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Shemitta and Yovel in the Torah


In this parasha, we find the mitzvah of shemitta and yovel. However, this is not the only place in which the laws of shemitta appear in Tanakh. They also appear in Shemot 23:10-11and Devarim 15:1-18. Whenever a certain mitzvah appears in several different places in the Torah, we should assume that each place in which the mitzvah appears is designed to convey a different aspect of that mitzvah. Moreover, the specific place in which it appears is likely connected to the overall theme of the sefer in which it appears. Therefore, we must ask: What is the unique idea of these mitzvot which emerges in Parashat Behar? And how does it reflect the larger themes in Sefer Vayikra? Interestingly, in neither of the other descriptions of shemitta does the mitzvah of yovel appear. While the mitzvah of yovel is integrally connected to shemitta, it actually appears only in Sefer Vayikra. In order to understand why, we must consider the manner in which yovel is connected to shemitta. The seventh year in a continuous cycle of years is called the shemitta year, or the sabbatical year. In that year, the sowing and reaping of fields, as well as the pruning and picking of vines, is prohibited. Anything that grows that year is ownerless. In the fiftieth year, after seven cycles of seven years, the cycle draws to a halt and a year of yovel is declared. This year is somewhat of a “super-shemitta.” While the agricultural prohibitions of the sabbatical year apply to yovel, this year also mandates the release of land and slaves. All lands revert to their original owners - those whose nahala it is - and all indentured Israelites return to their homes. Shemitta is a seven year cycle, while yovel is 7 x 7 + 1. Generally speaking, many ideas and experiences in Judaism revolve around the number seven. Seven relates to the creation of the world and God's role as master of that world. Often that number is used to symbolize God’s sanctification of the human world. However, I would like to examine the nature of the number eight, especially when it follows a pattern of 7 + 1. There are several instances in which a cycle of seven is followed by a significant day or year, infused with sanctity. The Maharal explains that the number eight represents the supernatural. In a similar vein, one could speculate that the message of this day following a seven day cycle, occurring outside or above the cycle of seven, is somehow to depart the natural world and meet God in His transcendent or divine sphere. Aside from yovel, examples of this pattern include Shavuot (7 days x 7 days + 1 day), Shemini Atzeret (7 days + 1), and the celebration of the dedication of the Mishkan, which has seven days followed by the Yom Ha-Shemini, when God’s presence came to the Mishkan. It is particularly intriguing that the concept of the eighth day appears only in Sefer Vayikra. We already noted that the mitzvah of yovel appears only in Sefer Vayikra, despite the appearance of the mitzvah of shemitta elsewhere in the Torah. More strikingly, whereas Shavuot is frequently discussed in other books of the Torah, it is nowhere else said that Shavuot takes place on the 50th day, the day after the counting (see Devarim 16:9-10). The same is true for Shemini Atzeret. In spite of the description of Sukkot which appears there, there is no hint to Shemini Atzeret in Devarim 16:13-15. It seems that the idea of transcending a cycle of seven is an idea that is unique to Sefer Vayikra. This is perhaps because the major theme of Sefer Vayikra is kedusha. Sefer Vayikra teaches us how to find God in our lives and also how to transcend this world and experience the divine in a different sphere. That is the nature of these mitzvot which follow the 7 + 1 pattern. The details of this idea, why exactly Shavuot, Shemini Atzeret, and yovel are events which require a 7 + 1 pattern, I leave to you to work out. Shabbat Shalom!




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