Preoccupation With Glory and the Deferral of Hope: Hayyim Angel’s ‘Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi’

What is the relationship between Prophecy and History? This is question that underlies Rabbi Hayyim Angel’s “Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi” (HZM), a newly-released commentary on the three biblical books by the same names. These books are traditionally considered to be the latest of the of the Bible’s prophetic writings, attributed to prophets living in Israel toward the beginning of the Second Temple Era. Angel’s basic approach to understanding the often obscure oracles in these books is to understand them against the background of their historical context. To this end, HZM includes several sections dedicated to explicating passages from Ezra and Nehemiah, as well as a chapter-length analysis of the book of Esther. These books are more historical in style than the prophetic oratories of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, and Angel analyzes them to create a historical context for interpreting the other books. Then, in the sections dedicated to understanding the prophetic oracles, Angel both analyzes the details of each prophet’s visions and explains the historical situation to which each prophet was speaking.

Throughout the book, Angel paints a vivid picture of the spirit of the nation in the period of the Second Temple discussed in the biblical texts, a picture he divides into two distinct eras. The first era is based on the book of Haggai and the first parts of the books of Ezra and Zechariah. In this era, the prophets are dealing with a people who are entirely obedient, but are preoccupied with “glory” (Angel uses this word throughout, presumably thinking of the common English translation of Yeshayahu 6:3, such as it appears in the King James Bible: “And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”). The prophets are therefore consistently occupied with attempts to convince the people that, despite the destruction of the first temple and the ultimately lackluster second temple, God reigns supreme throughout the world. This job is made particularly difficult in the face of Persia reigning supreme throughout the world in a more empirically verifiable manner. In the face of this empirical reality, the prophets agree that Persia currently reigns, but they attribute Persia’s dominance over the Jewish people to the sinfulness of the Jews themselves. From this follows the prophets’ promise/prediction that if the people can maintain proper behavior, a messianic king will rise in the near future to restore the Jews sovereignty and to make God’s glory obvious for all to see.

These prophecies become the locus of an important discussion throughout the book, namely, the meaning of prophecies that did not come true. Angel sets up two approaches to this topic, both of which have support in classical sources. The first approach, which is probably the more widespread in Orthodoxy today, understands that when a prophecy fails to manifest itself (or a positive prophecy, at the very least), it means that we simply misunderstood the prophecy, which was really referring to the future.When Haggai talked about “the Branch” that will be the messianic king, we would be mistaken to think that he meant his contemporary Zerubavel. According to this approach, a prophecy cannot fail to come true; if one does seem to have failed to manifest, that just means that we, the readers, misunderstood the prophecy.

The second approach, which Angel attributes to the Malbim and other traditional figures, as well as texts in Tanakh, understands that prophecies are directed to a specific moment in time, and they have a meaning that is obvious at that time. When Haggai talked about “the Branch,” he really was talking about his contemporary, Zerubavel. However, prophecies are not definite promises or divine fiat. Instead, this approach argues that prophecies are meant to inform the people of the potential nestled within their historical moment. Haggai isn’t promising that Zerubavel will be the Messiah, he’s saying that Zerubavel could be the Messiah. If the potential fails to manifest, that is because the people failed to do what was necessary in order to bring the prophets’ visions to fruition. The vision is recorded in Tanakh not because it tells us, Tanakh’s readers, about specific historical events yet to come, but because of what it tells about the potential that has inhered in past historical moments, and is destined to emerge again in our future. It is this second approach that Angel takes throughout HZM, and it turns his interpretive focus from the nature of the predicted events to the actions of the people that caused those potential events to wither on the vine.

Whether because of religious/ethical sins (such as intermarriage) or more concrete political sins (like the majority of Jews who stayed in Babylonia instead of returning to Judea), the promised return of widespread Divine glory simply never appeared (Angel brings these two suggestions from a variety of commentators). This initiated the second era that Angel depicts, based on the books of Esther and Nehemiah, as well as later parts of the book of Ezra. In this period, the people have the same problem of the absence of God’s glory, which is much worse now that the second temple has been a disappointment and Zerubavel has failed to amount to anything significant. This gloomy atmosphere is matched in the prophecies of Zechariah and Malachi from the time, which do not promise immanent political redemption like Haggai and Zechariah once did. Instead these prophecies reject the people’s basic assumptions about the nature of Divine dominance.

Whereas the earlier prophecies had accepted the people’s basic problem that God’s dominance was not evident and reassured the people that the evidence would be arriving shortly, these prophecies challenge the people’s evaluation of reality. Who says that God’s dominance of history has be obvious the way human political dominance is? Maybe Persian political success does not impinge upon Divine supremacy. Maybe the covenant between God and the people of Israel transcends such limited understandings of “success.” This is the basic idea that the prophecies of the second era are trying to get across, according to Angel. More concretely, the prophets tell the people that the situation on the ground, Israel’s subjugation to Persia, is not going away, but that this doesn’t mean anything about their relationship with God. God is just as much with them and just as all-powerful as God was before the destruction of the first temple. Their political situation is a purely political problem, and the prophets do promise/predict an eventual political savior, but the political problem has no theological significance. The hope for redemption has been deferred indefinitely, and that’s ok.

The idea that there is no theological significance to political success (or failure), has its roots in books of Tanakh that Angel doesn’t mention, like Yirmiyahu and Yehezkal, but it runs against the dominant trend in both Tanakh writ large and the Torah itself, as well as, I think, some pretty basic religious intuitions. The Torah promises extended dwelling on the land of Israel for obedience to God’s law and proclaims exile as punishment for disobedience. The book of Melakhim depicts a tight correspondence between obedience to God and the length of a dynasty, until ultimately the people are exiled and the temple is destroyed. And if God is the sovereign lord of history (Angel uses the term “miracle of history” throughout the book), there is a basic degree of logic behind the idea that those who receive God’s grace will experience it on the historical, political, stage. Cutting the other way are all kinds of intuitions about the limitedness of human conceptions and evaluations, but these prophecies remain rather radical and innovative. Unfortunately, Angel glosses over the theological-political significance of these prophecies without much fanfare. He gets close when discussing Zechariah’s prophecy of Jerusalem without its walls from the the earlier era, but the discussion doesn’t quite make the leap from biblical interpretation to theological significance, and it, in my eyes, is a noticeable lack in the book.

Overall, the book is excellent. It is well-written and engaging, and it contains ideas that are important both in terms of the interpretation of Tanakh and in the religious lives of Tanakh’s readers. It just doesn’t seem to be aware of how important some of those ideas really are.

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Realpolitik in Jerusalem – Dov Zakheim’s “Nehemiah”

Dov Zakheim’s Nehemiah: Statesman and Sage, the latest in Maggid Books’ series of studies in Tanakh, presents the reader with a vivid and relatable picture of the life and times of one of Judaism’s forgotten leaders. Despite being the main character of a book of Tanakh, and the source of its name, the average Jew has little knowledge of who Nehemiah was or what he did. Unfortunately, this isn’t is a problem that can be fixed just by people reading the biblical book of Nehemiah. The biblical text gives only small, often cryptic, windows into Nehemiah’s life, with mysterious gaps throughout. It is into these gaps that Dov Zakheim steps, bringing with him not only knowledge of the biblical text and commentators, medieval and modern, but also his extensive familiarity with politics and statecraft. This is the real “value-add” of Zakheim’s Nehemiah. Having served as both Under Secretary and Deputy Under Secretary of Defense in the United States government, Zakheim has a comprehensive background in the practical aspects of governmental politics. He draws out and explicates the political background lying behind Nehemiah’s actions and interactions throughout the biblical text.

As the book of Nehemiah is often completely silent on these matters, much of Zakheim’s explanations are unavoidably speculative. However, this just emphasizes how necessary this process is, as without this speculation there would be so much missing from the story. Zakheim’s reasoned filling-in of the narrative creates a continuous and comprehensible story for his readers to follow. There are times, however, where it seems like he leans too hard on modern political realities in a way that leads to anachronism. Not every situation from Persian-ruled Judea will have an exact parallel in the history of contemporary Israel and the West. Zakheim’s readings of the biblical narrative sometimes therefore obscure as much as they illuminate. By and large, however, Zakheim’s readings seem to be faithful and helpful representations of the biblical Nehemiah.

An interesting feature of Zakheim’s Nehemiah is the consistent emphasis on tension between religion and statecraft. Early on, Zakheim quotes the rabbinic critique of Nehemiah for asking God to remember his good accomplishments. Then throughout the book he suggests additional reasons why Hazal may have disapproved of Nehemiah. He emphasizes how this may already be foreshadowed in the biblical text itself, in the relationship between Nehemiah and his more famous priestly contemporary, Ezra. The biblical text records very little in the way of interaction between these two figures, outside of mutual but separate participation in a few ceremonies. Zakheim argues that the reason Ezra does not seem to have been enlisted in Nehemiah’s state-building efforts is that Nehemiah saw Ezra as nothing but a religious leader, one who had failed to make any real impact on his community. Nehemiah felt that only someone fully involved in the practical life of the community would be successful. While this reading does not contradict the biblical text, it is also far from evident from the text itself. Minimally, it presents an interesting window into the worldview of the author, and perhaps also of the Modern Orthodox community writ-large.

While I overall enjoyed reading Nehemiah, there are two trends in the book that negatively affected my reading experience. The first is the random digressions that Zakheim sometimes makes. In the middle of talking about the political and practical aspects of Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem, it was weird to suddenly encounter an in-depth discussion of whether the Jerusalemites had been violating biblical or rabbinic commandments while Nehemiah was away. There are numerous occasions where there is a side-discussion like this, one that might have been appropriate for a footnote but certainly not for the main body of the text. Being so out of place, it makes the reader feel like they’ve stumbled out of Zakheim’s book on the biblical character and into one of the secondary commentators, traditional and critical, that he so extensively footnotes. Secondly, scattered throughout the book, perhaps only once or twice per chapter, there are words that belong to a much higher level of vocabulary than the rest of the book. This is not inherently problematic, and Zakheim is clearly smart enough that one doesn’t suspect him of artificially forcing fancy language into his writing in order to sound intelligent. But it is jarring. These words just feel like a rather obvious authorial and editorial oversight. While the words’ meanings are usually clear enough from context that I was able to get by without googling any definitions, these words distract from an otherwise enjoyable reading experience.

Despite these critiques, Nehemiah: Statesman and Sage is an informative and enjoyable read, recommended to anyone looking to know more about this oft-overlooked figure from the Jewish tradition, particularly where it comes to the practical and political realities of his day.

 

Rav Hershel Schachter, the International Bet Din for Agunot, and the Politics of Rabbinic Authority

Rav Hershel Schachter, the International Bet Din for Agunot, and the Politics of Rabbinic Authority

Rav Hershel Schachter  (henceforth RHS) recently published a somewhat controversial letter, co-signed by several other rabbinic luminaries, regarding an international beit din (henceforth IBD) that has been attempting to resolve cases of agunot. The letter attacked the bet dins rulings quite strongly. In the first paragraph, RHS made it quite clear that he regarded the writings of the IBD as mistaken from beginning to end.It is clear that the IBDs rulings have fallen far short of RHShalakhic standards, though RHS provides no actual halakhic argumentation. This, however, is not what has made the letter controversial.

The letter has been controversial due to the nature of paragraphs following the first one. These paragraphs make it clear that regardless of the halakhic problems with the IBDs rulings, RHS sees a more fundamental problem with their project. Resolving cases of agunot involves highly sensitive socio-halakhic issues, and as such RHS says that they must be dealt with only by the greatest of authorities. Thus not only is the IBD ruling poorly, theyre not even qualified to rule at all.

This approach has caused many to term RHSletter political,which has itself caused pushback from people who insist that RHS is above petty power-plays. However, I would argue that politicalis in fact the correct term for the article, but that this should not be understood as a petty power-play[1]. Rather, it is likely an attempt to take what RHS sees as the best route, perhaps the only route, to resolving issues of agunot.

The first step necessary to understanding this is to realize that politicsessentially refers to issues of power and authority in a society. The most common manifestation of this is governance, but it has others. The second step is to understand the deep importance of politics to halakhah and the Jewish tradition. We will demonstrate this by examining two mishnayot from masekhet Rosh HaShanah.

The mishnayot at the end of the second perek of Rosh HaShanah discuss the sighting of the new moon and the establishing of the calendar, a matter of critical importance.

It once happened that two [witnesses] came and testified: We saw it in the morning [of the twenty-ninth] in the east, and in the evening [of the thirtieth] in the west. Said Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri: [Its impossible for them to have seen the new moon in the morning, since the new moon is only visible in the west at evening, thus] they are false witnesses. However, when they came to Yavneh, Rabban Gamliel [who knew through astronomical calculations that the new moon should have been visible on the evening of the thirtieth] accepted their testimony. On another occasion two witnesses came and testified: We saw it in its expected time [on the night preceding the thirtieth] but on the night of its intercalation [the thirty-first] it was not seen, and Rabban Gamliel accepted their testimony. Said Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas: They are false witnesses. How can they testify that a woman has given birth when on the next day her belly is still [swollen appearing to be] between her teeth? Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: I approve of your words. Rabban Gamliel sent him [Rabbi Yehoshua] a message: I decree upon you that you come to me with your staff and money on the day which according to you will be Yom Kippur. (Rosh HaShanah 2:8-9)

These mishnayot feature disagreements on matters of halakhah but no halakhic argumentation. They depict rabbis, who undoubtedly thought their opinions were halakhically correct while their oppositionswere not, making authoritative statements without explanation. This culminates in Rabban Gamliels command to Rabbi Yehoshua to come before him on the day that R. Yehoshua considered to be Yom Kippur, in violation of the sanctity of the day. The mishnayot then present two attempts to explain to R. Yehoshua why he should be ok with listening to Rabban Gamliel.

Rabbi Akivah went [to Rabbi Yehoshua] and found him in great distress [that he was ordered to violate the day that was Yom Kippur according to his calculation], he said to him, I can bring you proof that whatever Rabban Gamliel has done is valid for it says: The following are God’s appointed holy days that you will designate in their appointed times(Leviticus 23:4), whether they are designated in their proper time, or not at their proper time, I have no holy days save these.

Akivah presents a religious argument. God has stated that the dates of the holidays are not a matter of objective fact but of the decision of the Jews, and so R. Yehoshua is not violating any objective sanctity when going along with the official decision. While this is a good argument, R. Yehoshua appears to be unmoved, indicating that this does not get to the heart of his issue.

He [Rabbi Yehoshua] came to Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas who said to him: If we question the ruling of the Bet Din of Rabban Gamliel we must question the ruling of every Bet Din from the times of Moshe up to the present day as it says: And Moshe ascended with Aharon Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders of Israel(Exodus 24:9). Why weren’t the names of the elders specified? To show that every group of three [sages], that form a Bet Din, is considered as the Bet Din of Moshe and Aharon [and that if one came to contest a verdict of a Bet Din saying, is this Bet Din authoritative as the Bet Din of Moshe and Aharon? We must say, that they are as prominent as those whose names were not mentioned.] He [Rabbi Yehoshua] took his staff and his money and went to Yavneh to Rabban Gamliel on the day of Yom Kippur according to his calculation. Rabban Gamliel rose and kissed him on his head and said to him: Come in peace my master and my disciple, my master in wisdom and my disciple because you have accepted my words.

Dosa Ben Harkinas presents a political argument. There are certain religious, halakhic, issues that are essentially political issues. The calendar is chief among these[2]. The dates of the holidays are a significant element in the unity and identity of the nation, and as such their establishment must be done by an authority of such political power so as to be unchallenged throughout the nation, as Moshe and aharon were unchallenged. This political arguments rings true in R. Yehoshuas ears and he submits to Rabban Gamliel.

RHS letter is strikingly reminiscent of these mishnayot. Though it is clear that he disagrees with the halakhic rulings of the IBD, he is more concerned for the political problems of the issue of agunot. If a woman is considered by some people to still be married and by some to have been freed, then some people will consider her able to remarry and some will not, and some will consider any children from a remarriage to be mamzerim and some will not. RHS therefore argues that no one but an unquestionable, across-the-board accepted author should be deciding issues of agunot. That way there will never be any question about these womens status. Just as Rabban Gamliel stated that R. Yehoshua had to submit to his authority regarding the calendar, RHS stated that the IBD has to submit to a greater halakhic authority regarding agunot (Notably, RHS at no point in the letter suggests that he himself is qualified to be the central authority on resolving cases of agunot).

All of that said, the fact that its so easy to draw analogy between a case from two thousand years ago to modern politics is telling. There are significant differences between todays society and that described in the Mishnah, and these differences might indicate that a different approach is necessary.

First off, people dont take to authority the same way. Autonomy and independence are hallmarks of our era. This doesnt mean that people wont accept authority, but they are much more reticent to accept it without justification. If RHSletter included his halakhic argumentation for his rejection of the IBD’s rulings, or even just his reasoning for his statement that only a universal authority can rule on agunot, people would have been a lot more likely to accept the letter.

Second, we havent had a central rabbinic authority for most of the last two millennia. We have had great rabbinic figures, but as time goes on they have been increasingly fewer and farther between. The argument that the resolution of agunot issues ought to be left to a central authority presupposes the existence of, or at least the potential for, a central authority that could ultimately prove to be untenable.

Finally, the importance of agunot issues cuts both ways. It can be a reason to be stringent, to make sure that everyone accepts every resolution. But that could lead to agunot being held hostage to potentially non-required stringencies. The need for universal acceptance requires either universal authority of a single standard or just universal acceptance of many standards. Which will ultimately be the proper direction is not for me to say.

UPDATE: Important and insightful points in the comments.

[1] This is not to say that no one has impugned RHSmotives in a more explicit manner. People have done so, and for these people I can provide no excuse or justification.

[2] See I Kings 12:26-33, and Abarbanel on verses 32-33.

Politics and Prophecy: Binyamin Lau’s Jeremiah

Politics and Prophecy: Binyamin Lau’s Jeremiah

Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Laus Jeremiah is not about the biblical book of Jeremiah so much as it is about the prophet Jeremiah himself. While in some sense a commentary on the book of Jeremiah, Jeremiah is structured according to the chronology of Jeremiahs life. Thus, while the book goes through and explains each chapter, the order of the chapters has been drastically rearranged, due to erratic chronology of the book of Jeremiah. As each chapter is explained, Lau draws the readers attention to what the prophet must have been feeling and struggling with at each point in time. In this, Jeremiah emphasizes one of the unique facets of the biblical book of Jeremiah. More than any other biblical text, the book of Jeremiah details the inner life of its hero, describing his pain and frustration with the people, and with God, in great detail. Jeremiah is commanded to rebuke a nation that, from the very beginning, he knows will be unrepentant.

However, Jeremiahs focus on the prophet often comes at the detriment of understanding the book of Jeremiah. Lau readily chops up the book of Jeremiah in order to arrange it chronologically, but he in no place provides even a guess as to why the book might have been in its original, non-chronological, order to begin with. The closest to be found is an off-hand comment in the introduction.

The Book of Jeremiah is hard to follow. Some chapters seem coherent and complete, while others appear to be disjointed, as if the pages of the original manuscript had been scattered and haphazardly rearranged. Perhaps its time they should be. (pg. xxi)

The lack of any attention given to why the original Jeremiah is in a non-chronological order means that reading Jeremiah will make little difference in the ability of a reader to read and comprehend the biblical book. A discussion of the thematic breakdowns of the biblical Jeremiah and the way that affects the division and placement of the chapters would be much more helpful in enabling independent access to the biblical text.

Lau’s Jeremiah

One theme that Jeremiah does focus on heavily is Politics. Each section of the book starts with a discussion of the historical and political background of that time period. Lau discusses the rise and fall of the international empires of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia and the way these empires affected the small kingdom of Judah, often subsumed under one of the empires as a vassal state. To this end, Lau marshals historical records from all over, from Assyrian and Babylonian records to the writings of Josephus. This also allows for ample discussion on the foreign policies of the various kings of Judah and the political events behind them. Jeremiah also draws the reader’s attention to the domestic politics at play in Jeremiahs time — the tensions between the upper castes of society, both the religious and political leadership, and the lower classes.

While the common people of Judea were generally intractable, they did occasionally begin to listen to Jeremiahs rebukes. The leadership, however, was a very different story. It is the role of the prophet to challenge the status quo and the power structures behind it, and this launched Jeremiah into direct conflict with the Kingship and the Priesthood. Lau details how Jeremiahs relationship to the Kingship changed with each king. His relationship with Josiah was entirely positive, while his relationship with Jehoiakim was entirely negative, and his relationship with Zedekiah was more complex, changing as the king vacillated back and forth between following Gods word and fearfully following his advisors.

The discussion of the priesthood highlights Jeremiahs anti-establishment position. As Lau points out, though Jeremiah was himself from a priestly family, it had long fallen out of political favor and no longer performed the services in the Temple. Because of his lineage, Jeremiah represented a threat to the existing priestly power-structure, even before he began prophesying. After becoming a prophet, however, he was enough of a threat that he saw pushback, not just from the priests but from another, more sinister, group — the false prophets. Lau’s Jeremiah shows how the false prophets, like Jeremiah and the real prophets, represented a group that stood outside the establishment. Unlike the real prophets, however, the false prophets preached complacency in the face of the word of God, and maintaining the status quo no matter what its iniquities.

This emphasis on the political is more than just part of Laus method in understanding the book of Jeremiah. The whole goal of Jeremiah is to affect the political arena. The book is an attempt to build a bridge within Israeli society in particular, and the Jewish community in general, between modern cultureour world todayand the multilayered Jewish tradition over the generations(pg. xi). It was written to show how great and relevantthe Bible can be (pg. xiii). Lau hopes that his book will affect Israeli society (pg. xiii), bringing the words of the prophets into the heart of our political, social, and cultural discourse(pg. xiv). His aim is that Jeremiah will be part of the effort to rectify the ills of the Jewish stateto reduce socioeconomic disparity, to break down the walls that divide us, to bridge language gaps, to include rather than rejectto rebuild a Jewish identity, a Jewish culture that will shed light and goodness upon all that it touches(pg. 225).

This political orientation is not alien to Jeremiah. As Lau points out,

The prophet might be regarded as something of a public intellectual, a man of letters. An eternal critic, an outsider to the system, a gadfly who mustpersuade his audience of the truth of his wordsand of the mortal danger of ignoring them. (pg. xiv)

Prophecy is inherently political. Its purpose is to engender change in society. Prophets of God arise when the status quo is corrupt and needs to be shaken up. Jeremiah carries forward this prophetic role, by trying to show the messages Jeremiah was tasked to deliver to his society and to ours. The biblical book of Jeremiah served as a witness to the people of antiquity, regarding the very political life and lessons of the prophet. Lau’s Jeremiah does the same for a modern audience. 

Parashat Behar 5775 – Shemitah and Yovel: Tension or Continuum?

Parashat Behar 5775 – Shemitah and Yovel: Tension or Continuum?

 

Parashat Behar focuses largely, though not entirely, on the laws of Shemitah and Yovel, the Sabbatical and Jubilee years respectively[1]. These laws are often seen as a continuum, with one the former flowing naturally into the latter. Shemitah occurs every 7th year, when all of the Jews of the land of Israel must declare their land ownerless and let it lie fallow for a whole year; they may neither sow nor reap in the land. Yovel occurs every 50th year, just after every 7th Shemitah year. In Yovel, all sales of land are nullified and the lands are returned to their owner, and all slaves are set free. Thus Shemitah entails a nullification of dominance over the land, and Yovel entails a revoking of sales and ownership. However, this depiction runs across a critical flaw when it comes to the textual depiction of the return of lands and slaves in Vayikra 25:13, “In this year of Yovel you shall return every man to his portion [of land].” The text does not depict the return of lands as something separate from the freeing of slaves. In fact, it does not describe the return of lands at all. Rather it talks about the return of slaves as free individuals to their ancestral homelands. Thus Shemitah and Yovel are in fact conflicting, not continuous. Shemitah involves people stepping back from the land and their ownership of it, while Yovel requires people coming close to the land of their families. The former creates a sense of distance and otherness from the land, while the latter conditions a sense of familiarity and identity with it.

The tension can be resolved by reformulating the concept of the Yovel in a way that focuses on ownership after all. However, it is in the reverse way of it was formulated before. Instead of Yovel being about whether or not the land belongs to us, it’s about whether or not we belong to the land. Thus the whole of the Yovel/Shemitah passage can be summed up conceptually as, “The land doesn’t belong to us so much as we belong to the land.” Thus Shemitah and Yovel do in fact form a continuum, as we first recognize every 7 years that we do not really own the land, and then in the 50th year we take yet one step further away from ownership and recognize that we, in fact, are creatures of the land we are born on and are in a sense owned by it.

At this point it is worth bringing up a conceptual dichotomy discussed by Rav Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar)[2] regarding the difference between what he calls “earth” (אדמה) and “land” (ארץ). Rav Shagar says that “earth” refers to the elemental reality that all humans are born out of, to what it means to exist as a human being. In contrast, “land” refers to the society people construct, the power-oriented political structures we create. All human have a connection to the earth, and groups of people create their own various lands. In Shemitah we step back from the “land”, renouncing any sense of ultimacy that we attribute to our constructed societies, we recognize that our ownership is anything but absolute. In Yovel, we are still getting back beyond our conditional societies, but the emphasis is not on shattering these false idols, but on getting back to the source, getting back to the basics of what it means to be human. While Yovel is not applicable in our day, Shemitah is made all but negligible by the innovation of the Heter Mekhirah[3], and the number of Jews who live the sort of agrarian lifestyle where these rules are really felt is negligible, it’s important to recognize that these laws still have something to teach us. In our societies, we often become too caught up in the hierarchies and stratifications that we use to categorize and understand the people around us. While these structures are important, we need to step back every now and then and realize that they’re only constructs, and that at the root of it we’re all people. Further, living in these structures causes us to get locked into very particular ways of understanding ourselves, and every now and then we need to get back to our very human essence, and realize that we can choose how we want to define ourselves and our world in the future.

[1] The ideas in this composition are based to some degree on “Father Sky and Mother Earth” by Rav Shagar, found in “On That Day: Sermons and Essays for the holidays of Iyar”, pg. 207-216.

[2] “On That Day”, pg. 37. Note that he also includes a third category, “State” (מדינה), that is absolutely worth reading about but was beyond the scope of this composition.

[3] Literally “Permission of Sale”, wherein land in Israel is sold to a non-jew in order to exempt it from the laws of Shemitah.