What Does That Have to Do With the Price of Tea in China? | Dvar Torah Behar

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This week we read the double parsha of Behar and Bechukosai. Behar mostly deals with the laws of Shmita, the Sabbath of the land, and Yovel, the Jubilee celebration every 50 years. The parsha begins with these words:

“And God spoke to Moses at mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When you come into the land which I give you, then the you shall keep a sabbath on the land to God.”

Rashi quotes a medrash that asks the Talmudic version of “What does that have to do with the price of tea in china?” In this context, the question is “what does the obligation to keep the Shmita have to do with Mount Sinai?” In other words, why does the Torah emphasize that this mitzvah was given at Sinai?

The answer, says the medrash, is to teach us that just as this mitzvah was given at Sinai with all its details, similarly, all the mitzvos given at Sinai were given with all their details. The Torah goes into more detail about the mitzvah of shmita than some of the other mitzvahs. The details of other mitzvahs were given as part of the oral tradition. The verse reminds us that just as all the details of this mitzvah were given at Sinai (in the written Torah) so too all the details of the other mitzvahs were given at Sinai (albeit in the oral Torah).

This answer begs a new, perhaps bigger question. Why did the Torah teach us this lesson in the context of shmita? There are 613 mitzvahs in the Torah. Any of them could have been elucidated in the written Torah and juxtaposed with a superfluous usage of the words Mount Sinai and we would have been able to learn the very same lesson? Is there something unique that we can learn from the fact that the Torah used the mitzvah of shmita to teach us this lesson?

R’ Schwab answers with an important insight.

Many “scholars” have challenged the authenticity of the Torah. They argue that the Torah was written by humans and was not the word of God. They claim that the Torah is just another book, like any other.

Obviously, we vehemently disagree. We adamantly insist that the Torah is Divine. It is the word of God and along with written Scripture, a Divine communication called the oral law taught us all the details of those complicated laws.

Some mitzvahs sound like a man could have thought of them. The civil code is pretty similar to the civil code of many ancient peoples. The prohibitions against murder and theft are reasonable enough that a human could have thought of them on his own.

However the mitzvah of shmita is one of the least likely mitzvahs to have been invented by humans. The law requires that we let the land lie fallow once every seven years. This is a good idea as it gives the land time to regenerate its nutrients. But it is incredibly dumb to force everyone to have their land lie fallow in the same year! Without some sort of Divine Assistance the entire country would starve. A terrible human plan.

No human author would have legislated a law like that. This law in particular, speaks to the Divine authorship of the Torah.

Perhaps this is why the Torah uses this specific mitzvah to teach us that the all of the written Torah and the oral tradition have their origins at Sinai and can be attributed to God alone.

Next week we celebrate Shavuos, the day that we received the Torah from the Almighty. I can think of no better lesson the glean from this week’s Torah reading.

  • tuvia

    have you “vehemently” looked into the work of secular scholars? 

    The biggest problem with this kind of kiruv is that over the
    past one hundred and fifty years the case for more than one author of Torah and
    its genesis over hundreds of years has only gotten stronger.  And it’s not just the Documentary Hypothesis,
    and not just James Kugel.  It’s seven or
    so academic disciplines and one hundred and fifty years of arguing, refining,
    evolving, discarding. And dozens and dozens of authors (frum, secular,
    Catholic, European, American) making contributions to this fascinating field.


    If kiruv fails it is because it offers up indoctrination and
    not education.



    • I have. This is not a proof, nor do I present it as a proof. Nor is it kiruv. It is a reasonable, logical argument. End.

      • Gregory Titievsky

        It’s fine and dandy to bring Shmitta/Yovel as an example (though not a proof). I have a problem of people bringing examples that Rav’s so-and-so garden is doing exceptionally well on 6th year (when the land is supposed to be the lowest in nutrients). Then why are we not mainstreaming shmitta and yovel in our day? Is it because it’s only a rabbinic mitzvah and not a Torah one? When would it become a Torah one? When Moshiach comes?

        Also, do we have any evidence that up until destruction of Beit HaMikdash Rishon mitzvot of Shmitta and Yovel were observed?

        Same for aliyah l’regel which is a requirement for all able-bodied men. That leaves borders defenseless – do we have any evidence that this mitzvah was observed by the entirety of the Jewish people?

        Just because we have mitzvot in the Torah, can we assume that they were observed by vast majority of the population?

        • The issue is not whether it was done or whether the promise was kept. The issue is that the promise was made.