Subscribe to a Weekly Series

Posted on May 16, 2008 (5768) By Shlomo Katz | Series: | Level:

Parshas Behar

Why Shemittah?

Volume 22, No. 32
12 Iyar 5768
May 17, 2008

Sponsored by
The Rutstein family
in memory of mother and grandmother
Pesha Batya bat Zemach a”h (Bessie Rutstein)

Today’s Learning:
Zevachim 7:2-3
O.C. 137:3-5
Daf Yomi (Bavli): Nazir 58
Daf Yomi (Yerushalmi): Ketubot 1

Throughout this shemittah year, we have repeatedly discussed the laws and concepts of the Sabbatical year. This week’s parashah contains the verses which are the primary sources for those laws and concepts. R’ Moshe Zvi Neriyah z”l (1913-1995; founder of the Bnei Akiva youth movement and network of yeshivot) writes: “It is no easy task for a farmer to take a vacation for an entire year. Nevertheless, this `freedom’ is not for nothing. After toiling on the earth for six straight years, a person is liable to blend in with the earth, which, after all, is whence he came before a soul was breathed into him. The purpose of the shemittah is to give the soul a chance to flourish.”

R’ Neriyah adds that many earlier commentaries have advanced other reasons for the shemittah, all of them valid. He cites the following, among others:

R’ Zvi Hirsch Kalischer z”l (Germany; 19th century) writes that shemittah ensures that every person will have time for Torah study. He also writes that shemittah lessens the gap between rich and poor, since it means that, for one year at least, anyone can enter any field to gather the crops.

Rambam z”l (Egypt; 12th century) writes that the shemittah is an expression of G-d’s mercy upon the poor.

The anonymous 13th century work Sefer Ha’chinuch writes that the purpose of shemittah is to teach the wealthy the trait of vatranut. [In general, this trait refers to not standing up for one’s honor, money or other tangible or intangible possessions even when one is in the right. Here it refers to giving up the fruits of one’s labor.] In addition, the Sefer Ha’chinuch states, the shemittah reminds us that we are not the true masters of the Land; rather G-d is its Master. (Ner La’maor)

“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine; for you are sojourners and residents with Me.” (Vayikra 25:23)

Rashi z”l comments: “Do not feel bad [that you must return the land at the Yovel / Jubilee]. It is not yours in any case.”

R’ Ovadiah Seforno z”l (Italy; 1470-1550) elaborates: “The Galil is the land of Hashem. Even though we read (Tehilim 115:16), `The land He gave to mankind,’ the Galil is not included in that verse.” [Note: The term “Galil” appears in Yishayah 8:23 as a reference to all of Eretz Yisrael.] (Be’ur Ha’Seforno Al Ha’Torah)

R’ Yosef Engel z”l (1859-1919; rabbi of Krakow, Poland) quotes R’ Meir ben Baruch z”l (Maharam Rothenburg; died 19 Iyar 5053 / 1293), who writes: “Even when gentiles occupy Eretz Yisrael, they do not obtain legal title to it, for halachah does not recognize ownership of real estate based on possession alone (“karka aina nigzelet”). Eretz Yisrael is always deemed to be in the legal possession of the Jewish People; indeed, it bears their name. [The reason for this is that] even when the Jewish People reside in the Land, they cannot transfer ownership of it, for `the Land and everything in it is Hashem’s’ [Tehilim 24:1].”

R’ Engel explains: In reality, Eretz Yisrael belongs to Hashem. When the Jewish People enjoy the bounty of the Land, they are not eating their own produce; rather, they are eating at the King’s table (“mi’shulchan gavo’ah ka’zachu”). Since the Land does not belong to the Jewish People, it obviously cannot belong to any nation that captured it from the Jewish People. (Gilyonei Ha’shas: Bava Batra 44b)

“For Bnei Yisrael are servants to Me, they are My servants, whom I have taken out of the land of Egypt — I am Hashem, your G-d.” (Vayikra 25:55)

R’ Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l (1903-1993) observes that there are two ways to express servitude. One is reflected in the language of the Pesach Haggadah: “We were slaves to Pharaoh.” The second is reflected, for example, in the verse (Bereishit 24:34), “I am Avraham’s slave” (i.e., the possessive form). What is the difference between these?

R’ Soloveitchik explains: The first expression reflects a purely legal relationship: “I am my own person, and I happen to be a slave to Pharaoh at present.” In contrast, the second expression means that my very essence is bound up with my master. [Indeed, our Sages that Avraham’s slave Eliezer even looked like his master.] (Festival of Freedom p.46)

[Based on R’ Soloveitchik’s explanation, it is possible to explain our verse as follows: Bnei Yisrael’s relationship with Hashem begins as a formal legal relationship of Master and servant – “Bnei Yisrael are servants to Me.” However, the relationship goes much deeper. “They are My servants” – their essence is bound up with Me.]

Pirkei Avot

“Rabbi Eliezer of Bartota says, `Give Him from that which is His, for you and yours are His. Similarly, King David said (Divrei Hayamim I 29:14): Everything is from You, and from Your hand we have given You’.” (Chapter 3)

R’ Ovadiah Yosef shlita (former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel) writes in the name of R’ Shimon ben Tzemach Duran z”l (Spain and Algeria; 1361- 1444):

The lesson of this mishnah is befitting the one who taught it. The Gemara (Ta’anit 24a) relates that charity collectors used to flee from R’ Eliezer of Birta – whom R’ Duran presumes to be the same sage – because they worried about his the habit of emptying his pockets whenever he had the opportunity to give charity, leaving nothing at all for himself.

R’ Yosef writes further: The midrash states, quoting Mishlei 3:9), “`Honor Hashem with your wealth (“honcha”)’ – In reality, I am not asking you to honor Me with what is yours, but rather with what is Mine, as if the word `honcha’ were the phonetically similar word `chanancha’ / that which He gave you.” The midrash continues: “Can one circumcise his son if I have not given him a son? Can one place a mezuzah or build a railing if I have not given him a house? Can one offer his firstborn animal as a sacrifice if I have not given him animals? Can one sing praises to Me if I have not performed miracles for him?” (Anaf Etz Avot)

R’ Shlomo Kluger z”l (1785-1869; rabbi of Brody, Galicia) comments in a related vein on the mishnah in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot which states: “Do not be like servants who serve their master in order to receive a `pras’.” The word “pras” is commonly translated as “prize” such that the mishnah is teaching that one should not serve G-d with an expectation of reward.

In fact, R’ Kluger writes, G-d wants to reward man and He has no expectation that man will serve Him for free. Rather, the word “pras” as used in this mishnah means “half” or “piece.” (This is a common usage of the word pras in the Talmud.) The mishnah is teaching the following: An argument could be made that man should expect at most a partial reward for serving G-d. After all, it is G-d Who gives man the ability to serve Him. Nevertheless, the mishnah teaches, “Do not be like servants who serve their master in order to receive only a `pras’.” Rather, G-d, in His goodness, will give you a full reward. (Magen Avot)

R’ Moshe Zuriel shlita observes, quoting R’ Yehuda Ashlag z”l (a leading 20th century kabbalist), that it is possible for man to serve Hashem with the full knowledge that He will be rewarded, yet completely altruistically. How so? By serving Hashem with the expectation of receiving reward in order to fulfill G-d’s Will to reward man. (Otzrot Ha’Torah p.683)


The following are excerpts from an address by R’ Kalman Kahana z”l, rabbi of Kibbutz Chafetz Chaim, at a gathering to celebrate the grape harvest on behalf of an otzar bet din during the shemittah year of 5747 / 1986-87. The address was delivered at Kibbutz Sha’alvim on 15 Av 5747 / 1987 and is printed in Terumat Kohen p. 109.

I would like to point out that there was an additional revolution in the settlements during this shemittah [i.e., 5747 / 1986-87]. The settlements were permitted to mix with each other! [Ed. note: This play on words is borrowed from a period in Jewish history when intermarriage between tribes was restricted. When this ban was lifted, the tribes “were permitted to mix with each other” (see Ta’anit 30b). R’ Kahana’s meaning in using this expression will become clear below.]

I remember the day when the United Nations voted to permit the creation of the State of Israel. We were then in Kibbutz Chafetz Chaim. Several members sat in the dining hall, the only place where there was a radio receiver. We were meeting about some matter. Suddenly, one of the members started to fiddle with the radio dial, and he picked up the broadcast of the U.N. proceedings. We began to count the votes with the U.N. chairman – how many for and how many against. We reached the end, and the vote was “For!” We awakened all the kibbutz members in the middle of the night, and they all gathered. Then we lit a bonfire.

My masters and teachers! That bonfire was “answered” [by the lighting of another bonfire]. From as far away as Kfar Etzion, which would later be destroyed [by Arabs], they answered this bonfire.

I am happy to report that today also, there is a bonfire that answers from [the rebuilt] Kfar Etzion as well as from many other settlements.

Shemittah is not the monopoly of any one political group [a reference to the fact that Kibbutz Chafetz Chaim was founded by Poalei Agudat Yisrael / the Agudath Israel Workers movement which tended to follow the stricter halachic rulings of the Chazon Ish, while Kfar Etzion is affiliated with the officially “Zionist” sectors of Israeli society which tended to follow certain leniencies of R’ Kook regarding shemittah]. We are happy about this, and we are obligated to be happy. We must recognize this development: the “tribes” were permitted to mix with each other. [In the same vein,] there are gathered among us today those who already observe shemittah, those who have doubts about shemittah observance, and those who are preparing themselves emotionally to observe the next shemittah.

The editors hope these brief ‘snippets’ will engender further study and discussion of Torah topics (‘lehagdil Torah u’leha’adirah’), and your letters are appreciated. Web archives at start with 5758 (1997) and may be retrieved from the Hamaayan page.

Hamaayan needs your support! Please consider sponsoring Hamaayan in honor of a happy occasion or in memory of a loved one. Did you know that the low cost of sponsorship – only $18 – has not changed in seventeen years? Donations to HaMaayan are tax-deductible.