Tithes and Shmitta
Since the people will be entering the Land of Israel imminently, Moses details several laws related to farming that the people will need to observe. He begins with the laws of tithes.
Moses tells the people that they must separate a tenth of their produce each year to eat in the place which God has set aside for Himself, the place we know as Jerusalem. Whether it be a tenth of their crops, wine, oil or firstborn of their flocks, the people must bring them to Jerusalem. If they live too far away to carry their tithes with them, they may sell them and use the money to buy food when they get to Jerusalem. The tithes or their replacements must be eaten and enjoyed in Jerusalem, along with the Levites who otherwise do not have an inheritance. Every third year, the tithe is to be set at the gates for the sake of the Levites and the less fortunate, who can then partake. Those who observe these laws will be blessed generously by God.
Every seven years, the people are to make a release. This time, known as shmitta, shall be marked by the cancelling of debts against fellow Jews. Despite the seeming risk of cancelling debts, Moses assures the people that if they follow the laws, God will bless the land so that nobody lacks. He also warns the people against avoiding lending money as the shmitta year approaches, for if they are generous, God will be generous with them.
Another aspect of the release in shmitta is the freeing of slaves. However, if a slave tells his master he likes his life and wants to stay in his service, the master must drive an awl through his ear to the doorpost as a sign.
Moses then details the laws of the firstborn of the flock which he glossed over earlier. These animals may not be worked, but should be sacrificed and eaten in Jerusalem. If it turns out to have a blemish, it cannot be sacrificed, but may be eaten at home by anyone, on condition its blood is not consumed.
Moses promises God’s blessings to those who follow His commands. The Israel Bible points out the linguistic connection between the Hebrew words for blessing, b’racha, and pool of water, b’reicha. Water, which refreshes, nourishes and purifies, also symbolizes renewal. In fact, the final stage of ritual purification is immersion in water. Similarly, when we bless something, we elevate its spiritual status. The land of Israel is repeatedly referred to as a blessing, teaching that is a source of both spiritual and material blessing for the world.
Virtual Classroom Discussion
What do you think is the connection between the laws of tithes and the laws of shmitta that Moses juxtaposes here?