in a less glaring manner.

The mitzva of Shabbat that appear in our parasha is hard to typify, because of the shortness of the command, "you shall keep my Shabbats ..." In Mishpatim, on the other hand, social emphasis with regard to the poor and the weak in society is clear: "Six days shall you engage in your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondsman and the stranger may be refreshed" (Shemot 23:12). The reason for Shabbat here is rooted in "that your bondman and the stranger [may be refreshed]." In other words, those who have no firm place in society are given the ability to rest and relax on Shabbat.

The prohibition of idol worship that appears in these two parshiot is also differentiated by these two basic differences - the focus on man (Mishpatim) or on the sanctified place (Behar). The spotlight in Mishpatim is turned to the individual Israelite who must not remember other gods. Not only is ritual-religious worship prohibited, but also abstract sectors of philosophical thought are forbidden. In comparison, in our parasha the prohibition stems from the concept that the land of Israel is a sanctified place where idol worship cannot be tolerated: "You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon ..." It is forbidden to build idols or statues in the land (even if no man is going to worship them), and do not put "in your land" figured stones. There is a clear feeling that the land will be desecrated by placing of idols or statues within it, and "in your land" it is forbidden to place even a stone that may be used for worship.

[The Gemara (Megilla 22:1) teaches that the prohibition of "figured stones" (even maskit) does not only refer to idolatry but also one cannot bow down on "figured stones" even in God's name; see Rashi 26:1. However, from the beginning of the command: "You shall not make idols for yourselves," it appears that the general context is idolatry; see Ibn Ezra.]

The commands concerning the mikdash reflect the same basic distinction. Parashat Mishpatim focuses on the behavior of man. The farmer brings his first fruits to the House of God, out of joy and in order to draw close to God. In comparison, in Behar, the text focuses on the awe associated with the mikdash. There is no special command here for man to act in a specific way and draw near to the House of God. Instead, the mikdash is described as a sanctified place that emanates awe, resulting in a distancing of man. The sanctified place rather than man is at the center of this command, and this then influences man's behavior.

The difference between the two parshiot in expressing these laws encapsulates the basic difference between these two books in a more general way. The Book of Shemot focuses on the nation of Israel and the details that embody the people. The Book of Vayikra, on the other hand, is a book about holiness, focusing on a sanctified place which demands special behavior from man. Because its focus is on the place and not the person, one might have concluded from the previous parshiot of Sefer Vayikra that a connection with God is possible only in the mikdash proper, and that there is no direct connection to God in any other place. The parasha of shemitta and yovel balances this impression to a certain extent.