This Week's Torah Portion: 'Yovel,' the Fiftieth Year

Dëvar Torah – Parashath BëHar-BëChuqqothai (Leviticus XXV, 1 – XXVII, 33)

We learned in parashath Yithro that Ha-Shem decreed the observance of every seventh day as a shabbath laShem, so that Israel would thereby testify that He had created the Heavens and the Earth, as written at the beginning of Genesis (cf. Exodus XX, 8-11).

This, then, explains the great seriousness with which the Torah views sabbath-breaking, chillul shabbath, i.e. “emptying” the sabbath of its significance by failing to observe its strictures. A mëchallél shabbath bëfarhesya (“desecrator of the sabbath in public”) can be sentenced to death; by refusing to be a living testimony to his Creator, he allies himself with the idolators.

Not only does ‘am Yisra’él bear witness to the Creation, but, as we learn in this week’s parasha, so does Eretz Yisra’él. Every seventh year, Israel’s farmers are enjoined to let the land lie fallow (shëmitta), again as a shabbath la-Shem (XXV, 4). Rashi, following Torath Kohanim, uses this language to connect the seventh year with the seventh day: it is “for Ha-Shem’s sake, just as it is said concerning the sabbath of Genesis.”

The Torah takes this testimony very seriously as well; failure to observe it results in an exile, in which ‘am Yisra’él is off the land, and the land is laid waste, abandoned:

Az tirtze ha’aretz eth shabbëthotheha kol yëmei hashamma vë’attem bë’eretz oyveichem az tishbath ha’aretz vëhirtzath eth shabbëthotheha.

Then the land will desire its shabbathoth, all the days of waste, and you in the land of your enemies; then the land will rest, and satisfy its shabbathoth (XXVI, 34).

But, our parasha tells us, there is yet another, higher level shabbath than this: at the end of seven shëmitta cycles, every fiftieth year, the Yovél is proclaimed:

Vëqiddashtem eth shënath hachamishim shana uqërathem dëror ba’aretz lëchol yoshëveha yovél hi’ tihye lachem vëshavtem ish el achuzzatho vë’ish el mishpachto tashuvu.

And you will sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom in the land to all it inhabitants; it will be a yovél for you and you will return, each man to his holding and each man to his family shall you return (XXV, 10).

As Rashi explains, each man returns to his holding “for the fields return to their owners,” i.e. as originally distributed to the tribes and their constituent families. Similarly, each man returns to his family “to include the one whose ear was bored.” This refers to someone who had become so impoverished that he voluntarily sold himself into semi-permanent servitude, and had to be emancipated during the yovél to once more take his proper place among his fellows (cf. ibid., 39-42).

One can only imagine the chaos that must have been set in motion with the shofar-blast on Yom Kippur of a yovél: Hordes of people suddenly on the move, as the sales and acquisitions of the last half-century were liquidated overnight, in response to the Torah’s mandate: Vëha’aretz lo’ thimmachér litzmithuth (“And the land will not be sold permanently … ” ibid., 23). That very unavoidable, happy chaos as everyone prepared for a new beginning makes us stand in awe of the almost unbelievable faith and trust required for this commandment. Soldiers on the border abandoned their posts to go home and everyone relied on what remained of the last harvest, over two years before, and what might sprout from the now very fallow ground for their sustenance.

The parasha provides us with some insight into that faith: Va‘asithem eth chuqqothai vë’eth mishpatai tishmëru vishavtem ‘al ha’aretz lavetach (“And you will will perform My laws and My judgments will you keep, and you will dwell on the land securely,” ibid., 18).

At first glance, this verse does not seem different from the many other admonitions scattered throughout the written Torah warning us to learn Torah and to observe its precepts (cf. e.g. Leviticus XVIII, 4-5 as a recently read example). Comparison of our verse with such examples reveals an interesting difference: we generally find the term shëmira (“keeping, guarding, preserving”) associated with chuqqoth and the term ‘asiya (“doing, making”) with mishpatim. The reversal is unique to this verse. What can it signify?

The nature of the shëmitta is such that economic activity in general slows down. The farmers and everyone else associated with transporting their produce to market suddenly find themselves with a great deal of time on their hands, and it is natural to expect that in their enforced idleness they will turn to Israel’s national intellectual and spiritual pursuit, and renew their acquaintance with Torah study. In this way, as the Sforno tells us, their rest truly becomes a shabbath la-Shem, as they devote their time to learning and relearning holy things. Studying and attending lectures not merely once a week, as they did during the six previous years, when their only respite from the constant demands of agriculture and animal husbandry was the weekly sabbath, but every day.

The Nëtziv in his Ha‘améq Davar explains the “common admonition” cited in the example supra in terms of the mitzva of Torah study. Creative Torah study requires knowing “how to learn,” that is, being familiar with the basic precepts of the Torah and the principles according to which they can be compared and interpreted and how they are applied. These, says the Nëtziv, are the chuqqoth, the “laws” of Torah; their shëmira requires constant review, repetitive study. The results of their application are the mishpatim (literally, “judgments”) which one makes of the raw materials included under the name chuqqoth.

This is the sort of learning for which our citizens would now find time during the enforced idleness of the shëmitta. But the yovél, sys the Nëtziv, is a “more propitious time to deepen contemplation of Torah than other years.” The reason that Torah study has to be especially strengthened, deepened, intensified during the yovél, is vishavtem ‘al ha’aretz lavetach, i.e. the security issue; he explains: “For the country’s defense against the nations of the world is by means of men of valor who sit over the books.”

The yovél follows a shëmitta year, a year of comprehensive review of the chuqqoth and of chiddush mishpatim, the generation of novellae based on that review. Indeed, this is the last of a series of seven such intensive years. Now is the time to review those accumulated chiddushim (vë’eth mishpatai tishmëru) and generate new ones (va‘asithem otham). But especially, in the Nëtziv’s view, “to generate additional general principles from the depth of contemplation,” va‘asithem eth chuqqothai, as out verse uniquely mandates.

The Nëtziv’s explanation is especially relevant to our situation today. We live in an orphaned generation, one which suffered so catastrophic a loss a mere 75 years ago that we are in many ways numb to the true extent of the trauma. As a result of that trauma, many of our brethren have been misled and are not observant. The hëmitta is not universally observed in Eretz Yisra’él, even by some who are otherwise religious (though, thank G-d, the last several cycles have seen remarkable progress in that area). The yishuv in Eretz Yisra’él remains surrounded by vicious, sworn enemies, within and without the boundaries of the state, despite the so-called “peace process.” The only merit that we have has been, despite the trauma, an explosive flowering of Torah since the war, the transplanting, expansion, and hiving off of those yëshivoth of all stripes which miraculously did survive the war.

The Nëtziv calls “those who sit over the books” anshei chayil, “men of valor.” He does not mean that we do not need soldiers; forty-nine years out of fifty, when the yovél can again be fully observed, soldiers must stand watch on Israel’s borders. But the success of the soldiers, armed with sword and shield in protecting the land, depends upon the success of the rebbe’im nd talmidim, “those who sit over the books.” To be sure all of the Torah learned by ordinary citizens is precious as well; every page in the Talmud, every mishna, every verse in the written Torah learned and understood redounds to our credit. But it is the full-time students who have the time to devote to depth of review in purity and sanctity, and they are therefore identified with anshei chayil, the defenders of our holy land.

We are in the midst of sëfira, the period in which we count seven cycles of seven days in commemoration of Israel’s preparations to receive the Torah at Sinai and in preparation of our own learning efforts on Shavu‘oth. May those preparations be crowned with success, and allow us to appreciate and digest the chuqqoth and mishpatim and at least for a while feel ourselves among the anshei chayil who sit over the books.