Five Rashis, Behar: Shabbat, Labor, and the Lessons We Learn

Different Versions of Shabbat

Parashat Behar opens with a reference to shmittah, the seventh year, during which we may not work the land, must let its natural produce be gathered equally by all, and forgive all loans. This year, as it happens, is being observed as a shmittah year in Israel; it is currently a Rabbinic obligation, reverting to a Biblical one (according to some views) once the majority of the Jewish people has returned to the Land (that sentence, which would have seemed like a pipe dream forty years ago, thank God now seems easily within a few decades’ reach).

25;2 characterizes the year as a Shabbat LaShem, a Sabbatical observance for Hashem. Rashi comments that it has to be done לשם ה’, for the sake of Hashem’s Name, likening it to the weekly Shabbat we observe. If the rhythm of the observance—six years working the Land, one year off—didn’t highlight the connection, the Torah makes it explicit, this is another form of Shabbat.

Observant Jews develop a routine of Shabbat, so that it’s not a day full of worry each time we’re about to do something (those new to Shabbat observance speak of that lingering uncertainty about what’s ok).  Shmittah comes infrequently enough that many of us might spend the whole year like that—caught up in the details of where we can or cannot buy produce, when (and until when) which produce is a shmittah item, what to do with leftovers, in whose homes and/or which establishments we can eat, etc.

Rashi reminds us that, just as with Shabbat, there is a conceptual component. Shmittah needs to be not just a Shabbat, a year of rest for the Land, a time to step back from our creativity and recalibrate, but a Shabbat LaShem, a year dedicated to reminding ourselves of Hashem’s role in the Land and in our lives and livelihoods.

The Difficulty of Keeping Shmittah

Big ideas aren’t easy to absorb, especially when packaged with complex observances. Rashi gives us two reasons to believe that people experienced shmittah as too much of a burden long before our times. First, on 25;8, the Torah describes a yovel, a Jubilee year, as coming after seven cycles of seven years, each ending in a shmittah. Rashi says the Torah defines it that way, seven years seven times, to be sure we do not instead observe seven shmittot in a row and then a yovel, giving ourselves forty-two free years before we had to confront either.

The idea seems to be that we might resent the periodic intrusion of shmittah and yovel. To avoid such interruptions, we’d front-load our observance, clearing up a long span for regular planting. (Not dissimiliar to R. Soloveitchik’s supposed quip that American Jews want to “have davened” rather than actually daven). The Torah rules that out.

Ten verses later, Rashi records the view that the seventy years of the Babylonian exile reflected all the shmittot we failed to keep.  That number assumes that the Jewish people did not keep even one shmittah from their arrival in Israel until the destruction of the First Temple. It’s not like they tried one, found it too burdensome, and abandoned it. They didn’t even give it a try.

Suggesting that some burdens are in our heads, not a reflection of reality.

The Commitment of Resident Aliens (and Ours to Them)

25;35 commands us to support the poor, helping them stay solvent before they need charity, so that they can live among us (and not be relegated to the underclass). While the verse starts by speaking of “your brother,” it goes on to include גר ותושב, the convert and the stranger, whom we must also help in these situations.

This is a simple verse that bears stressing, before we get to Rashi. An halachic State of Israel would have no problem with non-Jews living there as well. While there are differences between how that state would treat Jews and non-Jews, that would not be true in terms of supporting the poor which seems to me to include the entire range of services we call the social safety net.

Now to Rashi, who defines a תושב as someone who agreed not to worship anything other than Hashem but still eats non-kosher. This contrasts with Rambam, who requires resident aliens to accept all the Noahide laws.  Rashi may have been speaking loosely, or he may have thought that even though non-Jews are obligated in all the Noahides, rejecting alien worship suffices to be allowed to live in Israel.

It’s a question I’ve thought about for many years, since it seems to me to get at the heart of a society’s goals. Members of a family, community, or nation have shared goals or values; when those groups welcome outsiders, what is required of them? In the US, for example, we make them show their utility to society and would deport them for committing any felonies.  Since a range of crimes that qualify, not all of which are intuitive, the US is requiring them to fall in line with central parts of this country’s worldview, in broad outline, to stay).

When Rashi mentions only the rejection of idolatry, he opens up three possibilities: 1) this was shorthand for all the Noahides, 2) he thought proper and full rejection of idolatry would lead to the rest, or, the most interesting possibility, 3) rejecting idolatry was enough, in that anyone who agreed we cannot worship anything other than Hashem has bought in to our worldview enough that we can let him or her live among us, despite other serious deficiencies in his lifestyle.

Hard Labor

25;43 prohibits treating our Jewish slaves as if they were slaves. One element of that is not working him בפרך, a word the Torah used to describe the slavery in Egypt and is commonly translated as “backbreaking.” In this context, based on the halachot of this commandment, Rashi says it means not to assign the slave unnecessary work, to fill his time. Don’t ask the slave to warm a cup or to weed where it’s not needed.

The halachic concern is readily understood—assigning unnecessary work is a demonstration of power, showing that this other person must obey me. We as Jews are not allowed to exert that kind of power even over those whose labors we have rented for a few years.

It also makes me wonder whether the slavery in Egypt had to have been backbreaking in order for it to justify our shuddering memories of it. Even the fact of another person (or nation) owning our time such that they can demand that we do unnecessary work, for no other reason than to make clear who owns whom, would be a slavery the Torah finds intolerable and backbreaking.

Peer Pressure Doesn’t Have to Come From Peers

Towards the end of the parsha, the Torah speaks of a Jew being sold into slavery to a non-Jew and the importance of redeeming him from that slavery. Soon after, 26;1 warns us against making idols, which we’ve seen before. Rashi comments that it is directed at the Jew sold to a non-Jew (who is living under Jewish legal control, and yet is assumed to worship idols, as we’ll see—apparently, even when Jews had control, they didn’t have complete control).

That Jew might say to himself, if my master indulges in sexually illicit acts, alien worship, violates Shabbat, I can act like him, so the Torah warns against that. The piece I always find most interesting is that Rashi assumes the relationship between slave and master will be positive enough that the master will be a model the slave looks to, that he would let it be a guide for his behavior. The master isn’t asking or pressuring him to do this, he is saying it to himself.

Reminding us that it’s not only peers who offer pressure to act in ways the Torah would oppose.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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