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The Conceptual Foundations of Shemitta

In memory of Batya Furst z"l Niftera 28 Elul 5765. Dedicated by her family.


In memory of Zina Gontownik, Z’L on the occasion of her 15th Yahrzeit,
and in honor and celebration of the Bat Mitzvah of her great granddaughter,
Ruth Zina Gontownik, daughter of Daniela and Zev Gontownik,
and granddaughter of Anne and Jerry Gontownik and Marsha and Jan Spector.


Translated by David Strauss


          “Everything depends on luck, even the Torah scroll in the sanctuary” (Zohar, Naso 134a).  It may be said that the mitzva of shemitta, the sabbatical year, did not have the good fortune of striking deep roots in Jewish existence.  The reproach in Parashat Bechukotai tells us, “When you are in your enemies’ land, then shall the land rest and enjoy her sabbaths” (Vayikra 26:34); from here, Chazal inferred that exile is imposed for the sin of failing to observe shemitta.  But despite this emphasis on the importance of shemitta, Scripture attests to the fact that, in practice, shemitta was never properly observed and Israel ended up going into exile.

In two places, the Torah foresaw that difficulties were liable to arise with respect to the observance of shemitta.  Regarding the shemitta of money, i.e., the release of monetary debts, the Torah admonishes: “Beware that there be not an unworthy thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand;’ and your eye be evil against your needy brother, and you give him nothing; and he cry unto the Lord against you, and it be reckoned to you a sin” (Devarim 15:9).  The Torah’s fear indeed came to pass, and since people refused to lend out money, Hillel found it necessary to enact the prozbul (Mishna Shevi’it 10:3)With respect to the shemitta of the land, the Torah expresses its concern in Parashat Behar: “And if you shall say, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year?’” (Vayikra 25:20); here, too, we eventually came to circumvent the strictures of shemitta, via the heter mekhira.

Chazal inform us that people did not regard shemitta as a significant and weighty mitzva:

Two women were sentenced to judicial flogging.  One had sinned [with fornication] and one had eaten unripe figs of the sabbatical year.  She who ate the unripe figs of the sabbatical year said to the court: “Please, announce the offense for which I am being flogged, so that people not say that I am being flogged for the same offense as she is.”  They brought unripe figs of the sabbatical year and hung them from her neck, and proclaimed before her: “She is being flogged for matters pertaining to the sabbatical year.” (Yoma 86b) 

The implication is that, at least according to popular imagination, the fact that the woman was “merely” liable for eating unripe figs of the sabbatical year assuaged her feelings of guilt and diminished the humiliation of her sin and punishment.

Israel’s detachment from the land during the long period of exile further weakened their connection to the mitzva of shemitta.  It is important to emphasize, however, that this weakening occurred not only with respect to the shemitta of land, but even regarding the shemitta of money.

Anyone who examines the discussion of this issue in Sefer ha-Terumot (sha’ar 45) will be astonished to find how widespread the disregard of the mitzva of shemitta of money was.  I refer not to the use of a prozbul, but to total indifference to the mitzva!  This was the situation in large parts of Provence and Spain, in communities committed to Halakha, which at times unhesitatingly chose martyrdom over giving up their faith.  These communities accepted upon themselves stringency after stringency, yet with respect to the mitzva of shemitta, they seem to have been totally detached from an entire realm of Halakha.

The Shulchan Arukh reflects this as well.  The Rema accepts those positions according to which the shemitta of money – and essentially shemitta in general – does not apply today, either by Torah law or by rabbinic enactment.  Here we are not dealing with a mitzva that depends upon the land of Israel, but with the shemitta of money, which is a personal obligation that should apply in all places.  Perforce, this ruling attests with double force to the Jewish people’s detachment from the mitzva of shemitta.

In recent times, following our return to Zion, a certain awakening has, indeed, transpired.  It seems that this year we shall be much more conscious of shemitta matters in comparison to previous shemitta years.  There is still, however, much room for improvement.


The best way to begin discussing the conceptual foundations of shemitta is to compare it to Shabbat, the importance and severity of which have never been doubted.  Both the Torah and the Rishonim employ this comparison: “Then shall the land keep a sabbath to the Lord” (Vayikra 25:2) – “Just as it says about the Shabbat of creation ‘a sabbath to the Lord,’ so does it say about the seventh year ‘a sabbath to the Lord’” (Sifra, Behar 1:1).  It would be beneficial, then, to briefly review the general conceptual underpinnings of Shabbat.

On the one hand, Shabbat constitutes a reminder: something that comes to testify, to stir up, to inculcate awareness, and to deepen sensitivity.  On this plane, there are two foci: Shabbat is testimony to the creation and constant renewal of the world, and testimony to the exodus from Egypt.

On the other hand, Shabbat is a day with inherent significance; beyond the symbolic plane, beyond its function as a reminder, it has essential meaning.  Here, too, we can point to two main foci.  First, Shabbat liberates one from weekday burdens and concerns, allowing a person to refresh, refill, and renew himself so that he will be able to act with greater vigor and energy in the following days.  Second, Shabbat is the climax of the week, the climax of man’s world.  It does not serve the mundane world and allow a person to recharge his batteries in order to toil in that world; rather, the weekdays serve Shabbat and lead up to it.

Regarding the sabbatical year as well, we can talk about essential aspects, concrete ramifications in the wake of the shemitta of land, the shemitta of money, and the renunciation of proprietary rights to produce.  On the other hand, the sabbatical year can be viewed, like Shabbat, as a reminder coming to instruct Jews in religious belief, morality and values.

Let us examine first the symbolic aspect of shemitta.  What does the sabbatical year remind us about? To what does it attest?

The Rishonim saw a clear parallel between Shabbat and the sabbatical year, in that both testify to God’s creation of the world (though there is no parallel with respect to the exodus from Egypt, which is not connected to the sabbatical year in any real way).  Sefer ha-Chinukh (84) emphasizes the point that, like Shabbat, the sabbatical year indicates God’s creation of the world and negates the notion that the world had always existed.  In his commentary to the Torah (Vayikra 25:2), the Ramban broadens this perspective.  He sees the sabbatical year as a reminder and testimony not only to Creation itself, which is more the function of Shabbat, but also to what follows from it – or as he develops the idea at the beginning of the book of Bereishit (2:3), the nature of historical development in general.  The sabbath of shemitta parallels God’s sabbath and the seventh millenium.  The Ramban summarizes this idea in his “Derashat Torat Hashem Temima” (Kitvei ha-Ramban, vol. 1, p. 169).  Following his clarification of the matter of shemitta, he concludes: “The jubilee year is testimony to the Creation, the continued existence and renewal of the world, which are the fruits of faith.” At issue here is not only the Creation, but also the continued existence of the world, and to a certain degree the nature of its existence.

According to these approaches, the sabbatical year should be seen as a reminder regarding several fundamental principles of religious belief.  But this reminder, as opposed to that of Shabbat, is a harsh, severe, far-reaching reminder, the test of which, in reality, the people of Israel never withstood.

If, however, we are dealing with a mitzva with such a far-reaching and radical nature, we should perhaps search, beyond the inculcation of religious beliefs, for values and morals that affect one on a personal level.

Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher (in his Torah commentary) and R. Yitzchak Arama (in his Akeidat Yitzchak) raise the issue of the awareness that “the earth and the fullness thereof belong to the Lord.” Here we are dealing not only with the prohibition of certain agricultural labors during shemitta, but also with the renunciation of proprietary rights to the produce that grows during the sabbatical year.  Whether such renunciation takes effect automatically or a person must actively renounce his ownership, what stands out during the sabbatical year is man’s detachment from his imaginary ownership of the land and its produce.  The sabbatical year, then, teaches man about the concepts of ownership and possession.  This can be viewed from several angles.

First of all, we are dealing here with testimony to and the determination of God’s ownership of everything.  This lesson is emphasized both by shemitta’s removal of man’s proprietary rights to the fruits of his land and by the prohibition of agricultural work.  Man owns neither the fruits nor the land.  Regarding the verse, “a sabbath to the Lord” (Vayikra 25:2), the Chizkuni says: “[Shemitta is] a sign that the land is Mine, that it rests for the sake of My name.”

Second, shemitta detaches man from his material property and from that almost crazy idea that overcomes him the other six years of the sabbatical cycle, namely, that he must hold for dear life to his property and possessions.  During the sabbatical year, we are inculcated with the idea of yielding and waiver, of detachment from the world of money and property.  The Chinukh noted this point and added to it the idea of bittachon, trust in God.  During the shemitta year there is a sharpening of the sense of man’s dependence on God, which stands at the heart of religious consciousness and experience.

Thus on the cognitive-symbolic plane, the sabbatical year instills within us several fundamental beliefs regarding the creation of the world, its continued existence, and Providence.  It also inculcates us with several moral ideas, e.g., the recognition of God’s ownership of the world, the liberation of man from the chains of his connection to material possessions, and a deepening of man’s awareness of his dependence on and trust in God.

All this relates to the realm of consciousness and remembrance.  There is, however, another side to the sabbatical year, a more essential side, with practical ramifications following from the mitzvot of shemitta.  Here we must note two main realms.  The Rambam talks about one of them in his Moreh Nevukhim (III:39) – the perfection of society.  In the sabbatical and jubilee years, this idea appears in far-reaching form.  Whereas Parashat Behar highlights the idea that “the land shall keep a sabbath to the Lord,” Parashat Mishpatim relates to the sabbatical year in an entirely different context.  That parasha deals with interpersonal issues, matters of bribery, testimony, judgment, legal claims, and restoring lost property.  And then it continues: “Six years you shall sow your land, and shall gather in its fruits; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat” (Shemot 23:10-11).  The emphasis here is clear – the help that must be offered to one’s fellow.  This help is not merely personal acts of kindness, one person extending a helping hand to another, but rather help on the societal level.  A state of equality must be created – where there is no donor and no recipient, no rich and no poor.  The land in its entirety, and all the produce, is declared ownerless, “that the poor of your people may eat.” This point stands out prominently in the Mekhilta (mas. De-khaspa, 20, s.v. Ve-ha-shevi’it):

“But the seventh year you shall let it rest.” A person must not say: Why did the Torah say [that we should renounce our rights to the land?]  Is it not that the poor should eat?  I will bring the produce into my house and distribute it to the poor! Therefore the verse states: “But the seventh year you shall let it rest [and abandon it]” – teaching that he must make breaches [in the walls surrounding his field].

          The perfection of society and the striving toward equality, which we have discussed in the context of shemitta of the land, are also themes of shemitta of money, as raised in Parashat Re’eh.  It is as if we must all return to our original starting points, and everyone must begin once again from scratch.

          We saw above that Shabbat serves the weekdays, while the days of the week also lead up to Shabbat (in the sense of “a taste of the world-to-come” and “a day that will be all sabbath and rest in life everlasting”). In Bereishit, the Rishonim dispute the meaning of “shevita,” rest.  On the one hand, shevita denotes resting today with the intention of returning to work tomorrow – a sort of recess.  According to this, the shevita of Shabbat is necessary to enhance the next days’ work.  The Radak cites two explanations of shevita:

From what did He rest?  From all of His work, for after the sixth day, He did not [need to] create anything else.  And it says, “va-yishbot,” because the Torah speaks in the language of man, for with respect [to God], there is no fatigue, as it is stated: “He faints not, nor is He weary” (Yeshayahu 40:28), and He did not create the world with toil.  Alternatively, “va-yishbot is intended in the sense of ceasing, as in “You shall put away [tashbitu] leaven” (Shemot 12:15).

The two understandings of Shabbat are reflected in this disagreement.  Perhaps we can also see the two aspects of Shabbat alluded to in the two rationales the verse offers for Shabbat: “And God ended” (va-yekhal) – which sets Shabbat as the end-point or pinnacle of creation; “And He rested” (va-yishbot) – a temporary recess. 

          The parallelism between Shabbat and shemitta carries through all these aspects.  There is a dialectical relationship between Shabbat and the weekdays; Shabbat enhances the mundane weekdays, refreshes man, and recharges his batteries, but, on the other hand, weekday activity is performed for the sake of those Divine spiritual values which Shabbat symbolizes and represents.  This dialectical relationship applies to the sabbatical year as well.  On the one hand, the sabbatical year allows repose, a year of solemn rest.  On the other hand, the shemitta year parallels the seventh millenium, God’s rest.  It is not an introduction to the six years that will follow in the next cycle, but rather a year toward whose values of spiritual awakening and uplifting man must always stride.

On this point, there may be a difference between the sabbatical and the jubilee years.  Rabbenu Bachya speaks in this spirit, emphasizing the fact that with respect to shemitta the Torah says “your field” and “your vineyard;” man still maintains some kind of connection to his property.  Regarding yovel, however, the Torah speaks of the land as a whole, apparently indicating total detachment.  Thus it may be possible to see the emphasis of shemitta on va-yishbot (recess), and that of yovel on va-yekhal (completion)Rabbi Kook alludes to this idea in his introduction to Shabbat Ha-Aretz.

Regarding the rest and repose of Shabbat, we find a parallel in shemitta: what we may not do, from what we are liberated, over what we must elevate ourselves.  But what aspect of shemitta parallels the positive content of Shabbat?  What do we do; with what do we occupy ourselves; on what plane do we act? Here there is a certain halakhic vacuum.  Rav Kook relates to this question in his introduction, answering that the same effect that Shabbat has on the individual, shemitta has on the nation as a whole.

This nation has a special need that from time to time its Divine light must reveal itself in its full splendor, so that the mundane life of society with its burdens and worries not extinguish it … so that the purity of its soul in its entirety be able to reveal itself within it.

          If we accept this transition from the individual to the collective, we can view shemitta as attempting to create an ideal society.  In the society of the shemitta year, equality reigns, produce has no owners, there is no employer and no employee, but rather all share the same status.  Such a society acquires new and revolutionary qualities that can change the nature of that society, at least during the shemitta period.

The shemitta year should be seen, then, not only as a rest stop along the way to the years that will follow, but also as an existence of a different nature within a society that is headed as a whole toward the actualization of a grand and exalted moral idea.

Let us conclude with an additional idea found in the words of a distinguished halakhic authority who was also fully at home in the world of derush – the author of the Tumim.  I cite from his work on Choshen Mishpat, 7:

How great is this mitzva and its rationale!  Through it the Jew understands that our days on the earth are as a shadow and that we are sojourners, as were all of our fathers… The earth and all that it contains belongs to the Lord… Man should cast away his idols of silver, and not say to the work of his hands, i.e., the world and property, “You are my god.”  For then money will be regarded as naught, and riches will not profit on the day of wrath. 

He mentions some of the points that I made earlier, placing special emphasis on the idea that “through it the Jew understands that our days on the earth are as a shadow and that we are sojourners, as were all of our fathers.”  This echoes the Torah’s words at the end of the section dealing with the sabbatical and jubilee years: “The land shall not be sold forever: for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me” (Vayikra 25:23).  The shemitta year does not only inculcate religious belief and morals, perfect society, and allow man to detach himself from his day-to-day activities and occupy himself with matters of spirit; it instills within man an existential consciousness, a dialectical approach not only to his possessions but also to his very existence: the consciousness of being “strangers and sojourners” with Him.  Not strangers or sojourners, but strangers and sojourners together.  This consciousness appears also in contexts that are not social, but very personal: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; keep not silence at my tears; for I am a stranger with You, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were” (Tehillim 39:13).

The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 96) comments:

“For we are strangers before You, and sojourners, as were all our fathers; our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is no hope” (I Divrei Ha-yamim 29:15): O that it should be like the shadow of a wall or the shadow of a tree!  But it is rather like the shadow of a bird as it flies, for it is written: “As a passing shadow” (Tehillim 144:4).  “And there is no hope” – there is no one who hopes not to die.  All know and proclaim with their lips that they are dying.

That same consciousness of being both a stranger and a sojourner arises from the sabbatical year as well.

[This lecture was delivered at the twenty-fifth Congress of Jewish Thought, sponsored by the Torah Culture Department of the Ministry of Education and Culture, which took place on Sukkot 5740 (1979).]


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