The following essay deals with the themes of Shemittah, Shabbat and Shavuot. It was originally prepared two weeks ago for Parshat Behar, which deals with the laws of Shemittah, and is geared towards both that Parshah and the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, which Jews around the world will be celebrating beginning motzei Shabbos, the evening of Saturday June 11. Note: For a shorter idea on the themes of Shemittah, Sefirat HaOmer and Shavuot, please see last week’s article, “The Moments in the Middle;” for an essay on this week’s Parshah, Bamidbar, please see “The Burden Bearers;” for an essay on the book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot, please see “Nietzsche and Naomi.”
“And the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest a Sabbath to the Lord. You may sow your field for six years, and for six years you may prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce, but in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete Sabbath, a Sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field, nor shall you prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest, and you shall not pick the grapes you had set aside [for yourself], [for] it shall be a year of Sabbath for the land. And [the produce of] the Sabbath of the land shall be yours to eat for you, for your male and female slaves, and for your hired worker and resident who live with you, all of its produce may be eaten [also] by your domestic animals and by the beasts that are in your land.” (Lev. 25:1-7).
Chazal wondered (see Rashi to Lev. 25:1): Why does the Torah go out of its way to tell us that the laws recorded in this week’s Parshah, Behar—the laws of shemittah, i.e. the “Sabbath of the land,” along with a series of other socioeconomic laws related to the sale of property and redemption of slaves—were given to Moshe “on Mount Sinai?” This would seem to be a redundant piece of information, inasmuch as the entire Torah was given to Moshe at Har Sinai! Ostensibly, there must be some special connection between the laws recorded in this week’s Parshah and “Har Sinai,” which warranted their being singled out in this way.
Indeed, carefully comparing the details of the laws in our Parshah with the details of the revelation at Sinai yields the following compelling connections between the two:
- ספירת שבע שבתות: After outlining the shemittah cycle—six years of working the land followed by a year of letting it lie fallow—the Torah tells us that this cycle is itself to function as part of a larger, fifty year agricultural cycle known as the jubilee: “And you shall count for yourself [וספרת לך] seven sabbatical [שבתות] years, seven years seven times. And the days of these seven sabbatical years shall amount to forty nine years for you” (Lev. 25:8). The mitzvah to “count” these “seven weeks [of years]” parallels the mitzvah to “count” the “seven weeks” that lead from Pesach to Shavuot, the day that Bnei Yisrael received the Torah at Har Sinai: “And you shall count for yourselves [וספרתם לכם] from the morrow of the rest day [שבת], from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering seven weeks; they shall be complete” (Lev. 23:15).
- שופר: The Torah tells us that the onset of the jubilee year must be announced by the sounding of the shofar: “You shall proclaim [with] the shofar blasts, in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month; on the Day of Atonement, you shall sound the shofar throughout your land” (Lev. 25:9). The revelation at Sinai was likewise marked by shofar blasts: “It came to pass on the third day when it was morning, that there were thunder claps and lightning flashes, and a thick cloud was upon the mountain, and a very powerful blast of a shofar, and the entire nation that was in the camp shuddered… The sound of the shofar grew increasingly stronger; Moses would speak and God would answer him with a voice” (Exod. 19:16-19).
- יובל: Related to the previous point: We have already mentioned that the fiftieth year in the shemittah cycle is referred to as the “jubilee:” “it shall be a jubilee for you” (Lev. 25:10). The Hebrew term for “jubilee” is yovel [יובל] and it is a term which in origin is connected to the blowing of the shofar. Indeed, the term appears with precisely this meaning in the story of the revelation at Sinai: “No hand shall touch [the mountain]… when the ram’s horn [יבל] sounds a long, drawn out blast, [then] they may ascend the mountain” (Exod. 19:13).
- וקדשתם: The Torah tells us that we must “sanctify” the yovel year, as follows: “And you shall sanctify [וקדשתם] the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom [for slaves] throughout the land for all who live on it. It shall be a jubilee for you, and you shall return, each man to his property, and you shall return, each man to his family” (Lev. 25:10). The “sanctification” of the fiftieth year recalls the “sanctification” required of Bnei Yisrael in preparation for the fiftieth day of their exodus from Egypt, on which they were to receive the Torah at Sinai: “And the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and sanctify them [וקדשתם] them today and tomorrow, and they shall wash their garments” (Exod. 19:10; cf. v. 14, 22-23).
- עבדים השבים לארץ אחוזתם: Also related to Lev. 25:10: The laws of the yovel mandate the freeing of slaves and the return of ancestral lands. There are obvious parallels here with the scene at Sinai, where a group of newly freed Hebrew salves were also in the process of returning to their ancestral land.
- כי לי הארץ: In “justifying” the shemittah / yovel laws, Hashem declares: “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land belongs to Me [כי לי הארץ], for you are strangers and [temporary] residents with Me” (Lev. 25:23). Before the revelation at Sinai, Hashem provides nearly the exact same “justification” for His forging of a covenant with Bnei Yisrael: “And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for the entire earth belongs to Me [כי לי כל הארץ]”” (Exod. 19:5).
Taken together, the data assembled here may suggest that in some sense, the laws of shemittah / yovel are actually patterned after the nation’s experience at Sinai. Inversely, and perhaps more novelly, we might say that the experience at Sinai was actually structured to anticipate the experience of shemittah / yovel. Thinking of Sinai in these terms is interesting because it would imply that, though there are certainly many themes to be associated with this mountain and all that it symbolizes, its central theme, if you will, is essentially socioeconomic; that, underneath it all, the message to be associated with Sinai is fundamentally one of “shemittah,” broadly construed: of the right of rest—of “Shabbat”—for all: God and humans, freemen and servants, animals and land.
In this vein, it is instructive to note the running relationship that one observes throughout the Torah between Sinai and what we might call the “Shabbat-cycle laws”—a term which we will use throughout this essay to encompass:
(a) the laws of the Shabbat day itself;
(b) the laws of shemittah—the so-called “sabbatical year,” which our Parshah explicitly dubs a “year of Shabbat” (Lev. 25:2ff)—and of yovel, the seventh such sabbatical year, which is also described using the language of “Shabbat” (Lev. 25:8ff);
(c) the laws granting rest to slaves, which are specifically connected to the Shabbat (Exod. 20:10; 23:12), to shemittah (Lev. 25:6; cf. Exod. 21:2ff), and to yovel (Lev. 25:10, 15ff).
Indeed, it seems that every time one finds Sinai in the Torah, one finds along with it mention of the day of rest, or the year of rest; or of the resting of slaves, as mandated in the year by our Parshah; or, in at least one case, of another form of the “6/7 cycle,” more broadly. Thus:
- It is worth remembering that Sinai appears in the Torah long before the revelation of Exod. 20. It first appears in Exod. 3, before the exodus from Egypt, as the site where Hashem promises Moshe that the Hebrew slaves will be freed. The freeing of slaves is thus the first association we as readers have with Sinai and, in many ways, this sets the spirit for all that will follow in connection with that mountain throughout the Torah.
- It could be argued that the command to observe the Shabbat (Exod. 20:8-11) constitutes the climax of the revelation at Sinai. Its placement at the middle of the Ten Commandments and its distinction as the longest of those commandments certainly underscore its centrality in that context.
- The very first mitzvot listed in the law code that immediately follows the revelation at Sinai concern the freeing of slaves in the seventh year: “Should you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work [for] six years, and in the seventh [year], he shall go out to freedom without charge… (Exod. 21:2ff).” Apparently, this is the primary takeaway of the Sinai experience.
- After the revelation at Sinai, Hashem instructs Moshe to ascend Har Sinai and receive there further laws from Him. Yet Moshe does not immediately gain an audience with Hashempon ascending the mountain. Instead: “Moses went up to the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. And the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days, and He called to Moses on the seventh day from within the cloud” (Exod. 24:15-16). Here, again, is that 6/7 motif—which fits right in given the connections we have traced thus far, and works especially well if we view it as some sort of ritualistic foreshadowing of the laws that Moshe was to receive in the days to come (for more on this, see footnotes 4 and 5).
- After Moshe ascends the mountain, we get a long pause in the Sinai story, during which are recorded the details of the construction of the mishkan i.e. the Tabernacle. We will not attempt to address here the narrative function of that interlude. Of great interest to us, however, is the material that the Torah uses to transition us back to Sinai when the time comes to return to that story. To wit: Moshe descends the mountain in Exod. 32. Immediately before that, at the end of Exod. 31, we find—without any apparent connection to the material that preceded it—a reiteration of the Shabbat laws: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “And you, speak to the children of Israel and say: ‘Only keep My Sabbaths! For it is a sign between Me and you for your generations, to know that I, the Lord, make you holy… Between Me and the children of Israel, it is forever a sign that [in] six days the Lord created the heaven and the earth, and on the seventh day He ceased and rested”” (Exod. 31:13-17). Here again, then, is that juxtaposition between Shabbat and Sinai!
- And lest one dismiss that juxtaposition as purely coincidental, consider the following: When Moshe descends from Sinai, in Exod. 32, he is greeted by the sight of the chet ha’egel, i.e. the sin of the Golden Calf, and breaks the tablets as a result. Shortly thereafter, he is called back up to Sinai to receive yet another set of tablets. Then he descends again, in Exod. 34. And what laws might we expect Moshe to discuss immediately following his return? Sure enough, it is the laws of the Shabbat which, once again, bookend the Sinai story: “Moses called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: “These are the things that the Lord commanded be done. Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to the Lord…”” (Exod. 35:1-2).
So to summarize what we have said until this point: (a) We observed that the Torah (Lev. 25:1ff; 26:46; 27:34) implies a unique relationship between shemittah and other Shabbat-cycle laws, on the one hand, and the site of Har Sinai, on the other. (b) We traced how this relationship is expressed through the connections between the laws in our Parshah and the revelation at Sinai. (c) We suggested, in light of (a) and (b), that perhaps the Sinai experience was deliberately structured to prefigure the experience of these Shabbat-cycle laws. (d) In support of the notion that the Shabbat-cycle is at the center of the Sinai experience, we noted further instances throughout the Torah in which these two motifs—Sinai and the Shabbat-cycle—appear hand-in-hand.
Of course, the proximate benefit that accrues to us on account of this analysis (if indeed the analysis is a sound one) is that it enables us to answer the question with which we began, namely, מה ענין שמיטה אצל הר סיני: Why did the Torah, at the start of this week’s Parshah, make a point of telling us that the shemittah-related laws—specifically these laws—were given to Moshe at Sinai? Now that we have a better sense of the way these two motifs intersect and interact throughout the Torah, we readily appreciate the literary impetus for our Parshah’s introductory passuk: even while all laws were indeed given at Sinai, it makes thematic sense, in light of the longstanding relationship between shemittah and Sinai, to draw explicit connections between the two. And if indeed these laws were the subject of special attention at Sinai—a possibility we explored in footnotes 4 and 5—then the insight communicated by our Parshah’s introductory passuk is not merely thematic, but historical as well.
But we have not yet addressed the theological implications of these insights. Let us grant that there is a deliberate textual relationship between Sinai and the laws of the Shabbat-cycle. Let us even suppose that these laws are as central to the Sinai revelation, and everything concomitant upon that revelation, as we proposed above. Still, we might ask: Why? Why, of all the laws in the Torah which might have served as the template for the Sinai experience, were those of the Shabbat-cycle singled out for distinction? It goes without saying that the concept of Shabbat is foundational for the Jewish faith. Yet can we explain its apparent emphasis at Sinai in terms more substantive than this?
With some context, it would seem that we can.
In the Middle Ages, several prominent Jewish scholars began attempts to officially formulate the “fundamental principles” of Jewish belief. Among the first to compile such a list was R. Saadiah Gaon, though his was ultimately eclipsed in its acclaim by the “Thirteen Principles of Faith” outlined by the Rambam several centuries later. This latter list was then reduced into three principal categories by R. Yosef Albo, author of the Sefer Ha-Ikkarim, which are traditionally simplified as follows: (1) creation—the belief that God brought the world into existence; (2) revelation—the belief that God gave us the Torah at Sinai and communicates through the prophets; and (3) redemption—the belief in a Messianic eschatology and other related notions.
Since R. Albo’s time, Jewish scholars—sometimes referring directly to him, other times not—have found numerous expressions of his tripartite scheme in earlier Jewish sources. Thus, for instance, each of the shloshes regalim, i.e. the three “pilgrimage festivals,” has been associated different one of these beliefs: Pesach corresponds to creation (of the nation); Shavuot, to revelation; and Sukkot, to redemption. Others observed that each of the three blessings accompanying the recitation of the shema in our morning prayers reflect these themes: the first, about the creation of light, corresponds to creation; the second, with its references to the giving of the Torah, corresponds to revelation; and the third, which concludes “redeemer of Israel,” corresponds to redemption. Likewise for each of the three principal shemoneh esrei prayers we recite on Shabbat: in the shemoneh esrei prayer of Maariv, the vayechulu insertion recalls Hashem’s act of creation; the yismach Moshe insertion, at Shacharis, recalls His revelation; and the atah echad insertion, at Mincha, anticipates the redemptive rest that we will enjoy at the end-of-days.
This last observation was actually made by R. Yaakov ben Asher in his monumental work on Jewish law known as “the Tur,” and it is this example which brings us back to our initial inquiry. For if, as the Tur claims, those who penned the Shabbat liturgy patterned it upon the structure of creation-revelation-redemption, theirs was not an arbitrary aesthetic choice; rather, it reflects the tripartite nature with which Hashem invests the Shabbat (or, more broadly, “the Shabbat cycle”), within the Torah itself.
The connection between Shabbat and creation hardly requires elaboration: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy… for in six days did God create the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in it, and on the seventh day, He rested” (Exod. 20:7-10). What our study enables us to recognize, though, are the ways in which the Shabbat evolves from there into a symbol associated with the other two legs of our triad, as well, and how it is Sinai, specifically, that serves as the point of intersection in this respect. Hashem reveals the Torah upon Sinai after “seven Sabbaths” pass from the time of the exodus; He positions the laws of the Shabbat at the climax of that revelation; and He highlights the laws of the Shabbat-cycle in both the content and the literary presentation of the various encounters between Him and Moshe that occur in the anticipation to/aftermath of that revelation. As a result, the experience of revelation supplies, in turn, both the model of and the mandate towards redemption: the stage when Shabbat reaches its societal state; when, every seven years—and even more pronouncedly, every seven sabbaticals—those lands and slaves which, based on economics alone, might not have been “redeemed” (Heb. גאל: see Lev. 25:24ff), nevertheless find redemption within the Shabbat-cycle and its ethos of rest and renewal.
סוף מעשה, מחשבה תחלה, our sages teach us: it was for the purpose of Shabbat that Hashem brought the world into existence. And it is only thus—through its redemptive power, revealed to us at Sinai—that the Shabbat fulfills its role as the telos of Hashem’s creation.
May we live by the “spirit of Sinai” this Shabbat, the Shabbat of Shavuot, and for all Shabbats thereafter.
Shabbat shalom and chag sameach!
 It can be no coincidence that term שבתון/שבת appears six times in direct connection with the shemittah (Lev. 25:2-6) and a seventh if one includes the term in its verb form, ושבתה (Lev. 25:2).
 Incidentally: Consider the language used by Hashem in that context: “And the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry because of their slave drivers, for I know their pains. I have descended to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and to bring them up from that land… And this is the sign for you that it was I who sent you. When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve [תעבדן] God on this mountain” (Exod. 3:7-12). The central motifs here—the exodus from Egypt, and the notion of Bnei Yisrael as God’s “servants”—reappear together as justification for the slave laws in our Parshah: “For they [i.e. Bnei Yisrael] are My servants [עבדי הם], whom I brought out of the land of Egypt—they shall not be sold as a slave is sold” (Lev. 25:42). So, in effect: the promise made regarding Bnei Yisrael in Exod. 3, fulfilled in Exod. 20, becomes the moral basis for the laws imposed upon them in our Parshah. For those keeping score, this makes one more connection between Sinai and our Parshah to add to our list above.
 And it is clear that these laws are central to the meaning of the Parshah. Chazal certainly thought so, for they assigned as its Haftarah the text of Jer. 34:8-22, which focuses entirely on Bnei Yisrael’s failure to free their slaves in the seventh year. The thematic and literary parallels between that Haftarah and Parshas Behar/Bechukotai are also worth noting in this vein, though that is not our immediate subject here
 Specifically, Hashem says: “Come up to Me to the mountain and remain there, and I will give you the stone tablets, the Torah [תורה, lit. “law”] and the mitzvah [מצוה], which I have written to instruct them” (Exod. 24:12). It may be useful to think about the meaning of these various terms. Presumably, the “stone tablets” contained the Ten Commandments (though see next footnote). But what exactly is the nature of “Torah” and the “mitzvah” which Hashem promises to “give” Moshe? Chazal interpreted these terms to refer to the Torah Sheb’al Peh, the Oral Law, in its widest sense. Yet if we want to uncover the narrower, plain sense of this passuk, it seems that we should turn to the end of next week’s Parshah, which functions as a sequel to our Parshah and in non-leap years is read together with it. There, in wrapping-up both the laws of our Parshah and the rewards/punishments promised to those who obey/disobey them, the Torah tells us: “These are the statutes, the ordinances, and the laws [תורת] that the Lord gave between Himself and the children of Israel on Mount Sinai, by the hand of Moses” (Lev. 26:46). Shortly later, in summary of a related series of laws regarding the redemption of consecrated people and fields, the Torah tells us: “These are the commandments [מצות] that the Lord commanded Moses to [tell] the children of Israel on Mount Sinai” (Lev. 27:34). Based on this inner-biblical evidence, it would seem that the “Torah” and the “mitzvah” which Hashem refers to in Exod. 24 are none other than the details of shemittah and its associated laws. That other laws were also given at that time can hardly be disputed. Yet here, again, we have what would appear to be further evidence that the laws of shemittah and the Shabbat-cycle more broadly were singled out for distinction when Hashem gave the Torah to Moshe on Sinai.
 In the previous footnote, we cited Exod. 24:12, where Hashem invites Moshe atop Har Sinai and promises to give him there “the stone tablets, the Torah, and the mitzvah.” In that footnote we suggested, based on inner-biblical evidence, that the terms “Torah” and “mitzvah” may each refer to various aspects of the Shabbat-cycle laws; meanwhile, we took it as a given that on the “tablets” were written the Ten Commandments. Yet it may be possible to claim that the laws written on the “tablets”—at least on the first set of tablets—were also specific to the “Shabbat-cycle.” This, to be sure, is not an argument which I would defend vigorously, but the option is sufficiently intriguing that we will raise it nonetheless. To wit: consider the end of Exod. 31. As cited in the main body of this essay, pesukim 12-17 of this perek detail the laws of that Shabbat. Then, the passuk which immediately follows—passuk 18, the last in the perek—tells us: “When He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, stone tablets, written with the finger of God.” Read without any preconceptions, the juxtaposition between the Shabbat laws and the writing of the tablets might suggest that it was specifically the Shabbat laws (and, perhaps, the other Shabbat-cycle laws given at Sinai?) which were written on these tablets. There are a number of observations that point in favor of this approach—or at least, fit nicely with it—as well as some exegetical problems which it would solve. For example: (a) It would allow us to assign specific meanings to all three of the otherwise ambiguous expressions in Exod. 24:12 (“tablets,” “Torah” and “mitzvah”)—meanings which are explicated within the text of the Torah itself, and which are all thematically related to each other. (b) Exod. 31:12 introduces the Shabbat laws with the statement: “The Lord spoke to Moses saying.” Since Hashem had been speaking to Moshe throughout the perek, this introduction might on some level strike us as redundant. If, however, the purpose of the introduction is to signal to us that a change of setting is taking place—to bring us “back to Sinai,” after the long digression about the mishkan, and to let us know that what follows are the laws that Hashem had been busy teaching Moshe up on the mountain when we left the two of them back in Exod.24 —then the passuk would be warranted. It would then follow that these were the laws recorded on the tablets which Moshe brings down. (c) After Moshe breaks the first set of tablets, Hashem orders Him to return to Sinai and gives him these instructions: “Hew for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones. And I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke” (Exod. 34:1). From this passuk it emerges that it is Hashem who will be inscribing the second set of tablets; yet, later in the chapter, Hashem orders Moshe to do the inscribing, which Moshe does: “The Lord said to Moses: “Inscribe these words for yourself, for according to these words I have formed a covenant with you and with Israel. He was there with the Lord for forty days and forty nights; he ate no bread and drank no water, and He inscribed upon the tablets the words of the Covenant, the Ten Commandments” (Exod. 34:27-28). So, who inscribed the second tablets—Hashem or Moshe? Perhaps the answer is both: Moshe inscribed them with the “Ten Commandments” [עשרת הדברים] (Exod. 34:28); Hashem inscribed upon them “the words that were on the first tablets” [הדברים אשר היו על הלחת הראשנים] (Exod. 34:1). Of course, if that is the case, then the “Ten Commandments” and “the words that were on the first tablets” are not one and the same. What, then, was inscribed upon on the first tablets? Perhaps, as we have been suggesting per the pesukim at the end of in Exod. 33, it was a series of laws related specifically to Shabbat and related themes. (d) The Torah consistently refers to the tablets as “לחות העדות,” “tablets of testimony.” It is not immediately clear what the precise nature of this “testimony” is. By connecting the “tablets of the testimony” to the laws of Shabbat, specifically, we would clarify this ambiguity: The concept of “testimony” in Jewish tradition is often associated with the Shabbat, specifically (עי’ ריטב”א פסחים צט:, רא”ש פסחים פרק י’ סימן טו, טור או”ח רסח), because those who celebrate this day “testify” thereby to Hashem’s role as Creator of the universe. (e) Though this hardly constitutes “evidence” for the approach suggested here, it is hard to resist mentioning, in light of that approach, Chazal’s read of Exod. 32:16: “Now the tablets were God’s work, and the inscription was God’s inscription, engraved [חרות] on the tablets.” In the word חרות, “engraved,” Chazal heard echoes of the word חרות, “freedom,” and taught on this basis that “there is no בן חורין, no freeman, except he who toils in Torah” (Avot 6:2). How beautifully this Midrash reads if indeed the content of the tablets was devoted in its entirety to the Shabbat-cycle laws, whose telos is none other than the universalization of חרות! (For another read of that Midrash, though, see the 2015 Pesach article, “The Philology of Freedom.”)
 The root ג.א.ל is in fact a leitwort (“key word”) in the Parshas of Behar and Bechukosai, appearing a total of nineteen times in the former and eleven in the latter—by far the highest concentration of that root in the entire Torah. For more on this theme, see the 2014 article on Parshas Behar, “Problem Finders vs. Problem Fixers”).