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Shemita and Har Sinai

By: Rav Avigdor Meyerowitz

Parshat Behar begins with the Pesukim:

"Hashem said to Moshe on Mount Sinai, Speak to Bnei Yisrael and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a Shabbat of Hashem." (Vayikra 25;1)

Rashi asks the famous question: 

" ? ?"

"What has the matter of the Shemita to do with Har Sinai that the Torah is compelled to expressly state where it was commanded? Were not all commandments given on Sinai??" (Rashi, Vayikra 25;1)

Rashi Answers: 

"But this statement is intended to suggest the following comparison: How is it in the case of the law of Shemita? Its general rules, [its specific prescriptions] and minute details were ordained on Har Sinai! So, also, were all commandments with their general rules and their minute details ordained on Har Sinai."

In summary, according to Rashi the reason why the Torah specifies that the laws of the Shemita were given on Har Sinai is in order to reflect not only on those laws, but rather on all the laws of the Torah, that they too were given on Har Sinai.

After Rashi's answer though, it still remains unclear why the Torah chose to convey this message specifically in the context of Shemita. Rav Zevin answers that the Mitzvah of Shemita is unique in that it incorporates in it the three aspects of life that the Mitzvot seek to refine. Firstly, the element of Bein adam la'Makom, between man and Hashem, as the Torah requires us to preserve a "Shabbat La'Shem", a recognition and appreciation of our relationship with Hashem : "the land shall observe a Shabbat of Hashem." (Vayikra 25;2)

Secondly, there is the element of "Bein Adam Le'atzmo", between man and themselves, as the Torah outlines and prescribes not only the laws of the Shemita year, but also instructs regarding all the work man does in the six years of work beforehand. Man is required and held responsible for his own sustenance: "Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield." (Vayikra 25;1)

Thirdly, Bein adam le'chavero, between man and his fellow-man, as many of the laws of the Shemita relate to our dealings with others, whether it be household servants, employees, lenders and borrowers of money, property issues, and obviously the concern for the poor who can freely benefit from the produce of the seventh year. "The Shabbat of the land shall be for food for you; for yourself, for your servant, for your maid, for your hired servant, and for your stranger, who lives as a foreigner with you." (Vayikra 25:6)

We could even add a fourth element as well, Bein Adam ve'la' Chaya, between man and animal, as the Shemita is also a year of rest for the animals as well who can roam freely and eat of the produce that is hefker in the fields: "For your livestock also, and for the animals that are in your land, shall all its increase be for food." (Vayikra 25;7)

Therefore, since the Mitzvah of Shemita encompasses all the elements of the other Mitzvot it is appropriate for it to be the paradigm of all Mitzvot that they were too given entirely on Har Sinai. 

Other commentators offered additional explanations regarding why the Shemita was chosen to emphasize the centrality of Har Sinai to all the Mitzvot. (See Orach Chaim and Alshikh)

However, beyond all of this, there remains some difficulty. Firstly, apparently not all the Mitzvot were given in detail on Har Sinai. One mitzvah that clearly wasn't fully transmitted is the very last issue mentioned in the immediate previous chapter from last week's parsha, the mekalel – blasphemer. The Torah clearly states that he was placed in confinement pending the instruction of Hashem as how to deal with him. 

Immediately comes to mind as well two other episodes where it is clear the details were not known to Moshe at the time of their occurrences: The Mekoshesh Eitzim (Bamidbar 15), the gatherer of the wood on Shabbat, and the daughters of Tzlofchad (Bamidbar 36), both appearing in Sefer Bamidbar.

Certainly according to the Sforno , who claims in his commentary on Chumash (See Sforno on the Mitzva to build a Mishkan; Sforno on the Mitzvot after Chet Hameraglim) that certain mitzvoth were not given at all on Har Sinai and only were given subsequent to certain events that happened, sins to be clear, it remains implausible to understand Rashi's comment simply.

Secondly, why is it so important to emphasize the fact that the Mitzvot were given in their entirety on Har Sinai? Even the most maximalist approach to The Revelation on Har Sinai has Am Yisrael receiving from Hashem only the Ten Commandments, the rest were conveyed to them strictly through Moshe. What difference would it have made if Moshe received some of the details of the Mitzvot from Hashem in other places , or even maybe some whole mitzvot elsewhere? Besides which, even if we as a people were to directly receive new Mitzvot, or details of previously given mitzvot in the Mishkan or in Arvot Moav, would they be less binding or obligational than those given on Har Sinai?

Therefore, simply put, what's the nafka mina – practical difference and implication – that all the Mitzvot, general principles and details, were given on Har Sinai? 

Perhaps Rashi and Chazal were bringing to our attention a different aspect of the importance of Har Sinai in the context of Mitzvot beyond the technical information.

There are different opinions as to the reason and source for the name - "Har Sinai". (

One of them suggests that it comes from the word:"sneh" which is the bush that was on fire that Moshe saw at his first encounter with Hashem – the Burning Bush. This would imply that the significance of that encounter with Moshe was so important that it retains its status as the foundation of what would follow there later at Matan Torah. My point being, the mountain did not become known as Har Hatorah or Har Ha'hitgalut, the mountain of Torah or revelation, rather it carries its name as Har Sinai ever since that first encounter with Moshe despite the apparently more important and dramatic things that took place there afterwards. Therefore, the question begs: what was the dramatic vision and everlasting tidings that were revealed then at the burning bush? The answer is both simple and profound. Hashem tells Moshe that he has seen the suffering of Am Yisrael at the hands of Mitzrayim and he is going to deliver from their bondage and redeem them. Hashem's first encounter with Moshe at the bush and subsequently with Am Yisrael at yetziat Mitzrayim is that of a liberator. Indeed, when Hashem addresses the people at Matan torah, he introduces himself as their liberator (and not the creator of the universe). 

Coming back to this week's parsha, Behar, it's not difficult to notice the recurring theme and pesukim (See Vayikra 25; 36,45 and compare to Shmot 20;2) which come back to this critical principle. Almost all the laws discussed in these chapters relate to the concept of possession and belonging. Whether it be the land and fields, the fruit, the houses , the money, and ultimately the people themselves. At some stage, everything and everybody must be set free. The idea behind this all is the importance the Torah places on the deep understanding that humanity must reach that everything and everybody belongs to Hashem, and nothing truly belongs to anyone out of that context. It puts Hashem in the center and educates man to understand his "shayachut" – his belonging to Hashem - along with everything else in existence. Ownership and possessions in all their different forms have a tendency to cause us to lose sight of the context of our lives.

Possibly what Chazal and Rashi meant in the above statement was that just like the Shemita was given completely on Har Sinai – in the context of the freedom of Har Sinai – as is evident from it's clear intentions, so all the Mitzvot, even those where the reasons are not so blatant, were also given in that context.  



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