Shoftim: Encroaching Boundaries

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

Just a few hours ago, I was going into this week’s Torah portion-
Shoftim- with a plan. I was all set to write about the mitzvah of bal
taschit [“do not destroy”], which is a general commandment of material
and resource conservation (cf. D’varim/ Deuteronomy 20:19 and
attendant commentaries). Then I saw a comment in Abraham Chill’s book
called “The Mitzvot” and my plans changed, so we’re going to write
about another mitzvah, that of “hasagat gvul”, or encroaching on

This mitzvah is plainly spelled out in the Torah portion:

“You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks, set up by previous
generations, in the property that will be allotted to you in the land
that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.”

This mitzvah is not hard to understand: we are not to move property
markers in such a way that one person’s land is increased at the
expense of his or her neighbor’s. Although the verse speaks of the
Land of Israel as its place of application, the moral idea behind it
is understood to apply universally. The idea of “encroaching the
boundary” is even understood to regulate unfair competition. e.g., a
new business moving into a neighborhood and conducting itself in such
a way that the established businesses would be driven out. (More on
this can be found in the link below.)

Going back to the comment that made me change direction for this
week’s drasha, first let me say that I had always assumed that the
moral idea behind the prohibition of “hasagat gvul” [encroaching the
boundary] was to reduce conflict and keep the peace in a competitive
society- that is, I always understood this mitzvah to be about
property or economic relations between equals. Then I read the
following passage in Chill, “The Mitzvot,” and I understood this verse
in a new way:

“In a free economy, it is not only conceivable but it is also a daily
occurrence that the financially strong can devise ways of encroaching
on the rights and property of the weak. The inescapable result is that
the rich become richer and the poor become poorer. The Torah warns us
against hassagat gvul- encroaching on another’s property.”

Seen this way, a law to respect the integrity of a person’s property
(which includes, by extension, their established livelihood in a
particular area), is not only about reducing conflict but also to
protect the poor and weak, who may be unable to defend themselves
against predatory practices. Not only that, but a small landowner or
owner of a small business would be disproportionately affected by
“encroachment,” since they have less to lose.

Ultimately, the mitzvah of respecting the property boundaries of
another is about extending the respect they are due as a person to
those things- like their land or or their business or their web of
relationships- which they have worked to create and by which they may
be sustained. Seen this way, it’s not just about real estate, it’s
about creating a society with compassion, thoughtfulness and human
dignity as core values, which is the very work of Judaism itself.

Shabbat Shalom,


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