“…For the land is Mine” – laws governing the use of the land – 9

The Torah – given in the desert – contains a number of laws that restricted our freedom to exploit the land upon our entry into it.  These include limits on when we may work the land, what we may sow and how we may harvest – and also taxation on the produce.  Since these commandments are only binding on Jews living on their land in Eretz Yisrael, the tradition developed a special attachment to them – as long as we are living in exile, we are denied the opportunity to fulfill these mitzvot, so our religious life is incomplete.  These laws therefore came to symbolize the specialness of the land, our connection to it, and our longing for it when we are in exile.  Of the various land-based laws, the sabbatical year (shmita) is probably the best known example, and one whose restoration has generated interesting debates over the past century and a half, so we will examine it as a case study in this unit.  This exploration will touch on questions about the nature of land ownership, about mechanisms of social justice, and about the relevance of biblical precepts in the post-biblical era.


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The Mishnah – 22

Most of the Tannaitic literature belongs to the halachic genre, and is made up of laws, as opposed to the aggadic genre, which is made up of stories, legends, sayings and ideas. In many educational settings in the Jewish world today, which are not committed to a halachic way of life, this literature is therefore neglected, with biblical texts largely preferred, as well as some aggadic stories gleaned from the literature of the sages.

In his classic essay “Halachah and Aggadah“, Hayim Nahman Bialik (considered Israel’s national poet, though he died before the foundation of the state) decries the focus of his generation on Aggadah, and the neglect of Halachah. He advocates a renewal of the study of Halachah, both as a literary genre, and as a way of life – not necessarily the traditional Halachah of the Shulchan Aruch, but the concept of commitment to a way of life.

We will read an excerpt of Bialik’s essay both to see how deeply grounded some modern-day figures in the Israeli literary world are in the world of the ancient texts, and to understand Bialik’s claim that Halachah and Halachic literature should not be abandoned as irrelevant in this day of Aggadah. Then we will study some of the texts from the Mishnah to which Bialik refers, and end by discussing whether these texts can be used in our classrooms.


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