Portion of the Week / Yakov Z. Meyer

Parashat Behar / What’s Shemita Got to Do With Mount Sinai?

The acceptance of Rabbi Ishmael’s argument would pull the carpet from under Rabbi Akiva’s feet and would undermine his authority in interpreting Jewish religious law.

Courtesy of Avigdor Kalfa

Leviticus opens with “And the Lord called unto Moses, and spoke unto him out of the tent of meeting, saying ... ” (Leviticus 1:1). From this point onward, Leviticus conveys God’s words to Moses’ ear in the tent of meeting, whose construction was completed in the final section of the Book of Exodus.

This week’s Torah portion, Behar (Lev. 25:1 – 26:2), the penultimate portion in Leviticus, states: “And the Lord spoke unto Moses in Mount Sinai, saying ...” (Lev. 25:1), as if the Torah was returning to what was said to Moses on Mount Sinai – that is, to the middle of the previous book in the Pentateuch. The Torah then continues with details of the mitzvah of observing shemita, in which the land is allowed to lay fallow every seven years, and of the various laws connected with it.

In the Sifra, the Tannaitic midrashic work on the Book of Leviticus, the sages ask, “What connection is there between shemita and Mount Sinai? Were not all the commandments conveyed on Mount Sinai?” (Sifra, Behar:1). The midrash’s question is cited by Rashi in his commentary and has entered modern Hebrew, where it is used to query the link between two items that have been stated in the same breath but seem completely unconnected.

However, if we return to the question in its original context, we find that it has another intention altogether. The commandment of shemita was first given in concise form, like many other commandments, in Parashat Mishpatim in the Book of Exodus, as part of the list of laws that God gave Israel on Sinai: “And six years thou shalt sow thy land, and gather in the increase thereof; but the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of thy people may eat; and what they leave the beast of the field shall eat. In like manner thou shalt deal with thy vineyard, and with thy oliveyard” (Exodus 23:10-11).

The connection between the mitzvah of shemita and Mount Sinai is self-evident: The commandment was handed down on Mount Sinai and is included in Parashat Mishpatim soon after the passage describing God’s granting of the Torah to Israel. The meaning of the question “What connection is there between shemita and Mount Sinai?” becomes clear when one comes to the second part of this passage in the Sifra: “Were not all the commandments conveyed on Mount Sinai?”

If all of the mizvahs, asks the Sifra, were given at Mount Sinai, why, when the Torah again mentions shemita in this week’s portion, does it state that this commandment is part of what God said to Moses on Mount Sinai?

The Sifra’s answer is as hard to understand as the question is: “Just as the principles and details of the commandment of shemita were given at Mount Sinai, similarly, the principles and details of all the commandments were given at Mount Sinai.” In other words, there is nothing special about the mitzvah of shemita that would justify the Torah juxtaposing this specific commandment with the granting of the Torah at Sinai.

The mitzvah of shemita was first given in concise form – that is, its principles were described – at Sinai; when the Torah mentions it again, it is discussed in detail, in Leviticus, and again it is mentioned that it was given at Sinai. It can thus be deducted that both the principles and details of this commandment were handed down at Mount Sinai. The Sifra applies the example of this commandment to all the other ones: All of the mitzvahs that are presented in detail in Leviticus were given – that is, both in principle and in details – at Sinai.

This unusual explanation seems to contradict the literary description the Torah conveys to us. In Parashat Mishpatim, the principles of the commandments are described, and, throughout Leviticus, the mitzvahs’ details are presented. So why does the Sifra, basing itself on a local anomaly (the mention of Sinai toward the end of Leviticus), insist that all the commandments were given in their entirety at Sinai and that it is only their literary presentation that is “divided” between Exodus and Leviticus?

Rabbi Akiva’s argument here is incongruent with a straightforward, linear reading of the biblical text. The bewilderment only becomes greater in view of the fact that he is the very one who presents a linear and coherent reading of the text, while the argument offered by the Sifra – the midrash halakha from the School of Rabbi Akiva – offers a polemical claim that ostensibly contradicts Akiva himself: “Rabbi Ishmael says, ‘The principles of commandments were given at Sinai and their details were given in the tent of meeting.’ Rabbi Akiva says: ‘Both the principles and details were given at Sinai, were given a second time in the tent of meeting and were given a third time on the plains of Moab’” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Hagiga, pp. 6a-6b). In contrast with Rabbi Ishmael’s linear reading, Rabbi Akiva offers a non-linear one that challenges the literal meaning of the Torah text and which argues that this text represents only in a partial fashion the historical reality of the granting of the Torah. What is the source of Rabbi Akiva’s hidden knowledge regarding the “true” extent of what was given at Sinai?

An answer is provided in another homily found in the Sifra. Toward the end of Parashat Behukotai, the next – and final – weekly Torah reading in Leviticus, it is stated, “These are the statutes and ordinances and laws, which the Lord made between Him and the children of Israel in Mount Sinai by the hand of Moses” (Lev. 26:46). The Sifra explains: “The statutes are the midrashic interpretations, the ordinances are the laws, and the word ‘laws’ [torot] alludes to the fact that two Torot – that is, two Torahs – were given to Israel [at Sinai]: the Written Torah [the Written Law, that is, the Pentateuch] and the Oral Torah [the Oral Law, that is, the Talmud] ... The phrase ‘in Mount Sinai by the hand of Moses,’ teaches us that the Torah – including its laws, and the details and interpretations of those laws – was given to Moses at Sinai” (Sifra, Behukotai, end of section B).

Rabbi Akiva’s many homilies can be found throughout the Talmud, many of them are radical interpretations that are incongruent with a reading of the Torah’s verses in their actual context. He extracts from those verses new “literal” readings that are actually very far from literal in their understanding.

The only way in which Rabbi Akiva could anchor his radical, innovative interpretations in the biblical text from a theological standpoint was by using the ideological argument that the entire Torah – as well as its extensions, its laws, its midrashic and non-midrashic interpretations, including, of course, the rabbi’s own interpretations – was given at Sinai. All that Rabbi Akiva does is “simply” to reveal what was previously concealed.

If Rabbi Akiva accepts Rabbi Ishmael’s position that only the Torah’s principles were handed down at Sinai and that their details were given in the tent of meeting – he will have to admit that the Torah was given only in concise form at Sinai and that it was extended only afterward. The acceptance of Rabbi Ishmael’s argument would pull the carpet from under Rabbi Akiva’s feet and would undermine his authority in interpreting Jewish religious law.

Rabbi Akiva sees the details of the mitzvahs presented in the tent of meeting as a reflection of his own method of interpreting the Torah: The details of the commandments were given at Sinai and were written down only later in Leviticus, and the same applies to the interpretation of the Torah.

In order to continue interpreting the Torah, Rabbi Akiva creates an absolute picture of its granting at Sinai; in that picture, the entire Torah was given as well as all its layers and interpretations. Theoretically, Rabbi Akiva eliminates any possibility of introducing anything new in the Torah; however, this theoretical elimination actually enables infinite innovations because, according to this approach, all of the Torah’s interpretations – not just Rabbi Akiva’s – were given at Sinai: “Even what an experienced scholar will one day say before the teacher. Everything was given at Sinai, as it is written, ‘Is there a thing whereof it is said: “See, this is new”?’ And, as the next part of that verse replies, ‘it hath been already, in the ages which were before us’ (Ecclesiastes 1:10)” (Vayikra Rabbah 22:1).

According to Rabbi Akiva, everything was given at Mount Sinai, including what is discussed today in every beit midrash (study hall) where the Torah’s words are renewed.