Parashat Behar: G-d’s partners in Creation

Shabbat is G-d’s way of making us, Israel His holy nation, His partners in Creation.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism שבת

Almost all of Parashat Behar deals with the Shmitta (Remission) Year and the Yovel (Jubilee) Year. The Shmitta Year is every seventh year, and the Yovel is the year following every seventh Shmitta Year, meaning every fiftieth year.

Of the 24 mitzvot in Parashat Behar (7 positive and 17 negative), 15 concern Shmitta and Yovel, following the Mahara”m Hagiz (Rabbi Moshe ben Shlomo ibn Haviv, Salonika and Jerusalem, 1654-1696), in Minyan ha-Mitzvot (parashah-by-parashah enumeration of the mitzvot).

Parashat Behar opens:

“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 rest a Shabbat-rest to Hashem. Six years you will sow your field, and six years you will prune your vine, and you will gather in its harvest; and in the seventh year the Land will have a Shabbat of complete rest, a Shabbat for Hashem” (Leviticus 25:1-4).

The phrase “ Mount Sinai...” seems extraneous. After all, we had reached Mount Sinai way back in Parashat Yitro (Exodus 19), and we will remain at Mount Sinai until Parashat Beha’alot’cha (Numbers 10:33), so we already know that everything in Parashat Behar happened “at Mount Sinai”.

So why does the Torah, so sparing and concise in its wording, add these words which only tell us what we already know?

The Midrash (Sifra, Behar 1:1) addresses precisely this question:

“What is the connexion between Shmitta and Mount Sinai? Didn’t all the mitzvot originate from Sinai? – Well, just as both the general principles and the precise details of Shmitta originate from Sinai, so too both the general principles and the precise details of all the mitzvot originate from Sinai”.

The Ohr ha-Chayim ha-Kadosh (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar, Morocco and Israel, 1696-1743), in his first comment in Parashat Behar, cites this Midrash, but questions it:

“The question [‘What is the connexion between Shmitta and Mount Sinai?’] still remains. Why did [the Midrash] teach [that both the general principles and the precise details of all the mitzvot originate from Sinai] solely with this Mitzvah? Why not with the first Mitzvah, or the last Mitzvah?”

A sensible question, indeed! And the Ohr ha-Chayim answers:

“Maybe it is because this Mitzvah mentions the gift of the Land of Israel, as it says ‘When you come to the Land which I give you’. Thus it is here that [the Torah] deliberately says ‘at Mount Sinai’. It is telling us that it is for the sake of Mount Sinai, meaning [the Torah] which they received there, that they were given the entire gift. That is to say, Hashem gave them the Land [of Israel] for the sake of the Torah”.

And concluding a Parashah-full of mitzvot pertaining to the Shmitta Year, the Torah sums up the reason: “Because the Children of Israel are My servants, they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt – I, Hashem your G-d” (25:55).

That is to say: Because they are My servants, I can command them what to do and what not to do. Hence the continuation and conclusion:

“Do not make idols for yourselves, neither shall you erect a statue or a pillar for you [to worship]...because I Hashem am your G-d. Keep My Sabbaths, and revere My Sanctuary – I am Hashem” (26:1-2, the concluding words of the parashah).

Now much has been written about the connexion between Shabbat and the Sanctuary (in later generations, the Holy Temple). Indeed the Talmud (Shabbat 49b) teaches that the 39 melachot (categories of labour forbidden on Shabbat) are all the forms of labour needed to build the Mishkan (the Sanctuary); this it derives from the Commandment to keep Shabbat (Exodus 35:1-3), followed immediately by the detailed instructions on how to build the Mishkan and its accoutrements, and the actual construction of the Mishkan (35:4-40:38).

As Shabbat sanctifies time, so the Mishkan sanctifies space. Shabbat – every seventh day – is holy in every place, but only for that limited amount of time. The Mishkan (later the Holy Temple) is holy for all time, but only in its specific place.

And Shmitta, the Shabbat of the Land of Israel, synthesises the two. It sanctifies every seventh year – specifically in the Land of Israel. That is to say, the Shmitta Year sanctifies both time and space by being limited to specific times (every seventh year) and to a specific place (the Land of Israel).

Shabbat is G-d’s way of making us, Israel His holy nation, His partners in Creation:

“G-d blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because on it He ceased from all His labour which G-d had created to make” (Genesis 2:3).

This is a somewhat strange formulation – “His labour which G-d had created to make”. And one of the explanations is that after “G-d had created” all of Creation, He then left it to us – to humans, created in His image – “to make”. That is to say, He gave us a world full of raw materials, and left us to use those raw materials to perfect the world.

That is to say, to become His partners in Creation.

This is also the reason that even though “G-d blessed the seventh day and sanctified it”, He nevertheless commanded us “to add from the non-holy day to the holy day” (Bereishit Rabbah 10:9). Having created Shabbat, G-d then made us – His nation Israel – partners in Creation by commanding us to “create” our own addition to Shabbat by “bringing in” Shabbat before its official time.

This is not merely an inspiring Midrashic or homiletic idea: it is actual practical halakhah:

“There are those who say that it is obligatory to add from the non-holy day to the holy day, and this additional time is [any time] before sunset [on Friday afternoon]...this time is [the time it takes to walk] three-and-a-quarter mil [1]. If one wants to add all that as extra time then he may; if he wants to add just part of it, he may; but in any event, one must add some time [from before sunset] from the non-holy day to the holy day” (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, The Time for Lighting Shabbat Candles, 261:2).

The Mishnah Berurah adds here that one is obligated to add time at the end of Shabbat as well, to prolong Shabbat after stars out on Saturday night, for the same reason.

Even though G-d created Shabbat and defined its time, He nevertheless entrusted us with deciding when Shabbat actually comes in and goes out.

Similarly with the Shabbat of the Land, the Shmitta Year: when does the seven-year cycle begin?

“When did they begin counting? – Fourteen years after entering the Land [of Israel], as it says ‘When you come to the Land...six years you will sow your field, and six years you will prune your vine...and in the seventh year the Land will have a Shabbat of complete rest...’, until everyone knows his Land. They had taken seven years to conquer the Land [2] and another seven years to divide it up [among the Twelve Tribes], meaning  in the year 2503 since Creation” (Rambam, Laws of Shmitta and Yovel 10:2).

We entered Israel in Nissan in the year 2488 (see Seder Olam, Chapter 10), so 14 years later was the year 2502. However, as the Rambam continues, the Shmitta-count begins with Rosh Hashanah, so the count began with Rosh Hashanah at the beginning of the year 2503 (1258 B.C.E.).

This means that even though G-d had commanded us to observe the Shmitta and Yovel Years, He left the timing of those years in our hands.

This is truly a powerful and inspiring idea: we are fully partners in Creation, even fully partners in His Torah! When Shabbat begins (both the weekly Shabbat and the yearly Shabbat) depends upon us!

The Shmitta and Yovel began operating as soon as we took control of our Land; and, according to most opinions, they remain Torah-obligations only as long as the majority of Jews in the world reside in Israel. This has not happened since the days of king Hezekiah, some 2,500 years ago.

Since then, they have remained Rabbinically mandated, which is why Halakhic authorities today permit several leniencies: the Heter Mechirah, for example, according to which farmers in Israel sell their land to a non-Jew for the duration of the Shmitta Year, and can then continue to work the land.

This is a vast subject, which we will not address here. [3]

But this reality is changing, and changing fast. Today, for the first time since Babylonian exile, there are more Jews in Israel than in any other single country in the world (Israel overtook the USA about fifteen, maybe twenty, years ago).

If the trends of the last few generations continue, then the absolute majority of Jews will be residing in Israel in another ten to fifteen years. These are changes of literally Biblical proportions.

Of course, we will then have to address the question of how we define a Jew by Halakhah. After all, there are certainly millions, maybe tens of millions, of Jews who are unaware that they are Jews – those whose ancestors assimilated out of the Jewish nation whether in the free countries of the West or in Communist dictatorships, those whose ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity or Islam; Jews who today are either entirely unaware of their Jewish ancestry, or for whom their Jewish ancestry is entirely irrelevant.

Competent Halakhic authorities, whose decisions will be universally accepted, will have to provide rulings on these issues. It is indeed an exciting time in which to be living: the time of the Ingathering of the Exiles, the time of the Return to Zion.

When exactly the Shmitta and Yovel will begin again to operate as Torah-obligations will depend upon us, and upon us alone: when enough Jews will come to Israel to form the absolute majority of all Jews in the world.

G-d created the world, He defined the rules – and He gave us the power to determine when His Torah comes into force!

Parashat Behar, with its laws of the Shmitta and Yovel Years, given at Mount Sinai, makes us truly G-d’s partners in Torah and in Creation itself.


[1] A mil is a Talmudic measurement of length, 2,000 cubits. Modern authorities define a mil variously as 950 metres/1,040 yards (Rabbi Avraham Chaim Na’eh), or 1,080 metres/1,180 yards (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein,), or 1,152 metres/1,260 yards (Chazon Ish). The time it takes to walk three-and-a-quarter mil, which is approximately 3½ kilometres (2.2  miles), is estimated as between 18 and 24 minutes.

[2] After conquering the Land of Israel, Joshua declaimed, “So now, behold! – Hashem has kept me alive, as He said He would, for these 45 years” (Joshua 14:10). Since the sin of the spies occurred in the second year after the Exodus, the Children of Israel wandered through the desert for another 38 years, and then Joshua led them across the River Jordan into Israel. Since the conquest was completed 45 years after the sin of the spies, it took 7 years.

[3] I refer the interested reader to “Shemita: From the Sources to Practical Halacha” by Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Rimon, translated into English by David Strauss (Maggid Books, published by Koren, Jerusalem 5768/2008). An excellent and detailed analysis, it runs to 557 pages, including diagrams, colour illustrations, and photographs.