To Count Seven Shabbatot of Years

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Behar

Parshat Behar opens with the obligation of shemitta, seven of which produce a yovel, a jubilee year. Rambam includes in the six hundred thirteen mitzvot one to count the years of each shemitta and of the seven shemitot to reach the yovel, much as we are currently counting the days and weeks from the Omer up until Shavuot.

The Great Sanhedrin are the ones obligated, he tells us in Aseh 140, and Sefer HaChinukh 330 adds that it is only in Israel. Rambam had already said the mitzvah begins only after we have conquered, taken full possession and control, of the Land [in the Hebrew translation of the original Arabic, ve-hitgabarnu bah, we have strength over it]. Sefer HaChinukh thinks the idea is implicit in Vayikra 25;3, where we are told to plant our fields, prune our vineyards, for six years, phrasing that assumes we already well know which land is ours, a state achieved only after kibush ve-chilluk, the conquest and apportionment of the Land.

Sifra points out the verse tells us to count seven years seven times, it is not enough to just count the end of each shemittah, we must count each year along the way.

Once we reach fifty, Sefer HaChinukh reminds us of a separate mitzvah (Obligation 136 for Rambam, Mitzvah 332 in Sefer HaChinukh) to sanctify that year by not working the Land (as in a shemitta year), by freeing all Jewish indentured servants (including men who chose to stay beyond their original term and had their ears punctured), and returning ancestral lands to their original owners.

His Ordinary Reason for the Mitzvah

To understand my surprise at Sefer HaChinukh’s suggested reason for the mitzvah, you need to know I grew up hearing that it was about restoring social equality, a chance to start over for those who had been forced to sell ancestral land and/or their own labor, ensuring that wealth did not become entrenched.

Sefer HaChinukh has none of that. He thinks it a reminder of God’s mastery of the world, how everything eventually goes to where God had ordained at the start. VaYikra 25;23 supports his view with its ban on permanent sale of the Land, because it “belongs” to God. If yovel expresses God’s ownership, makes us aware of the limits of ours, the count each year will stop us from stealing land, coveting what belongs to others, because we will know God gives to those God chooses.

[I am skipping his comparison to the confiscations by kings of his time. As with other of his reasons, this one seems not to account for the fact of the Sanhedrin being the ones who do the count, not the rest of us. He seems to assume we will keep the lesson in mind even though most of us will not have witnessed, may have no idea of, the Sanhedrin’s count.]

A Kabbalistic Reason for the Mitzvah

He adds here he has heard from wise men that yovel has a sod nifla, a wondrous esoteric element, a hint at all of history, with the sevens showing us something of the “natural” cycle of events, although they did not wish to reveal it [my teacher, Prof. Yitzchak Twersky zt”l, used to point out that esoteric knowledge necessarily creeps into the world as soon as anyone shares some of it. Someone else will then explain it, and it is no longer hidden.]

Although he says he is not versed in their view, Sefer HaChinukh calls our attention to the repeat use of seven in mitzvot—Shabbat is the seventh day after six days of work, shemitta the seventh year after six years of work, Pesach and Sukkot are seven day holidays, and after the seven days of Sukkot, we celebrate Shemini Atzeret [this doesn’t actually fit his model, but let’s leave it]. We count seven weeks of seven days from Pesach to Shavu’ot, covenants in Bereshit often used seven sheep, Bil’am, who was wise in how the world worked, employed seven altars as he tried to manipulate God into allowing him to curse the Jews.

[The zav and zava also count seven days before they can escape their status, an idea he brings up only to wonder why they are not required to count each day out loud, which he attributes to tradition telling us their seven days is about being sure the period is over, not experiencing it step by step.]

The Mitzvot Dependent on Yovel

In his closing salvo, Sefer HaChinukh tells us yovel ceased being practiced when the tribes on the east side of the Jordan, Re’uven, Gad, and some of Menashe, were exiled by Pul, the king of Ashur. Yovel only functions when the majority of Jews are living in Israel, with the tribes in their proper places, not all mixed together.

It reminds us of a communal element to the Torah’s view of life. The Torah ideal wants us all to live where our tribe does (limiting our choices of residence), wants us to connect to our tribe enough for it to be the reason to live here and not there. If not, the Jewish people is not ready for yovel (or the count up to yovel, the mitzvah we are studying).

Other mitzvot depending on yovel, in Sefer HaChinukh’s list: eved Ivri, indentured servitude; the rules of selling houses in walled cities; the rules of fields donated to the Beit HaMikdash or sold to others; the ability to accept gerei toshav, non-Jews who wish to live in Israel without converting to Judaism, instead “only” accepting the Jewish worldview, agreeing to follow the Noahide laws [and because God said so, according to Rambam; I think today we consider many non-Jews as if they are gerei toshav in the sense of respecting their adherence to the Noahide laws, but only with the return of yovel would we be able to extend to them all the rights and privileges of gerei toshav]; and the Biblical level shemitta of land and loans.

A National Count

It’s a double parsha and I will close here, to be sure I do not run out of space. Given all we have seen, it seems to me Sefer HaChinukh could have said the mitzvah was a way for the Sanhedrin to annually express our national status, to announce we were living on the Land, by our tribes, fully enacting God’s Torah.

The Sanhedrin says it’s year of shemtta y in the cycle, declaring our national project is running on all cylinders, we are strong enough to welcome non-Jews who wish only to be fellow travelers, remind us we only have a year to buy back the house in the walled city we sold, and so on. It tells us something about now, more relevant than the fact that in some number of years we will in fact have a yovel year.

Parshat Bechukkotai: Not Swapping Sacrifices

I have known of the prohibition of temura, to try to trade a non-sanctified animal for a sanctified one, for a long time (it’s a verse in this parsha, 27;33, so I would hope I would have), along with the second part of the verse, that the Torah requires us to treat both as sacrifices. I hadn’t paid much attention to how tradition understood 27;26, as we will see below. Adding this verse into our discussion, I think, gives a new perspective on the Torah’s point in these rules.

You May Not Switch

Rambam’s Prohibition 106 records the Torah’s warning against trying to exchange an already sanctified animal for some other one. It comes in the discussion of ma’aser behema, the tenth of newborn animals to be offered as sacrifices, identified by coralling all the animals and having them leave single file, every tenth one a sacrifice.

The Torah then warns against trading it for another, better or worse, and Sifra 9;4 asserts this creates a general rule, we may not substitute other animals for an already dedicated one. The temura happens by the owner of the animal saying he wants to trade it. Although speech is usually not enough of a ma’aseh, an action, to incur lashes, Sefer HaChinukh 351 notes temura does incur lashes, I think because the words produce a change of status in the animals.

Men and women bear the same prohibition, which still applies today, Sefer HaChinukh tells us. Despite there being no place to offer these animals, should a Jew dedicate one, or have a sanctified animal such as a first-born, switching it for another would still render the person liable for lashes.

You Literally Cannot Switch

Should a Jew do so, there is an aseh, Obligation 87 in Rambam’s count, to make the attempted substitute kodesh as well. Temura 4b wondered why there could be lashes for a prohibition ha-nitak le-aseh, linked to an obligation (such prohibitions normally do not get lashes). The Gemara says the Torah articulated the prohibition with two phrases, lo yachalifenu and lo yamir, to institute lashes despite the aseh. Clearly, Rambam points out, the Gemara took the verse to establish an obligation.

Sefer HaChinukh 351 gives more of what Temura said, we don’t think of this as a full lav ha-nitak le-aseh, because the parameters of the two mitzvot are not quite the same. The aseh does not apply to partners or a community; they, too, are proscribed from switching animals, but bear no obligation to consider the non-sanctified animal now sanctified. Since the two have different purviews, the lo ta’aseh is not quite tied to the aseh.

Three Reasons for Temura

Although Rambam does not offer reasons in his Sefer HaMitzvot, he does do so in Mishneh TorahLaws of Temura 4;13. [A passage my teacher Prof. Twersky zt”l referenced often, because it is a place in Mishneh Torah where he includes an idea better known from the Guide for the Perplexed. It supported Prof. Twersky’s view that the main parts of the philosophy of the Guide are already in Mishneh Torah.)

Rambam claims the Torah knew people tended to have buyer’s remorse, to think they had dedicated too good an animal for a sacrifice. Most of the times someone would want to switch, s/he would pick a worse animal to replace the original. The Torah decided to ban all substitutions to avoid it happening.

Arukh HaShulchan HeAtid  238;4 adds a twist, Torat Kohanim (cited by Rashi on the Torah) has the reverse idea, says the Torah worried the person would be so intent on giving the absolute best for sacrifice, s/he would switch it for a better one when it came along.

Sefer HaChinukh 352 clearly does not agree with Rambam, gives a reason of his own that works well with the one in Torat Kohanim, although is not identical. (Before he does, he praises Rambam’s giving a reason at all, since reasons are a centerpiece of his book.) He thought the rule of temura was to instill awe of the sacrifice.  Once set aside, the sacrifice is no longer ours, not fully, and the rule of temura means to instill that, to make us aware of our limitations in this area.

It’s Only for the Original Animal

While I like his idea, he then points to two laws that weaken it [I have no counter theory]. First, temura does not make temura, meaning if after offering a temura, the Jew tries to change it to another animal, nothing happens. Were it about awe of the Mikdash and its appurtenances, I’d have thought once the temura became kodesh, it would have the same rules. I assume he would answer that the temura isn’t fully kodesh, it’s only kodesh to teach this lesson (and be offered), and therefore does not have enough kedusha to draw in any attempted temura of it.

Second, the verse speaks of temura for animals, but birds and flour are not included. Here, too, I don’t think the detail destroys his idea, because he could say those were not expensive enough to worry people would think to tamper with them.

Nor May We Switch Types of Sacrifice

The next prohibition in Rambam’s list looks a few verses earlier where the Torah warns us not to be makdish, sanctify, our first born animals. Arakhin 29a explains we may not turn it into a different kind of sacrifice, an idea Sifra generalizes to all items dedicated to being an offering.

Sefer HaChinukh 356 includes not changing items dedicated for monetary uses for the Mikdash to sacrificial ones, nor may we target a fetus for a different kedusha than its mother, because the fetus attains its sanctity within the womb (as opposed to a first-born animal, which becomes a bekhor only upon its exit as a peter rechem, the first to leave the mother’s womb naturally).

This, too, is about instilling proper awe of the Temple and its items, Sefer HaChinukh says, showing us three mitzvot limiting our ability to interfere with the dedication of sacrificial items.  To have a Mikdash, to offer korbanot, is to know we have many choices about our relationship with those institutions, but certainly not limitless ones, even innocuous limited ones.

About Gidon Rothstein

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