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Judaism: Whose Land is This Anyway?

This is the parashah in which G-d decrees that the Land will return to its original owner.
Published: Thursday, May 08, 2014 8:59 AM


Hashem spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai. saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come to the Land which I give you, then the Land will have a Shabbat-rest for Hashem. Six years you will sow your field, and six years you will prune your vineyard, and you will harvest its crop; and in the seventh year the Land will have a complete Shabbat-rest, a Shabbat for Hashem. You will neither sow your field nor prune your vineyard” (Leviticus 25:1-4).

Every seventh year, the entire Land of Israel is to lie fallow, all Jewish slaves are to be released, all monetary debts are rescinded, all land sold in Israel reverts to its ancestral (tribal) owner. The seventh year is the Shmitta (“Remission”) Year, and the year following every seventh Shmitta year is the Yovel (“Jubilee”) year. The word “Shmitta” is from the root shin-mem-tet, denoting “to erase”; Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) relates it to the root shin-mem-dalet (“to destroy”).

G-d tells us precisely why this is to be, what the Shmitta Year and the Yovel Year come to teach us: “The Land shall not be sold in perpetuity, because the Land is Mine” (Leviticus 25:23). “If your brother should become impoverished with you and is sold to you…he will work with you until the Yovel Year; then he will leave you – he and his children with him – and will return to his family, and to his ancestral heritage he will return, because they are My servants” (vs. 39-42).

Since the Land of Israel belongs to G-d, it is inappropriate for a Jew who dwells on His Land to sell it in perpetuity. And since the Jew is G-d’s servant, he cannot be sold as a slave in perpetuity. The Shmitta Year is the inescapable reminder that both the Jew and the Land of Israel are G-d’s.

The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343), commenting on 25:52, points out that the word Yovel occurs fourteen times in our Parashah, corresponding to the fourteen Yovel Years from the original conquest under Joshua until the exile in the days of King Hoshea, son of Elah.

King Hoshea was the last king of Israel, deposed by Shalmaneser, king of Assyria in the year 3205 (553 B.C.E.), 717 years after we conquered Israel under Joshua. The southern kingdom of Yehudah (Judah) would continue for a further 133 years, an extra three Yovel Years; hence even though “Israel counted seventeen Yovel Years from when they entered the Land until they left it” (Rambam, Laws of Shmitta and Yovel 10:3), only fourteen Yovel Years were celebrated by the entire nation.

The Yovel Year intimately connects the Land of Israel with the Nation of Israel: the Yovel Year only applies when the majority of Jews are in the Land of Israel (see Arakhin 32b and the Rambam, Laws of Shmitta and Yovel 10:8). Maybe this is why the Ba’al ha-Turim suggests that the Torah only alludes to the first fourteen Yovel Years: in the subsequent three, the majority of the nation were absent.

During the Second Commonwealth, “even though there was no Yovel during the Second Temple, they would count the years in order to sanctify the Shmitta Years” (Rambam, ibid. 3). This is the reason that we have no Yovel Year in Israel today: the majority of Jews are still in exile. However, if the trends of the last few decades continue, then the majority of Jews will be in Israel some time in the next ten to twenty years – and when that happens, we will celebrate the first Yovel Year in almost two and a half millennia.

Now the Shmitta Year presents an obvious problem: in any agricultural society, and particularly in an agricultural society in Israel which depends entirely upon artificial irrigation rather than rain, there is serious danger of mass starvation if the entire nation neglects all its fields for an entire year. And therefore, G-d guarantees: “The Land will give forth its fruit, and you will eat to satiety, and you will dwell in it securely. And should you say, What will we eat in the seventh year? – Behold, we will not sow and we will not harvest our crops! I will command My blessing to you in the sixth year, and it will produce crop for three years. You will sow in the eighth year, while eating from the old crop until the ninth year” (Leviticus 25:19-22).

The phrase “I will command My blessing” is unusual, and is the first of just three places in the entire Tanakh where G-d commands His blessing.

The second is when Moshe promises G-d’s blessings for obeying the Mitzvot, when “Hashem will command the blessing for you in your store-houses and all that you out your hand to” (Deuteronomy 28:8).

And the third time is in the Psalms: “Behold how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity! Like the goodly oil upon the head which flows down to the beard…like the dew of Hermon which flows down to the mountains of Zion, because there Hashem has commanded the blessing of eternal life” (Psalms 133).

The theme of the twin concepts of Shmitta and Yovel is the Nation of Israel living in the Land of Israel according to the blessing that G-d has commanded. It is the narrative which guarantees that every Jew who lives in the Land will be forcibly reminded every seven years that he and the Land wherein he lives belong to the G-d Who created all.

And the especially blessed harvest in the sixth year of every seven-year cycle, the harvest which will provide sufficient food for three years, will prove to all that the G-d of Israel is not some aloof creator, as envisioned by the ancient Greeks and by Baruch Spinoza – the classic “watchmaker” paradigm, who once having created the universe and set it in motion then withdrew to let it run its mechanical course.

No – the G-d of Israel is intimately concerned with His Nation and His Land: “It is a Land which Hashem your G-d examines constantly; the eyes of Hashem your G-d are on it from the beginning of the year until the year’s end” (Deuteronomy 11:12).

And so it is no coincidence that Parashat Behar, whose theme is so intimately intertwined with the Land of Israel and with the Jewish nation’s custodianship over the Land, is invariably read in the three-and-a-half week period between Yom Ha-Atzma’ut (Israel Independence Day) and Yom Herut Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Liberation Day).

This is the parashah in which G-d decrees that the Land will return to its original owner. And this is the time of the year in which the Land – part of it, in the meantime – indeed returned to its true original owners.