June 22, 2024
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Why שמיטה (Shemitah) Was Taught on הר סיני (Mount Sinai)

Even though Sefer Vayikra starts with God calling to Moshe in the Mishkan (Vayikra 1:1), the communication that opens Parshas Behar (25:1) takes place on Mt. Sinai. (As I have previously discussed, throughout Sefer Vayikra there are communications between God and Moshe that happened before the Mishkan was fully operational and therefore occurred outside the Mishkan — either on Mt. Sinai or in Moshe’s tent.) Aside from trying to understand why the Torah reverts back to a communication that occurred earlier, the first commandment discussed, Shemitah, raises the famous question, “What does Shemitah have to do with Mt. Sinai?” — a question that has led to other questions.

These other questions —raised by the super-commentaries on Rashi — revolve around the assumption that the question is really why Mt. Sinai is mentioned regarding this commandment. However, a simple understanding of the question (see Maskil L’Dovid and Malbim) is not why Mt. Sinai is mentioned (as that’s where this communication occurred), but why the laws of Shemitah were taught at Mt. Sinai, since they wouldn’t become relevant until the nation entered the Promised Land. Many laws were taught in the Mishkan, so why were the laws of Shemitah taught at Sinai? What is the specific connection between Shemitah and Mt. Sinai?

Rashi, quoting Toras Kohanim, tells us that just as the details of Shemitah were taught on Mt. Sinai, so too were the details of every mitzvah taught on Mt. Sinai. In other words, the fact that Shemitah was taught at Sinai despite not having more of a connection to Mt. Sinai than any other commandments(and, if anything, having less of a connection, since it wasn’t relevant yet), teaches us that each and every commandment, including its details, was taught on Mt. Sinai.

The lesson Toras Kohanim learns from Shemitah being taught on Mt. Sinai is based on R’ Akiva’s position that even the details of every commandment were taught at Sinai (Zevachim 115b). According to R’ Yishmael, though, only the general concept of each commandment was taught to Moshe at Sinai; the details were taught in the Mishkan. How would R’ Yishmael explain the details of Shemitah being taught on Mt. Sinai if, generally speaking, the details of mitzvos were not taught on Mt. Sinai? Why is Shemitah different?

Shemitah is not the only thing at the end of Sefer Vayikra that was taught on Mt. Sinai. The “blessings and the curses” (26:3-46) end by noting that the preceding was “given by God at Mt. Sinai, via Moshe.” Importantly, it wasn’t framed as a set of instructions, but as an agreement “between God and the Children of Israel,” i.e. a covenant. As a matter of fact, the word “covenant” (ברית) appears several times (26:9, 15, 25, 42, 44 and 45) within the blessings and curses.

At Sinai, when the covenant between God and the Children of Israel was enacted, the “Book of the Covenant” (ספר הברית) was put into writing (Shemos 24:4, see Ibn Ezra) and read to the nation (24:7). In the Mechilta (Yisro, BaChodesh 3), there are three opinions regarding what the “Book of the Covenant ” consisted of. Rashi combines the first two opinions, while Chizkuni quotes the third, which is attributed to none other than R’ Yishmael, who says it contained “(the laws of) Shemitah and Yovel, and the blessings and the curses.” As Rashbam (Vayikra 26:46)  and Ibn Ezra (25:1) allude to, the curses include the land “resting” while it’s desolate to compensate for it not “resting” when we didn’t observe Shemitah (26:33-35), making fulfilling Shemitah an integral part of the covenant.

Rashi, who follows R’ Akiva’s opinion that even the details of every mitzvah were taught at Sinai, also follows the opinion(s) that the “Book of the Covenant” did not include Shemittah thereby allowing the Torah to be telling us that Shemitah, and all of its details, were taught at Sinai in order to teach us that the same is true for all mitzvos. According to R’ Yishmael, on the other hand, Shemitah was taught on Mt. Sinai because of its role in the covenant (as an extension of the curses), and therefore not only had to be taught at Sinai, but had to be communicated to the nation there as well (“לאמר”). And because there was a special connection between Shemitah and Sinai (the covenant), being taught at Sinai cannot teach us when and where the details of the other mitzvos were taught.

We now know that covenants in the Ancient Near East (which were usually between a dominant power and a vassal state) had three components: (1) a description of the historical relationship between the two parties that led to the covenant; (2) the responsibilities and obligations of each party under the covenant; and (3) the consequences of not upholding those obligations. Interestingly, this corresponds to the three opinions in the Mechilta regarding the contents of the “Book of the Covenant”: (1) Sefer Bereishis and Sefer Shemos until the giving of the Torah (i.e. the historical relationship that led to our covenant with God); (2) the mitzvos commanded to Adam, to the descendants of Noach and to the Nation of Israel in Egypt, at Marah, and all the other mitzvos (i.e. the obligations of the covenant); and (3) the blessings and the curses (i.e. the consequences of not keeping the mitzvos).

Not every mitzvah was taught to the nation at Sinai, even according to R’ Akiva (and Rashi). Even though they were all taught to Moshe at Sinai, many mitzvos were first taught publicly after they were taught to Moshe again in the Mishkan, when he was also told to teach it to the nation (“לאמר”). Shemitah, however, was taught to Moshe at Mt. Sinai with the instructions to teach it to the nation now (“לאמר”). It would seem that (according to this opinion) not only was it important for us to know that every mitzvah, including its details, was taught to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, but it was also important for the nation to know this. (Right, Korach?) God therefore told Moshe to teach the nation the details of Shemitah right away, so that they would know that Moshe had been taught all the mitzvos at Sinai, including their details, even if he didn’t share everything with them until the appropriate time.

Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni and Seforno (25:1) discuss why the Torah reverts back to what happened at Sinai at the end of Sefer Vayikra. I would add that since the consequences applied to all of our obligations (not just the ones communicated before the consequences were taught to Moshe), the Torah waited until all the mitzvos contained in Sefer Vayikra were taught before teaching us what the consequences for not keeping them were.


Rabbi Dov Kramer looks forward to the fulfillment of all of the Torah’s blessings.

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