The Delusion of Ownership and the Holiness of All Life

Rabbi Richard Borah


In the text “The Emergence of Ethical Man” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (“The Rav”) writes remarkably about the similarity of God’s relationship to all life on Earth-plant, animal and human. He states:

Sacrifices are drawn from the animal realm because the very idea of offering suggest the surrender of life to its rightful master, to God. But offerings are also drawn from the vegetable realm: wine, oil and flour take a most prominent place in the sacrificial lists. That all organic existence is on one continuum is a postulate of Judaism. But the Torah does not apply uniform standards to all organic life. Human life is evaluated as the apex of the bio-pyramid - what was termed tzelem-and plant as its base. But the difference consists only in degree, not in kind. Therefore all organic life was included in the sacral act of offering life to God. (page 44-45)

The Rav’s statement here and the motif of this unique essay, is that there is a profound distinction between life (organic) and non-life (inorganic) in the creation. Although man is on a unique level, animal and even plant life shares the exalted position of living things and, as such, are the sole possession of God. Man may possess, it seems, inorganic matter completely, put not anything that possesses life. The Rav continues to clarify this shared status of all life in his explanation about bikkurim (the Temple offering of the first fruits of trees) :

It is critical that the idea that the bekhor belongs to God, expressing the unique intimacy between God and any living creature, includes vegetative life as well-bikkurim, first fruits. Thus, Numbers mentions bikkurim together with the firstborn of man and animal (18:12-17). Terumah (priestly due) and hallah (dough given to the priest) express the same idea; vegetative life, to be consumed by man, but first to be consecrated to God, who is the source of all life. The logic is identical to that in regard to the slaughtering of animals in the desert: life-even of the plant-can only be claimed by God, and man has no right to destroy it. Of course, the Torah has granted man the privilege of using the plant, of destroying its life, only for his own sustenance (pages. 45-46).

This concept that man has no ownership, but only “tenancy rights” of life on earth, regardless of its form, is expressed perhaps most clearly in the laws of shemittah. The Rav continues his statement:

Yet it is only tenancy-rights that man holds in regard to vegetative life. It may never be acquired absolutely by him, an idea expressed regularly through shemittah (sabbatical year) and yovel (jubilee year): “then shall the land keep a Shabbat to the Lord” (Leviticus: 25:2) God canceled man’s specific rights and forbade him to exploit the soil and to reap its growth; God’s rights are rehabilitated in the sabbatical year.  To sum up, in Judaism we cross the threshold of life upon entering the vegetative realm. Plant is a living creature and enjoys to a certain extent many prerogatives Judaism grants a being endowed with life, for sacrifice means the return of life to its rightful owner. God does not lay any claim to inorganic, dead matter ( page 46).

Maimonides, (“The Rambam”), states in his great work, the Mishneh Torah, with regard to the laws of Shemittah:

It is a positive commandment to divest oneself from everything that the land produces in the Sabbatical year, as [Exodus 23:11] states: "In the seventh [year], you shall leave it untended and unharvested." Anyone who locks his vineyard or fences off his field in the Sabbatical year has nullified a positive commandment. This also holds true if he gathered all his produce into his home. Instead, he should leave everything ownerless. Thus everyone has equal rights in every place, as [ibid.] states: "And the poor of your people shall partake of it." One may bring a small amount into one's home, just as one brings from ownerless property, five jugs of oil, fifteen jugs of wine. If he takes more than that, it is permitted. (Mishnah Torah, Laws of Shemittah: 4:24)

It is interesting to note the Rambam’s language in the beginning of this halachah, “It is a positive commandment to divest oneself from everything that the land produces in the Sabbatical year”. From this statement it does not seem that it is the land, so much as the produce of the land that one is making ownerless. This statement is consonant with what we stated earlier from Rabbi Soloveitchik that the shemittah laws are related to the concept of the sole possession by God of all life –in this case- plant life. It is not so much the land, but the produce of the land that is returned to God. As Rabbi Soloveitchik made clear, it is fundamentally important that man understand that all life belongs to God in a manner more intimately than his possession of the world as a whole. Perhaps we can say that man can own the land, but never the produce of the land. The produce is God’s and man only makes use of through an allowance of the Creator. In the Rambam’s philosophical work, “The Guide for Perplexed” he explains the impact that the Shemittah laws have on developing a person’s compassion for the needs of the poor and for all creatures . He States:

With regard to all the commandments that we have enumerated in Hilchot Shemita ve’Yovel (Laws concerning the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee), some are meant to lead to pity and help for all men - as the Torah states: “That the poor of the people may eat; and what they leave, the beasts of the field shall eat ...” (Shemot 23:11) - and are meant to make the earth more fertile and stronger through letting it fallow.” (Book 3: Chapter 39)

The Torah laws, in their perfection, simultaneously convey profound truths to its adherents while at the time structuring a society that is just and merciful.  The laws of shemittah teach people of the unique nature of God’s “rights” , so to speak, to all life, while at the same time refining and shaping the personality of the Jewish people and assisting those who are in need.  It is important to read the “Guide for the Perplexed” not as an explanation of the reasons behind the mitzvot, but as a clarification of the benefits that the rational mind can discern regarding them. I do not believe that the Rambam held that man, with his limited intelligence can understand the complete purpose or benefits of the Torah laws.  But I do believe the Rambam held that it is important and necessary to search for reasons and benefits for those mitzvot that we can understand in our limited manner.  Clarifying and expressing these benefits sanctifies God in the eyes of the Jewish people and the people of the world. Through this process people can discern the wisdom of the Creator and holiness of the Torah.