Hashem spoke to Moshe on Har Sinai, saying: Speak to the Bnei
Yisrael and say to them, “When you come into the Land…the Land shall rest a
Shabbos for Hashem…”
Shemitah is For Angels1
Be’er Yosef: It might be one of the most famous questions raised by Chazal-
what does shemitah have to do with Har Sinai? Their answer is equally
prominent: our parshah fills in all the details of a mitzvah that was
previously mentioned in only outline form. By linking these details to Har
Sinai, the Torah brings home to us the realization that all other mitzvos
were taught in the same way, i.e. however succinct their presentation in the
text, all their details were given to Moshe at Sinai.
Pondering this answer, we still come up short. Firstly, it is only R.
Akiva2 who held that the details of mitzvos were give at Sinai.
His disputant, R. Yishmael, maintained that the details were not given at
Sinai at all, but transmitted to Moshe over the space of time in the Ohel
Moed! How will R. Yishmael understand our pesukim? Moreover, even R. Akiva
has some explaining to do. Of all the Torah’s mitzvos, why was shemitah
chosen to convey the lesson of the Sinaitic origin of halachic detail of the
rest of the Torah?
“Bless Hashem, His angels, warriors of strength, who act according to His
word, who obey the sound of His word.” 3 A midrash4
insists that this pasuk cannot apply to the heavenly angels. They are
addressed separately in the next verse: “Bless Hashem, all His legions.”
Rather, the first verse speaks of angels of this world, who seem to surpass
ordinary human capacity for following Hashem’s instructions. (Thus, while
the reference to heavenly angels spoke of all His legions, the other pasuk
does not. Only some humans are capable of mimicking the angels.) The midrash
offers two opinions. The first sees the earlier pasuk as referring specific
ally to those who observe shemitah. Most mitzvos are observed for a limited
prescribed time. Not so, shemitah. During the shemitah year, a person each
day watches his field, his vineyard abandoned to public consumption. Each
day, he restrains himself, and allows others to take all that he would
ordinarily regard as his. Those who are able to act this way over the space
of an entire year are certainly angels of unusual strength!
A second opinion maintains that the human angels were the Bnei Yisrael who
said naaseh v’nishma when offered the Torah. The pasuk alludes to this by
speaking of those who “act” before mentioning those who “listen.”
Given that G-d never asks the impossible of Man, how can it be that He gave
us the mitzvah of shemitah? If only those whose endurance borders on the
angelic can fulfill its requirements, how can Hashem make its observance
mandatory to all Jews?
Another midrash5 provides one answer – and in the process,
unifies the two opinions above. “HKBH measured all nations, and found none
that could accept the Torah other than Yisrael. He measured all generations,
and found only the generation of the Wilderness suitable to receive the
Torah. He measured all mountains, and found only Sinai appropriate for the
giving of the Torah.” We readily understand that He acted similarly in
regard to specific mitzvos. He evaluated the capacity of the Jewish people,
and found them singularly capable of the challenge of shemitah, by dint of
their national character.
We can point to another important factor. The gemara6 teaches
that the primordial serpent of Gan Eden mated with Chavah, and introduced
into her zuhamah/ essential corruption. This corruptions remained part of
the human condition – except for Klal Yisrael, who stood at Sinai. This
elevated, purified and cured them of this disability. 7 The days
they spent at the base of the mountain prior to Revelation bathed them in
the kedushah of the Shechinah made manifest that rested upon Har Sinai. The
experience conveyed such clarity about Hashem’s absolute Oneness, that it
banished the corruption which in effect is identical with uncertainty about
His nature. 8 (When we say dayeinu at the Pesach seder to the
gift of standing at Sinai, even without the giving of the Torah, we mean the
same. The time we spent around the Shechinah itself was an extraordinary
experience, for which we give thanks.)
The naaseh v’nishmah response also owes to the days before Matan Torah.
9 The gemara10 terms this phrase as well as the
province of the angels. From where did the Bnei Yisrael draw the capacity to
act as the angels? We can surmise that the days of elevation prior to the
sixth of Sivan propelled them to the level of angels. Those days positioned
the Bnei Yisrael to respond to the offer of the Torah with words from the
lexicon of the angels - and strengthened them to be able to fulfill the
demands of the shemitah year. When the pasuk lauds the human angels “who
act according to His word”/ osei devaro, it alludes to the devar
ha-shemitah, literally, the word of the shemitah.
The elevation of the Sinai experience did not evaporate. “Whoever lacks
shame is not one whose ancestors stood at Sinai.” 11 We see in
this that Chazal held that some of that elevation remains, and is sufficient
to vouchsafe refinement to our character. Similarly, it remains and empowers
our shemitah observance.
It is easy to lose touch with that elevation with the passage of time and
the coarseness of life’s demands. For this reason the Torah commands that we
count the years towards shemitah. (Although the mitzvah technically devolves
upon beis din, certainly the counting was publicized and became a matter of
public attention.) By counting towards it, we remind ourselves during the
other six years about the pure emunah in His existence and His providence
that underlies the observance of shemitah.
We discover, therefore, that Har Sinai and shemitah are inextricably linked.
The experience of the former allows our successful observance of the
latter. They belong to each other – exactly as they appear in our pasuk.
1. Based on Be’er Yosef, Vayikra 25:1-3
2. Zevachim 115B
3. Tehillim 103:20
4. Vayikra Rabbah, beginning
5. Vayikra Rabbah 13
6. Shabbos 146A
7. Rashi, ibid.
8. Kol Bo
9. For a very different approach, see the new Shevivei Daas (R. Yeruchem
Levovitz) pg. 83
10. Shabbos 88A
11. Nedarim 20