Rabbi Yisrael Shachor
Former Rosh Kollel in Chicago
This verse is related to the requirement that purchased fields are returned to the original owner during the yovel (jubilee) year. But what is the Torah’s message in this verse?
According to the Baal Halachot Gedolot (Bahag), this verse is not counted among the 613 mitzvot. Rather than containing a prohibition against a specific action, this verse establishes that we can only sell our fields in Eretz Yisrael until yovel. In addition, the reason is provided: “for the land belongs to Me”. Eretz Yisrael belongs to HKB”H, and we are mere residents who live in the Land. Therefore, a person can not sell that which does not belong to him.
However, other Rishonim do count this verse as one of the Torah’s negative commandments. Rashi (based on the Torat Kohanim) explains that this prohibition applies to the buyer but not at the point of sale. Rather, the prohibition refers to someone who does not return the land during yovel. This person has transgressed because, de facto, he is perpetuating the sale and making it permanent.
In contrast, the Rambam (Hilchot Shemitah ViYovel 1) writes that the prohibition applies to both the buyer and the seller. If, during the sale, they both agree that the purchase will be forever, then they have both transgressed. Similarly, when it comes to ribit (interest), the prohibition still applies even if both sides – the borrower and the lender – agree. The reasoning is clear: “for the land belongs to Me”. For by specifying that the land is to be sold forever, the parties are, in effect, implying that they believe that the land belongs to them and that they can sell it permanently. Thus, they both transgress this prohibition. The Rambam stresses that if they specifically agreed, their agreement is not binding. His source is the famous halachah: “Whatever the Torah says should not be done – if he did it, it is to no avail.”
Interestingly enough, the Ramban – in his commentary on the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot (Prohibitions 227) – follows the Yerushalmi’s approach that this verse refers to selling to a non-Jew. According to the Ramban, this verse can not be discussing a sale to a Jew, because it is impossible to sell to a Jew forever. However, a sale to a non-Jew can be permanent, because a non-Jew is not obligated in mitzvot and hence does not have to return the land during yovel. Therefore, this verse warns us to ensure that the land is not sold to a non-Jew permanently.
Similarly, the Ramban continues, our parsha teaches us not to sell ourselves as slaves to non-Jews. Therefore, we must redeem an eved ivri (a Jewish slave) from a non-Jew’s hand during yovel. The logic is identical: “For Bnei Yisrael are slaves to Me.”
The Ramban concludes with the observation:
“And He does not desire others to settle in [the Land] – only us. It will stay in our hands and will be returned to us.”
Other commentaries point out that the prohibition of selling the land of Eretz Yisrael to a non-Jew is derived (BT Avoda Zara 20) from anther verse: “vilo techonem” (literally, “do not be gracious to them”). However, space considerations prevent a furthur discussion of this question.
The Netziv, in the HaEmek Davar, has an astonishingly different interpretation for our verse. He feels that the verse is discussing shemitah (the sabbatical year) rather than yovel. In other words, the subject is not returning land during yovel, but the verse is providing an answer to a question asked a few verses earlier: “What will we eat during the seventh year?”
One might think that the land could be sold to a non-Jew for one year only, because a non-Jew is not obligated in mitzvot. After all, an ox or a donkey may be sold to a non-Jew just for the duration of Shabbat. Unlike the other commentaries, the Netziv interprets the word “tz’mitut” as “a final and absolute sale” – rather than “permanently”. Hence, the Torah tells us: “for the land belongs to Me”. The land is not yours, and you do not own it. Therefore, you may not sell it for the duration of the seventh year, because the Creator wants the land to lay fallow. The mitzvah of shemitah is not a chovat gavra (i.e. it does not apply to the person himself) like Shabbat but involves the land “resting”.
We are rapidly approaching the next shemitah year. The controversy over the heter mechirah (arrangement where the land is sold during shemitah), which began over a century ago, is well known. While the Netziv was one of the authorities who opposed the heter mechirah, he was also one an enthusiastic supporter of Am Yisrael’s return to its land. However, he expected the Jewish people to come back to Eretz Yisrael together with a fervent attachment to all the mitzvot in general and to the mitzvot hat’luyot baAretz in particular. He noted that the Torah confirms that we were exiled because shemitah was not observed. Therefore, specifically during the period that Am Yisrael has merited to return, we must be especially meticulous in our observance of this mitzvah. Not surprisingly, then, the Netziv understood our verse as a proof of his viewpoint.
May we soon merit seeing the fulfillment of the Rambam’s words at the end of Yad HaChazakah (Hilchot Melachim 11):
“In the future, the melech hamashiach (literally, the anointed king) will arise and restore the kingdom of Beit David (the house of David)… And he builds the Mikdash and gathers the dispersed of Israel. And all the laws are restored in his day as they were in previous times. They offer korbanot (sacrifices) and observe shemitin and yovalot with all their mitzvot as it is written in the Torah.”