By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
This week’s parashah should have been a party for all of those involved in the mitzvos tied to the Land of Israel. This is the parashah that unequivocally brings home the holiness of the Land of Israel. Thus, we would expect to find a list of all of the mitzvos that express this holiness.
However, Hashem apparently thought otherwise. We will only read the extensive list next week in parashat Korach — and only in the context of the sanctity of the kohanim and levi’im, not of the Land of Israel. But so as not to leave us empty handed, it seems, we get the mitzvah of challah this week.
To complicate matters, though, this mitzvah — part of the group of the mitzvos tied to the Land of Israel — has markedly different characteristics from the others, which seem to downplay the Land’s sanctity. For instance, it is a Biblical injunction to take challah, even when the flour is not milled from grains grown in Israel’s sacred soil. This is for the simple reason that the defining stage for dough being subject to the obligation of challah is the place where the dough is formed (kneaded), not where the grains were grown.
That’s not all. Even on a rabbinic level, the mitzvah of taking challah is exceptional. It is the only mitzvah tied to the Land of Israel that the Sages enacted in the diaspora, so that “the laws of challah will not be forgotten.” Why weren’t they concerned, for instance, that the laws of shemittah or terumot and ma’asrot would not be forgotten?
We believe that it is precisely in this parashah that this unique mitzvah was given, since challah, more than any of its counterparts, serves to reveal the Land of Israel’s exalted nature.
The Sin Of The Spies: The Land Is Holy, But It’s Impossible To Use Its Holiness
In the book Shiurei HaRav, featuring lectures by Rav Joseph Ber HaLevy Soloveitchik, zt’l, there is an amazing explanation to this question. Rav Soloveitchik explains (based on the Ramban) that contrary to popular belief, the spies did not reject the holiness of the Land of Israel. They believed that it was of a most spiritual, exalted nature, but claimed: “However, the people living in the land are powerful and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the giant’s descendants there” (Bamidbar 13:28).
Their sin was tied to the word efes, which in this context can be rendered “we have zero chance.” If they had said we would face a difficult challenge, there would have been nothing wrong with their report; they were sent to scout out the Land, and they had to report back what they saw. The problem, though, is that they believed not that it would be difficult, but that efes — it would be impossible. According to the spies, the Land of Israel is sacred, but it is impossible to derive benefit from this sanctity. It can be likened to huge gas deposits that are inaccessible and cannot be exploited. The problem, they believed, lay not in the Land, but rather in the people.
For this reason, had the Torah listed one of the regular land-related mitzvos, this would not be enough to negate the spies’ assertion. The holiness of Israel’s fruit, on account of which terumot and ma’asrot must be taken, shemittah observed, etc., is due to the sanctity of the Land of Israel, a concept that the spies readily accepted. The mitzvah of challah is different. It is a mitzvah tied to the Land of Israel — its holy soil — but for the dough to be subject to challah, it must be kneaded in Israel. That is, man’s actions are the defining factor that unleashes this holiness. In truth, there are two factors working together here: man’s actions and the sanctity of the Land of Israel (the place where the dough is formed). This mitzvah expresses a Jew’s ability to bring out sanctity from the Land of Israel, in complete and utter contrast to the spies’ argument.
Challah: The Land-Related Mitzvah That Is Also A Personal Obligation
Now we can understand why the Sages were only concerned about the laws of challah being forgotten, and instituted this mitzvah in the Diaspora, while they did not for the other mitzvos in this category. Had the Sages instituted all of Israel’s land-related mitzvos for fruit and vegetables abroad, no difference would be felt between the Land of Israel and the rest of the world, and this would downplay the Land of Israel’s unique status. Challah, on the other hand, is very different from the other mitzvos. Not only is it a mitzvah tied to the Land of Israel, it is also a personal obligation, just like the other mitzvos in the Torah, and as such would not deemphasize the Land of Israel’s uniqueness.
HaRav Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today.