An excerpt from Shemitta: For the Land Is Mine, by Mark Edward Vande Pol
I guess the next rational question would be: ‘If this interpretation is the truth, why didn’t somebody else come up with this hypothesis about Exodus 23:11, Leviticus 25, and the consequences of foraging in wildlands a long time ago?’
The answer involves a complex combination of reasons.
After the crossing of the Jordan under Joshua, we know from the term of the exile in Babylon that the children of Israel rarely, if ever observed the Shemitta year for nearly 500 years. They rediscovered the Law when they came back from Babylon. At that point, the Sabbath for the Land would have been interpreted by rabbis, probably in Ezra’s community. It seems unlikely that the rabbis would institute a program while under foreign rule to “ruggedize” the people to sustain guerrilla war.
Israel did keep a limited Shemitta year during the Second Temple Period. It is therefore likely that they either did not understand wildland foraging in the Shemitta year, or were constrained to do what they could to apply the statutes without provoking their rulers. That way, they did not invoke retribution and supposedly did not violate the letter of the written law. Either way, a limited application would have the effect of instituting the oral tradition we find in the Talmud Yerushalmi during the Second Temple period.
By the time the Mishnah was compiled, it had been over five hundred years since Israel had been a sovereign nation, after Persian, then Greek, and finally Roman rule. According to Josephus, Alexander respected the High Priest’s request not to collect taxes during the seventh year. After the defeat of the Seleucids, the Treaty of the Maccabees with the Romans granted the Jews limited autonomy. Nevertheless, the Romans did not defer taxation, thus systematically pressuring the people to see “the Seventh Year” as a burden.
Neither were the Romans famously tolerant of sedition, nor were they likely to tolerate mass foraging for a year (bad for tax revenues). If by the time of Hillel, the military implications of Behar Sinai were still known to the Sages, they surely would not have risked fatal reprisal by promoting Torah as a manual for making Israel capable of sustaining guerrilla war! Similarly, the Sages offered no support for celebrating Chanukah as a military victory. The Roman Empire took a dim view of militant nationalism in their vassal states, particularly “Iudea” which, as Tacitus documented, the Roman aristocracy considered to be a headache. He did note in his famous diatribe the Roman impression of how the Hebrews attempted Shemitta at that time:
We are told that the rest of the seventh day was adopted, because this day brought with it a termination of their toils; after a while the charm of indolence beguiled them into giving up the seventh year also to inaction.
As to the Jerusalem Talmud itself, the Mishnah was completed by Rabbi Judah the Prince in about 200 CE. This was not long after the Bar Kokhba Revolt, which had cost between 580,000 to over a million Jewish lives (depending upon the report). Shimon Bar Kokhba had led an extended guerrilla war with considerable success against the Romans until Hadrian brought in Julius Severus. His strategy was total war: obliterate the country by destroying 985 hamlets followed by successive sieges against 50 fortresses, ending with the fall of Bethar on the 9th of Av. Hadrian had Jerusalem plowed under to be rebuilt as a Roman city. It is a miracle that the Talmud was compiled at all.
After being scattered and exiled a second time, the Jews reorganized into distant enclaves in what became Catholic Europe, where for the most part they were not permitted to own agricultural land. Interpreting Torah has since been the exclusive province of an urban rabbinic intelligentsia. How would they know the implications posited here?
So, if the ancient Israeli Sages either did not know or could not risk expounding upon the military significance of Behar Sinai in the Mishnah, it is inconceivable that the Jewish scholars from the Middle Ages to this day would deviate from what was recorded in the Talmud. It has been the violence of that history that has taught Orthodox Jews to see the slightest deviation from the Law as idolatry:
Deuteronomy 27:26 Cursed be he that confirmeth not the words of this law to do them. And all the people shall say: Amen.'
Deuteronomy 28:58 If thou wilt not observe to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that thou mayest fear this glorious and awful Name, HaShem thy G_d;
The European Sages, not living in the land, clearly decided to derive their interpretation of Behar Sinai from the Talmud, which is understandable considering that it recounted the only remaining record of living in the land as a nation. Effectively, it was emblematic of the “pining” process described in Lev. 26:39, applying the Law intrinsically as relevant to their time and place. Thus, the interpretations of that time would have little relevance to the period of Judges for which Behar Sinai was designed.
The problem arises when, in this latter day, the narrow interpretations of the Sages are universalized for application in Israel today. By confining the meaning of the passage to how the Sages applied the Law to their situation in the nation of Israel, Jews run the same risk many Christians do with their universalized interpretations of Paul’s temporal letters. This is particularly hazardous now that the children of Israel are back in the land, as they are no longer suffering from the need to avoid showing martial behavior as they necessarily did under Roman rule. Current interpretation of the passage should therefore in no way be subject to the constraints the likes of Hillel, Shammai, Rashi, or Rambam have implied to this day.
Whether or no, the Jewish tradition is extremely reluctant to tolerate new theories deviating from the rulings of the Sages, especially coming from a Gentile. In that sense, it is the very same passion for analytical rigidity and attention to detail by which the Jewish people so faithfully preserved the Torah, which so inhibits them from considering other interpretations than are found in the Talmud. It is a paradox that has tempered considerably my enthusiasm for this project. Hopefully, the critical import of Behar Sinai to the survival of modern Israel will over-ride understandable Jewish circumspection about the source enough for Jewish scholars to consider it seriously. The clear historical observation is that neither the Ancient Sages nor those of the Middle Ages possessed the latitude to posit anything remotely similar to what is discussed here even if some of them knew or suspected it.
Hold that thought.
For thousands of years until very recently, devoting more land and human resources to agriculture has been a matter of survival, by far the largest use of human labor. Wildlands served little other purpose than to put more land into production, which was generally considered to be a good thing. During the early industrial revolution, mechanization of agriculture “freed” vast numbers of people to work shifts in factories. Only in the last 50 years have machines and energy provided sufficient leisure time for the more affluent to enjoy “communing with Nature” while the alienation concomitant with an urban lifestyle created a crying spiritual need for it.
Most of the “communing” public, now separated from the land for three generations, knows little to nothing about how to take care of it other than what they are told in government schools and mass media. This customer base is thus easily sold the idea that government is the best way to acquire control of the principal asset for their pleasures from their pesky owners and without payment. Wildlands have therefore been socialized to remain “preserved” as parks, wilderness, open space, or their tax-exempt private equivalent.
Some people go so far as to purchase a “park” of their own (we did), usually former agricultural land abandoned due to modern transportation, irrigation, the higher yields of mechanized farming, or (more recently) because regulation has made farming unprofitable. The relics of agrarian life proceed from the point at which they are abandoned, usually overgrown with fuel and weeds similar to what happened to our property. Most of the owners, believing the popular culture or too busy to do otherwise, “Leave it alone.” A very few, such as our family, commit themselves to restoring the land, a long, arduous, and expensive process. There are very few in the Western World, who possess both the intimacy with the wildland habitat to understand how it needs people to care for it and both the skill and the means to publicize that message.
Hold that thought too.
As to the Christian world, for nearly two thousand years, many if not most Christian churches have been in denial about their Jewish roots, claiming to have replaced Israel in the eyes of the Lord citing a misunderstanding of Paul’s letters taken out of their historical context. That propensity left study of the Torah to isolated scholars, many in institutions with a cultural antipathy for Judaism. Even then, research was limited by language and the early limits of the archaeological record. Integrating the Jewish perspective as elemental to Christian worship certainly was not a usual practice. Only in the last century has an awakening of Christian interest in Judaism induced a revival of Torah study in Hebrew in Christian congregations.
One of the great things about being in a congregation is that you get to trade perspectives. It was in sharing my understanding of land use and its consequences in B’chukotai that one of our elders gave me his thoughts on Leviticus 25:6: that during the Sabbath year, the children of Israel were to forage off the agricultural fields for food. The military implications of incorporating wildlands hit me like a lightning bolt.
Bless you Woody.
Nineteen years of hard labor doing habitat restoration had taught me how to see the way that policy impacted both the land and the Children of Israel. Developing the depth of the system and recognizing the theme throughout the whole Torah developed from there.
So, this interpretation represents a confluence of historical threads: The disobedience of the children of Israel, exile into Babylon, the Second Temple rabbinic desire to avoid inflicting pain and getting people killed, the ultimate alienation of the Jewish people from the land for 2,000 years, the consequent reluctance of European Sages to deviate from the writings of the ancient Sages while trying to apply the law to a people without a country, the reestablishment of Israel in the land and rekindling of interest in observing the Shemitta year, Christians pretending to replace Israel for 2,000 years, the latter day renaissance of Christian interest in Torah study, Messianic Jews to teach us Hebrew, ArtScroll starting their translation of the Talmud Yerushalmi nearly sixteen years ago, post-industrial culture with time to burn in wildlands, fifty years of regulation and preservation with the land still going to hell, and my education in engineering, economics, and Constitutional principles, nearly two decades of land restoration research independent from the government, and research into globalist regulatory corruption, rediscovery of Torah in the process, a Messianic congregation conveniently at the bottom of the hill, my daughter’s birthday on September 11, such that I would study Ki Tavo with her for her bat Mitzvah beginning a study of Hebrew, my buddy having an interest in land having studied Behar Sinai discussing it on a property directly across the river from my best friend’s vacation home 400 miles from here, and 40 miles from the nearest city (I had actually been doing target practice on Woody’s place years before I had met him), and my dear sweet wife paying the bills while I complied with the obvious…
I would never have developed knowledge, perspective, or had the opportunity to recognize this hypothesis without ALL these preconditions. Even then it took some serious spiritual prodding, prayers from my Jewish brethren, along with a wild series of “coincidences” for me to get going with this analysis which just so happened to be during a Shemitta year. After the financial disaster of Natural Process, I did NOT want to write another book.
It has been very weird. While what you are reading is more an accident of history than indication of special ability on my part, call it what you will, but to me this work represents an act of obedience to the continuing pattern of His revelation.
Baruch HaShem, Praise His Name!
Praise my wife too. That woman is a saint.
Anyway, while I was saddened at first that the Talmud said so little about foraging in the wild as part of the Shemitta year, as a Christian I am more puzzled by yet another deficit in the written record. Adonai made it very clear that walking in these statutes was critical to the national survival of Israel. Details as to precisely how it was to be performed are obviously missing in the written law. Subsequently, Israel had been exiled to Babylon, returned, and was on a slippery slope yet again when Yeshua walked the earth.
So, one would think that if both stewardship and the salvation of Israel were so high on G_d’s priority list, the Messiah would have had something to say about the Sabbath for the Land. Even so, I cannot find anything in the Gospels directly about it, although as we have seen several of the parables read as if He understood and presumed this interpretation. Further, as I have reviewed the Gospels since finding Him in that Levitical pattern, it is obvious that Yeshua was speaking from a perspective fully coherent with this book's hypothesis, but I’m afraid that’s another book.
While I have no proof that the priesthood was prohibited from observing “release and abandon” when Judah returned from Babylon, there is no other explanation I can fathom for the complete omission of the founding verse of the Sabbath for the land in two volumes of the Talmud dedicated to the topic. As far as I can tell, no one knew that the Messiah was hidden in the pattern of obedience to Shemitta. It had never been observed; who could have known? So before we as Christian Gentiles get all puffed up about how Yeshua was in the Torah all along and the Jewish people missed it, better we take a hard look our own role in that omission. My consolation lies in the thought that fomenting a guerrilla war against the Roman Empire would have just gotten a lot of people killed. After all, Shemitta was designed to be preventative in nature.
I cannot fathom how hard it is going to be for the modern rabbinate to confront this find. I’m truly sorry for how this has come about, as I had no intention of causing distress to anyone, but truth is truth. So, having found this, I was duty bound to reveal it. My hope is that I have done so respectfully.
The resettlement of Israel, devastated by centuries of mismanagement, has rekindled Jewish interest in agriculture and habitat restoration. Unfortunately, as far as I know, no one in urbane modern Israel has seen foraging in wildlands as a critical part of that process. From what I have read of its observance in 2008, the renewal of interest in the Shemitta year still revolves around the various narrow interpretations of the Sages intrinsic to their respective times.
It is my prayer that they reconsider, and my privilege to have sown.