the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
“Respite from Vicious Beasts”
Dr. Itamar Wahrhaftig
School of Law
The second half of this week’s reading begins with the promise of reward to the Israelites when they follow the ways of the Lord. Are they being promised a miracle, changing the natural order of the world, or simply natural existence which is blessed and free of troubles?
From the comments of the Sages and biblical exegetes, it appears that both approaches have been taken through the ages.  These approaches also relate to the nature of the Redemption which is promised when the Messiah comes – will it be miraculous or natural?
According to the plain sense of the text, the blessings at the beginning of Parashat Behukotai can be explained as natural: good crops, safety and security in the land, a sizeable population, and manifestation of the Divine Presence: “I will establish My abode in your midst … I will be ever present in your midst” (Lev. -12). However, the quote from Leviticus 26:6, which has been used for the title of this article, appears to contradict this approach: “I will give the land respite [Heb. root sh-b-t] from vicious beasts.” Does this mean that the nature of animals will actually change?
Natural or Supernatural?
The differences of opinion on this question go back to the time of the Sages, as we read in Sifra:
Rabbi Judah says: He will make them pass from the earth. Rabbi Simeon says: He will make them restful [sh-b-t] so that they not be harmful. Rabbi Simeon said: When do we find praise of the Omnipresent? … when there are harmful beasts which do not cause harm; for it says (Ps. 92:1), “A psalm. A song for the Sabbath day,” to Him who gives the world respite from harmful creatures, making them restful so that they cause no harm. It also says, “the wolf shall lie down with the lamb” … teaching us that one day a babe of the Israelites will reach his hand out right into the eyes of a viper and remove the venom from his mouth.
What stand was Rabbi
Judah taking? Some have understood
Rabbi Judah’s position as also referring to a miraculous occurrence; that the
beasts would become extinct and vanish.
In Rabbi Simeon’s opinion they would
remain, but their nature would change. However, Nahmanides, according to his
commentary on this passage, believed that Rabbi Judah was saying that the wild
beasts would not come to the land because it would be heavily populated by
human beings, thus giving a natural, non-miraculous interpretation to the
verse. This is what he wrote:
“According to Rabbi
Parenthetically, we could bring proof to this view from what is said in Exodus 23:29: “I will not drive them out before you in a single year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply to your hurt. I will drive them out before you little by little, until you have increased and posses the land.” It follows that as the population increases, the wild beasts are driven out of the land.
Nahmanides then continued:
Rabbi Simeon’s view was that He would make them restful, so that they cause no harm, ... and this is correct, for in the land of Israel when the commandments are kept, it will be as it had been in the world at the outset, prior to Adam’s sin, when the beasts and crawling creatures did not kill human beings; as it is written, it is not the wild ass which causes death, rather sin which causes death – this being the meaning of Scripture saying, “a babe shall play over a viper’s hold,” … for wild beasts would not have torn apart flesh had it not been for Adam’s sin.
Thus Ramban gives R. Judah the natural explanation, and to R. Simeon, the miraculous approach.
The Rishonim (early rabbinic authorities) also took differing views on this issue. For example, Maimonides wrote in Hilkhot Melakhim 12.1 (following the remarks by Rabbi Samuel in Sanhedrin 91b):
Do not imagine that in the time of the Messiah anything of the normal order of the universe will be cancelled or anything new will be added to Creation; rather, the world will go on as it does. As for what is written in Isaiah, that “the wolf shall lie down with the lamb,” …this is a riddle and parable. It means that Israel will dwell in security with the wicked of the world, who rule the wolf and leopard… Likewise, all similar things that have been written regarding the time of the Messiah are to be taken as parables; and when the anointed Messiah comes it will be made known to all what these things stood for in the parable and what they alluded to. The Sages said that there is no difference between this world and messianic times save for subjugation to other kingdoms.
Rabad, R. Abraham b.
David of Posquières, 12th century critic of Maimonides’ Mishne
Torah, expressed reservations:
“That cannot be, for is it not written in the Torah, ‘I will give the
land respite from vicious beasts’?”
Thus it appears that Rabad agrees with Nahmanides, following Rabbi
Simeon, that nature will change; whereas Maimonides follows Rabbi
A Second Interpretation
There is another verse
which can be interpreted two ways, in the manner mentioned above:
“I will … make you fertile and multiply
you” (Lev. 26:9). According to the
plain sense, this means you will be fruitful and multiply.
Indeed, Nahmanides comments there, “That
they all have fruit, fruit of the womb, and that there not be an infertile man
or barren woman amongst you.” Rashi, however, interprets:
“I will … make you fertile –
being fruitful and multiplying, and multiply you – making you upright,”
the source for his interpretation coming from Sifra on this verse.
What is meant by “upright”?
Commentators refer us to the end of the
passage in Sifra, loc. sit.:
“And made you walk erect – upright, not being afraid of any
creature” (Yalkut Shimoni reads “of any person”). According to Rashi, we
again have a promise that the relationship between
Nevertheless, this phrase can still be explained in two ways. Hafetz Hayyim writes in his commentary here:
That is, that they themselves should note their stature, being the children of the Ever-living G-d, and should not be of lowly spirit; thereby they will give thanks to the Lord and will not be afraid of any creature, as Scriptures says, ‘What ails you that you fear Man who must die?’ (Isa. 51:12).
According to this interpretation we are not dealing with a change in the natural order of things, but with the Jewish sense of pride,  which will lead us to stand up fearlessly to the other nations of the world. In this sense, “every creature” would refer to human beings, as in the version in Yalkut Shimoni and as follows from the verse in Isaiah.
However, this expression, as well, can be interpreted as indicating a change in the natural order of things: a special spirituality will be conferred on the Israelite people that will prevent the beasts from approaching them. Adam had such a stature; and when Cain was punished and made “a ceaseless wanderer on earth” (Gen. 4:12), he responded with fear: “anyone [or anything] that meets me may kill me,” to which the Lord responded, promising him a special mark. Rashi comments on this passage: “anyone ... refers to the wild animals and beasts, but there were not yet any humans that he had to fear, save for his mother and father... Until now all the animals were in fear of me, as it is written, ‘the fear and the dread...’ (Gen. 9:2), but now, on account of this sin, the beasts will not fear me and will kill me.” 
Sin, therefore, causes the animals not to fear human beings; but in messianic times humans will be restored to their fitting spiritual stature, as Rashi said, “upright, not being afraid of any creature,” and obviously the animals will fear them.
An interpretation along these lines was given by Shem Mishmuel (the second Sochatchover Rebbe) on Parashat Behukotai (in 1915) on the text in Sifra (loc. sit.):
For the form of human kind, their heads being held upright, is different from all other animals, that walk not erect; for the head of human beings houses the soul, which comes from heavenly beings, and it longs for its foundations on high, … and the image of G-d is cast on his face, and from it dread emanates over all creatures, as it is written, “And all the people of the earth shall see that the Lord’s name is proclaimed over you, and they shall stand in fear of you” (Deut. 28:10). But human sin casts a pall over the light of the soul, causing the erect stature to be bent over and making the image of G-d on his face disappear, so that the sense of dread departs from it, … but when their cleansing was completed and they came out of Egypt into everlasting freedom, then they pulled themselves up erect, and the image of G-d on their faces shone, and the dread which they cast over the world returned; therefore they fear no creature.
We add that they will also not fear any animal, and in this way the blessing, “I will give the land respite from vicious beasts” can be fulfilled naturally
E. Urbach, Haza”l – Pirkei Emunot ve-De’ot,
 See the commentaries of Rabbi Samson of Sens, the Rabad, and Rabbenu Hillel on the Sifra, loc. sit. Also see Meshekh Hokhmah, who explains the difference of opinion between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Simeon as paralleling the controversy between Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Simeon mentioned in Berakhot 35b. (According to Rabbi Simeon, the Israelites would become changed and superior so that in any event the animals would not hurt them.) Zaphenat Pane’ah (the Rogochover’s Torah commentary) takes a different tack here, explaining that Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Simeon argue in line with their respective views about—of all things-- the question of bi’ur hametz. According to Rabbi Judah, the word tashbitu [used with reference to bi’ur hametz, meaning to rid oneself of hametz] meant necessarily by burning it, “which is to say that no quantity of it be seen,” but Rabbi Simeon was of the opinion that tashbitu could also mean “doing away with it qualitatively,” not necessarily by burning. In the matter at hand, the controversy was over the question of whether wild animals would no longer be around or whether they would be around, but would not be harmful. One could add that the controversy was a linguistic one over the meaning of the world tashbitu. According to Rabbi Judah this meant an affirmative action of burning, or in the case at hand of extinction; whereas according to Rabbi Simeon, the result had to be that there would not be any hametz, no matter how that be accom-plished, and in the case at hand that meant that the harmful nature of the animals would cease.
 See Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer, cited in Torah Shelemah, loc. sit.: “ ‘I will give the land respite from vicious beasts’ – this means the other nations of the world, who have been compared to beasts.”
 Cf. Mirkevet Hamishne on Maimonides, loc. sit. Some associate this with the difference between Moses’ prophecy and that of all the other prophets, as explained at length in Maimonides’ Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 7.6.
 Compare with Numbers 13:33: “and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so must we have looked to them.”
 Compare with Nahmanides’ above-mentioned explanation of Rabbi Simeon’s opinion in Sifra. There, however, Nahmanides was referring to the condition of Adam prior to his having sinned. Also cf. Meshekh Hokhmah cited in note 1.