Photo Credit: Asher Schwartz

Pennies from Heaven – Behar



Parshat Behar begins with the mitzvah of Shemittah. There are many reasons given for the mitzvah of Shemittah, some mystical, connected to the number seven, some practical, like that mentioned in the Gemara (Brachot 35b). In a regular year Rava instructed his talmidim not to come to the Beit HaMidrash to learn Torah in the months of Nissan and Tishrei, but to rather go out in the fields to work. In these two months of heightened agricultural activity, they would make sufficient parnassah to support them for the other ten months of the year that they were learning. Two months each year where Am Yisrael were working and not learning, multiplied by six years – makes 12 months. Therefore, once every seven years we take a “time-out,” 12 months of full time Torah study during Shemittah to make up for those 12 months in the previous six years where Am Yisrael did not study Torah.

Chazal also ask why the Torah specifically mentions the mitzvah of Shemittah in connection with Har Sinai. Today I would like to ask another question – why does the mitzvah of Shemittah immediately follow the parsha of Lechem HaPanim and the mekalel? In answering these questions, we will hopefully learn a tremendous mussar haskel to apply to our daily lives.

The “observance” of Shemittah today is practically a non-entity for most of Am Yisrael. Shemittah de’Oraita is not relevant today since we do not yet have the majority of Am Yisrael in the world settled in Eretz Yisrael (we are not that far off). The “observance” of Shemittah in Israel today is de’Rabanan only. I write “observance” in inverted commas, because even for those who live in Israel and supposedly observe Shemittah, it is not what HKB”H originally intended with the mitzvah.

Our “observance” of Shemittah is miniscule at best, limited to checking labels and signs in the supermarket – those who hold by heter mechira and those who are more machmir and only use yevul nochri (imported non-Jewish produce). In chutz la’aretz it is even less, simply checking labels of products imported from Israel, like wine, etc. The impact on our lives is miniscule. Even for those directly involved in agriculture in Israel, most hold by heter mechira and their production schedule in the year of Shemittah is practically unchanged. There are a tiny number of idealistic farmers in Israel who actually observe agricultural Shemittah as stipulated in the Torah and shut everything down, but they are perhaps 0.001% of Am Yisrael.

It is difficult to really comprehend the challenge of Shemittah for anyone who is not a farmer, where your entire parnassah is totally shut down for an entire year. If you are a lawyer, stockbroker, or a businessman – imagine shutting down your law practice, your business for an entire year! Hanging a sign on the window – “On vacation until next September! “During that year you cannot work in other odd jobs or forms of employment – you have to spend the entire year doing only one thing – sitting in the Beit HaMidrash learning and listening to shiurim. The bills don’t stop during that year – there is still education, medical, insurance, rates & taxes, rent, mortgage …. “How will I live in that year? How will I pay the bills?” ……. “Don’t worry, have faith in HKB”H! He will provide!”

And it doesn’t end at just ceasing work. Imagine if you were a supermarket owner – you have spent the last (6th) year fully stocking your shelves, but this year (Shemittah) you are not allowed to sell anything. You still have to open your doors and allow anyone and everyone to come into the supermarket and take whatever they like off the shelves – it is all hefker! You have to watch the throngs entering and leaving your store, removing item after item off the shelves, the fruits of your hard work disappearing before your eyes. This is what Shemittah demands from the farmer.

This is the original concept of Shemittah given on Har Sinai to Am Yisrael, of whom, 99.99% were destined to become farmers when they settled in Eretz Yisrael after its conquest by Yehoshua. If we had Har Sinai today, the contemporary form of the mitzvah of Shemittah would not apply to farmers, but to computer engineers, doctors, graphics artists, lawyers, stockbrokers and businessmen. The agricultural targeting in the Torah simply reflected the predominant reality at the time.

The purpose of Shemittah is not agricultural, although that is its focus in the Torah. The true purpose is to relinquish all misconceptions of control that we may have regarding our parnassah. To recognize that HKB”H is the true and only source of our parnassah, not our brains, not our insight, not the dexterity of our hands, not our creativity, not our long term planning and investments. Yes, we must do our own hishtadlut, but ultimately we are not responsible for our parnassah.

This is the lesson of the Lechem HaPanim – that parnassah comes from a higher source and is channeled to the entire world via the Lechem HaPanim on the Shulchan. Our parnassah is a miracle, just like the Lechem HaPanim is miraculous – it remains fresh an entire week on the Shulchan, defying chemistry and biology.

The danger is in the “hishtadlut” part. When you make the effort, expend the time and energy and skill and creativity, the trap is – you may begin to think that the results are because of your effort. The Lechem HaPanim teaches us that bracha does not exist in a vacuum, you need the bread on the Shulchan to act as a basis for the bracha. You need your minimum effort to be the basis for your parnassah. However, the bracha and the parnassah are from one source only – from HKB”H.

If we detach HKB”H from the equation of parnassah, like the mekalel did when he mocked the Lechem HaPanim, we turn nature, the world, etc. into a power on its own chas vechalila – ”Hashem doesn’t provide parnassah, the global economy does, Hashem does not cause hurricanes, global warming does!”

Shemittah is umbilically connected to the Lechem HaPanim and the mekalel because it is the same principle, not just affecting agriculture, but parnassah in general. With the mitzvah of Shemittah, HKB”H wants us to take a “time-out” from our non-stop hishtadlut, regain our insight into the way things really are, how the world is really run and by Whom. In that sense Shemittah is equivalent to the first commandment “Anochi Hashem Elokecha ….” – given BeHar Sinai.

Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: In the seven year cycle, which year is Mashiach supposed to come?

Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: In the Korban Lechem HaPanim, where were the two bowls of Levonah placed? In Menachot 96a there is machloket. Abba Shaul says the bowls of Levonah are placed directly on the Shulchan between the two stacks of bread. The opposing opinion is that each bowl of Levonah is placed on top of the upper bread in the stack. The halacha is like Abba Shaul – on the Shulchan.

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Eliezer Meir Saidel ([email protected]) is Managing Director of research institute Machon Lechem Hapanim and owner of the Jewish Baking Center which researches and bakes traditional Jewish historical and contemporary bread. His sefer “Meir Panim” is the first book dedicated entirely to the subject of the Lechem Hapanim.