Torah — and shemittah — from Sinai


Our parasha, Behar, begins with the famous words: “And the L-rd spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying” (Vayikra 25:1). They are immediately followed by a verse focusing on the mitzvah of shemittah, the Sabbatical year, that has captured the attention of midrashim and commentators through the ages: “Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest a Sabbath to the L-rd.”

In his commentary, Rashi cites the Midrash Torat Kohanim on this verse and asks the following famous question: “What [special relevance] does the subject of shemittah have to Mount Sinai? Were not all the commandments stated from Sinai?”

His answer, drawn from the same source, teaches us an overarching concept inherent in the transmission of the Torah from Hashem to Moshe: “[This teaches us that] just as with shemittah, wherein its general principles and finer details were stated at Sinai, likewise, all of [the mitzvot] were stated — their general principles [together with] their finer details — at Sinai.”

In his work of Torah exegesis, Me’ain Beit Hashoavah, Rabbi Shimon Schwab zt”l (1908-1995) takes issue with the Torat Kohanim’s answer and asserts that “it would have been quite possible to have referenced any other mitzvah in its connection to Mount Sinai in order to teach this selfsame idea” (Parashat Behar, s.v. behar Sinai, number one). In other words, the Midrash does not teach us why shemittah was singled out regarding the Revelation rather than another mitzvah.

Rav Schwab proceeds to address this problem and, in so doing, provides us with a trenchant response to his objection that illuminates the inherent import of shemittah and the divine nature of the entire Torah: “It seems that shemittah is different in kind and degree [from other mitzvot], since the very essence of the commandment teaches us that it must have been commanded on Mount Sinai — and that it is [incontrovertibly] Torah min hashamayim (Torah from Heaven).”

Next, Rav Schwab provides us with the conceptual underpinning as to why Shemittah definitionally represents Torah min hashamayim:

“Perhaps one might think that the commandments of the Torah were invented by the Sages of the Jewish people and were based upon their own intellectual efforts — just as those who deny the G-d-given nature of the Torah mistakenly believe. Yet were that to be true, there would never have been a commandment such as shemittah in the Torah!

“This is the case, since man’s intellect naturally withdraws from the very idea of this mitzvah … for [from a purely logical perspective,] the Sages never would have decreed that all fields and vineyards should simultaneously lay fallow during the same year — as this would naturally cause a famine in the Land, and bring about a financial crisis!”

At this juncture, Rav Schwab further explains why shemittah, and shemittah alone, was singled out by the Torah:

“Based upon the above, [we have a better insight as to why] the Torah specifically emphasizes Shemittah and its connection to Mount Sinai, rather than any other of the 613 mitzvot — namely, this particular mitzvah has the seal of Mount Sinai imprinted upon it.

As such, everyone must admit that it represents the words of Hashem from Heaven itself, since [it is counterintuitive to man’s basic needs, and therefore] it is virtually impossible that it was invented as a result of man’s intellect. [Now we can understand why our Sages said,] ‘Just like shemittah was stated at Mount Sinai with all its general principles and finer details, so, too, were all the other mitzvot.’”

In Rav Schwab’s estimation, shemittah emerges as the proof case of the divine nature of the Torah. In addition, its pivotal status informs our understanding of all of the mitzvot, for each of them were revealed by Hashem to Moshe, in all their glorious “general principles and finer details,” at Mount Sinai.

As a result, each time we perform a mitzvah, we recognize that it is divrei Elokim emet — the authentic words of the Almighty, and that we, like our ancestors before us, are responding to and communicating with the Voice that ever emanates from Mount Sinai.