The Sanctity of the Land

Emor | Pesah Shavuot Sukkot By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Apr 30, 1994 / 5754 | Torah Commentary | Holidays Natural World

At the new Jewish Museum one can feast on the panorama of Jewish history in a single spectacular, permanent exhibition, subtly conceived and brilliantly executed. It opens with a replica of an ancient agrarian calendar found in 1908 at Gezer, northwest of Jerusalem in the Shefela region. Written in good biblical Hebrew, the calendar seems to date from the 10th century B.C.E., coinciding with the reign of Solomon, when Gezer became part of the expanding monarchy of Israel. The calendar may not be anything more than a mnemonic ditty for children, and yet it is a cultural artifact of rich significance. In Professor William Albright’s translation, the text reads:

His two months are (olive) harvest [Tishri, Heshvan],
His two months are (grain) planting [Kislev, Tevet],
His two months are late planting [Shevat, Adar],
His month is hoeing up of flax [Nisan],
His month is harvest of barley [Iyar],
His month is harvest and feasting [Sivan],
His two months are vine–tending [Tammuz, Av],
His month is summer fruit [Elul].

I love the spirit and specificity of this oldest of Hebrew documents outside the Bible. The Gezer calendar marks time by the work of the field. Human life is governed by the rhythm of nature. In the famous words of Ecclesiastes, written many centuries later, “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven…. A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted.” The calendar acknowledges a sense of dependence on the earth’s bounty. The quest for dominion has not yet ruptured the intimacy between land and human life.

These associations spring to mind as I ponder once again the calendar we meet in this week’s parasha, which is also read in our synagogues on Succot and Passover: “These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions (Lev. 23:2).” It is a sparsely worded review of the liturgical calendar, covering in quick order the “sacred occasions” of Shabbat, Pesah, Shavuot, the first day of the seventh month which we know as Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Succot. But it is more than just a mere listing. The conceptual grid in which the calendar is placed is the world of nature and not history. Except for the justification for the booths of Succot (“that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt) (Lev. 23:43),” all three of the pilgrimage festivals are exclusively linked to the cycle of harvesting and planting.

Like the Gezer calendar, then, the calendar of Leviticus is agrarian in nature. Pesah is explained solely in terms of eating matzot for seven days, with no reference to the exodus from Egypt. The consumption of unleavened bread, as Prof. Nahum Sarna suggests, is a celebration of the spring barley harvest from which nothing can be eaten until the first sheaf is offered in thanksgiving “on the day after the sabbath” (the second day of Passover) to God in the Temple (Lev. 23:11). Precisely seven weeks later, on the festival of Shavuot, the individual Israelite is to return with two leavened loaves of wheat bread as a first fruit offering inaugurating the wheat harvest. And similarly, Succot coincides with a time “when you have gathered in the yield of your land (Lev. 23:39).”

In short, the priestly calendar is driven by a sense of gratitude to God for fructifying the land. Ritual gives expression to theology. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds… (Psalm 24:1).” Consequently, human use of the land is restricted by divine command. Before we taste of its produce, we return a symbolic portion to God. The fruit of new trees is left untouched for three years. When reaping our fields, we leave the edges and gleanings for the poor, who take refuge in God’s care. And, above all, we are enjoined to desist from working the land without end. We are obliged to rest on Shabbat and festivals and even to let the land lie fallow every seventh year. Clearly, the Torah’s conception of humanity’s relationship to the earth is that of tenant farmers permitted to profit from the land, provided it is turned over to the next generation in good working order. The explicit ecological ethic of the Torah is stewardship.

Nor is the land given unconditionally. The priestly book of Leviticus posits a causal connection between human behavior and the capacity of the land to sustain its inhabitants. Pollution derives primarily from immorality. Emphatically, Leviticus warns Israel not to “copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you (Lev. 18:3).” The land must be kept sacred and pure. “Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves…. So let not the land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you (Lev. 18:24, 28).” And in that spirit, the Mishna expanded and codified the nexus by declaring that the three pilgrimage festivals were also moments of divine judgment: “on Passover for grain, on Shavuot for fruit… and on Succot for water.” Fertility became a consequence of the moral standards of human society.

A recent U.S. edition of the Bible for popular use omitted the book of Leviticus because the editors deemed it to be archaic, primitive, and irrelevant. Nothing could be more obtuse. Urban civilization has blunted our reverence for land and our appreciation of its fragileness. Atheism is a philosophy spawned in settings where people are surrounded by what they have built. The Tower of Babel was an urban enterprise conducive to intellectual conceits that obscured the divine–human partnership (Gen. 11: 1–9).

As the liturgical calendar of Leviticus shows, the priestly code is the product of an agricultural society in which the immediacy of nature still prevails. The festivals have not yet been historicized. They remain grounded in the sanctity of the land, which will bless its human occupants only if treated with reverence and restraint.

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Emor are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.