Ki savo’u el ha’aretz asher ani nosein lachem v’shavsah ha’aretz Shabbos l’Hashem (Vayikra 25:2)
Parashas Behar begins by introducing us to the mitzvah of Shemittah (the Sabbatical year), which requires us to allow the land in Eretz Yisrael to lie fallow every seven years. In Parashas Bechukosai, Rashi writes (26:35) that the Jewish people sinned by neglecting to observe 70 Shemittah years during the time that they lived in Eretz Yisrael, so they were correspondingly exiled to Babylon for 70 years in order to allow the Land of Israel to rest in compensation for the 70 Shemittah years when it was denied respite.
Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky finds this statement incredible. How is it possible that for several centuries the Jewish people completely disregarded the mitzvah of Shemittah? It is incomprehensible that such great and righteous leaders as Dovid, Shlomo, Yehoshafat and Yoshiyahu, who ruled during this period, would allow such an important mitzvah to be neglected on a national level.
Rav Yaakov answers this question based on an original insight into the structure of Parashas Behar and Parashas Bechukosai, the subjects of which he posits are all interrelated. Parashas Behar begins with the mitzvos of Shemittah and Yovel (the Jubilee year). It continues to discuss many other mitzvos, all of which he maintains are connected in some form to these two mitzvos. Specifically, the parashah proceeds to discuss the sale and redemption of ancestral land, the sale and redemption of houses in walled and unwalled cities, and the acquisition and freedom of servants and slaves, all of which are related to Shemittah or Yovel. Additionally, Rashi writes (26:1) that all of the topics discussed in Parashas Behar are potential punishments for somebody who fails to observe the laws of Shemittah, as he will first be forced to sell his possessions. If he refuses to correct his ways, his fortune will continue to decline until he is compelled to sell his ancestral land, his house and, ultimately, himself into slavery.
Parashas Bechukosai begins by discussing the importance of Torah study, not merely engaging in it, but toiling in it with all of one’s focus and energy (Rashi 26:3). Rav Yaakov suggests that this is also a continuation of the themes of Parashas Behar, as when a person is working, it is difficult for him to properly concentrate on Torah study when he is constantly faced with so many other obligations and responsibilities that distract his mind. When the Torah specifies that the land must lie fallow in the Shemittah year, the purpose of this mitzvah is not only to strengthen the farmer’s trust in Hashem, but also to free him from the pressures of work for an entire year of intensive toil in Torah study.
During the festival of Sukkos that follows the Shemittah year, there is a mitzvah of hakhel, in which all of the Jewish people are commanded to gather together to hear the reading of the book of Devarim by the king (Devarim 31:10–11). Why is this mitzvah specifically performed at the conclusion of Shemittah? Since the Shemittah year serves to enable the Jewish people to engage in concentrated Torah study, the period of Yamim Tovim that immediately follows it is considered a continuation of that uplifting process, culminating with the mitzvah of hakhel in which the entire nation gathers together to collectively celebrate their year of spiritual growth and achievement.
In light of this explanation, Rav Yaakov suggests that when Rashi writes that the Jewish people were exiled as a punishment for neglecting 70 Shemittah years, he doesn’t mean that they transgressed the prohibition against working the land every seven years, as they certainly observed the letter of the laws of Shemittah and allowed the land to lie fallow. Rather, their mistake was that they failed to use their free time productively. The Torah intends “vacation” to be used for Torah study and spiritual accomplishments, not for catching up on sleep and replacing one set of distractions with another. Fortunately, the Jewish people learned their lesson, and they used their 70 years in exile in Babylon to lay the foundation for Talmud Bavli, which represents the ultimate in toiling to understand the depths of the Torah. By correcting the mistakes that led to their exile, they merited returning to Eretz Yisrael.
Q: Rashi writes (25:14) that when a person buys products, he should buy them from a Jew, and when he sells merchandise, he should sell to a Jew. Although a person is required to spend money for the performance of mitzvos, to what extent is he required to buy from a Jew or sell to him if it would be cheaper or more profitable to make the transaction with a non-Jew?
Q: In Parashas Behar, Hashem promises (25:19), “You will eat and be full.” In Parashas Bechukosai (26:5), one word is added: “You will eat your bread and be full.” What is the reason for this change?
A: The Chofetz Chaim writes that just as a person is obligated to spend money for the performance of other mitzvos, so too should he spend money on the mitzvah to buy from a Jew. Therefore, even if a non-Jew offers to buy something for a little more money or if an item can be purchased for slightly less money from a non-Jew, it is still preferable to make the transaction with a Jew. Unfortunately, he doesn’t specify how much money is considered “a little” for this purpose. Rav Shach rules that if the merchandise made by the non-Jew is superior to that of the Jew, it is permissible to buy from the non-Jew.
A: The Imrei De’ah cites Rashi’s comment (26:3) that the blessings in Parashas Bechukosai are specifically addressed to those who toil in Torah study. The Mishnah in Avos (6:4) teaches that the proper diet for a Torah scholar is a simple one, consisting of bread and water and no luxuries. Tosafos in Kesuvos (104a) writes that before a person prays that Torah should enter his body, he should first pray that delicacies should not enter his body, as a focus on earthly pleasures is a deterrent to success in spiritual pursuits. For this reason, Parashas Bechukosai, which is addressed to Torah scholars, stresses a diet of only bread.
Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.