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The Conceptual Foundations of Shemitta

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


            Everything depends on luck, even the Torah scroll in the sanctuary. It may be said that the mitzva of shemita did not have the good fortune of striking deep roots and gaining a strong foothold within the Jewish people. The prospective importance of shemita is prominently highlighted in the Torah in the reproach in Parashat Bechukotai, and this is echoed in the words of the Prophets: "And you are in your enemies' land; then shall the land and enjoy her sabbaths" (Vayikra 26:34). From here Chazal inferred that exile is imposed for the sin of failing to observe shemita. But despite this emphasis on the importance of shemita, Scripture attests to the fact that in actual practice shemita 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 shemita. Regarding the shemita of money, i.e., the release of monetary debts, the Torah admonishes: "Beware that there be not an unworthy thought in your heart, saying" (Devarim 15:9). And in the end we came to the mishna in tractate Shevi'it, which describes how Hillel saw that the mitzva was not being observed and how he enacted the prozbul. With respect to the shemita 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), and eventually we came to the heter mekhira.


Chazal, as well, insinuate that the mitzva of shemita was regarded as a trivial and flimsy mitzva: "To what may this be likened? To two women who 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 them: Please, announce the offense for which I am being flogged, so that people not say that for the offence for which that one was flogged also this one was flogged. They brought unripe figs of the sabbatical year and hung them from her neck, and proclaimed, saying: She is flogged for matters pertaining to the sabbatical year" (Yoma 86). 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 shemita. It is important to emphasize, however, that this weakening occurred not only with respect to the shemita of land, but even regarding the shemita of money.


Anyone who examines the discussion of this issue in Sachar ha-Terumot will be astonished to find how widespread was the disregard of the mitzva of shemita of money. We refer not to the use of prozbul, but to the total indifference to the mitzva. The same may be said about large parts of Provence and Spain. This neglect took place in communities which at times unhesitatingly chose martyrdom over giving up their faith; communities which accepted upon themselves stringency after stringency, but here – with respect to the mitzva of shemita – seem to have been totally detached from an entire realm of halakha.


This is reflected in the Shulchan Arukh as well. The Rema accepts those positions according to which the shemita of money – and essentially shemita in general – does not apply today, either by Torah law or by rabbinic enactment. And here we are not dealing with a mitzva that depends upon the land of Israel, but with the shemita 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 shemita.


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




The best starting point for discussing the conceptual foundations of the mitzva of shemita is the comparison to that realm, the importance and severity of which has never been doubted, which we find compared to shemita, both in the Torah and in the words of the Rishonim – namely, Shabbat. "Then shall the land keep a sabbath to the Lord" (Vayikra 25:2). Say Chazal: "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.'" 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 the other hand, Shabbat is a day of mitzva; beyond the symbolic plain, beyond its function as a reminder, it has essential meaning.


On the symbolic plain, there are two focuses: first, remembrance of creation, testimony to the creation and constant renewal of the world, and everything connected thereto in the realm of religious beliefs; and second, remembrance of the exodus from Egypt.


On the other hand, there is the essential content of Shabbat and its practical ramifications. Here too we can point to two main focuses. On one side, liberation from weekday burdens and concerns, which allows a person to refresh, refill, and renew himself so that he will be able to act with greater vigor and energy in the coming days of the following week. On the other hand, Shabbat is not a day that comes to serve the mundane world and allow a person to recharge his batteries in order to toil in that world. On the contrary, Shabbat is the climax of the week, the climax of man's world, and it is the weekdays that serve it and lead up to it.


Regarding the sabbatical year as well, we can talk about essential aspects, concrete ramifications in the wake of the shemita of land, the shemita 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 teach and instruct in the realm of religious beliefs and in the realm of morality and values.


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. Not with respect to the exodus from Egypt, which isn't connected to the sabbatical year in any real way, but rather with respect to the creation of the world and the belief in the six days of creation. Sefer Chinukh emphasizes this point. Like Shabbat, the sabbatical year testifies to the creation of the world and negates the notion that the world had always existed. In his commentary to the Torah, the Ramban widens the canvas. He sees the sabbatical year as a reminder and testimony not only to the 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, the nature of historical development in general. The sabbath of shemita parallels God's sabbath and the seventh millenium. The Ramban summarizes this idea in his Torat ha-Shem Temima. Following his clarification of the matter of shemita, he concludes: "The jubilee year is testimony to the creation, 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 testimony and a reminder regarding several fundamental principles of religious belief. But this reminder, as opposed to that of Shabbat, is a harsh, severe and 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 testimony and beyond the inculcation on the plain of religious beliefs, for something that operates from a moral and ethical perspective on the personal level.


Rabbenu Bachya, in his commentary to the Torah, and also the author of the Akeida raise the issue of the awareness and recognition that "the earth and its entire contents belong to the Lord." Here we are dealing not only with the prohibition of certain agricultural labors during shemita, 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 has then what to teach man about the concepts of ownership and possession.


This itself divides into two, and even three factors.


First of all, we are dealing here with testimony to and the determination of the fact of God's ownership in the sense of "the earth and its entire contents belong to the Lord." This is particularly prominent on the plain of "But the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow" (Shemot 23:11), removal of man from his proprietary rights to the fruits of his property. But this is also evident with respect to the prohibition of agricultural work. Regarding the verse, "a sabbath to the Lord," the Chizkuni says: "A sign that the land is Mine, that there is a sabbath to My name."


Second, there is here a detachment of man from his material property and from that almost crazy idea that overcomes him the other six years of the sabbatical cycle, namely, to hold on with dear life to one's 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 trust. During the shemita 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 plain, 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.


As stated above, 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 in the field, in the wake of the mitzvot of shemita. Here we must note two main realms. The Rambam talks about one of them in his More Nevukhim – 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, loading and unloading, 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. And not merely on the level of acts of kindness, one person extending a helping hand to another, but rather 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:


"But the seventh year you shall let it rest." A person must not say: Why did the Torah say… is it not that the poor should eat [i.e., the objective of renunciation of proprietary rights is that the poor should have what to 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 connect with the shemita relating to money discussed 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.


            Regarding Shabbat we saw two main ideas: on the one hand, Shabbat as serving the weekdays, and, on the other hand, the days of the week leading 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." This stands out in the section of Bereishit that deals with Shabbat, where we find a disagreement among the Rishonim regarding the term shevita, "rest." On the one hand "shevita" denotes resting today with the intention of returning to work tomorrow. In other words, a sort of recess. According to this, the shevita of Shabbat is necessary as something that enhances the work of tomorrow. This stands in contrast to what the Radak says: "From what did He rest – from all of His work, for after the sixth day, He did not 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 4o:28). And He did not create the world out of weariness. Alternatively, va-yishbot – like 'You shall put away [tashbitu] leaven' (Shemot 12:15)." The two understandings of Shabbat are reflected in this disagreement. And perhaps we can see these two aspects alluded to in the two rationales: "And God ended" (va-yekhal) – which sets Shabbat as the pinnacle of creation. "And He rested" (va-yishbot) – a temporary recess.


            A parallelism between Shabbat and shemita may be seen all along the way. Regarding Shabbat we saw a dialectical relationship; on the one hand, Shabbat enhances the mundane weekdays, refreshes man, and recharges his batteries, but, on the other hand, weekday activity is in the end performed for the sake of those Divine spiritual values which Shabbat symbolizes and represents. This twofold dialectical relationship is significant with respect 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 shemita 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 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 shemita it says "your field" and "your vineyard"; man still maintains some kind of connection to his property. Regarding the 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 shemita on va-yishbot, and that of yovel on va-yekhal. Rabbi Kook alludes to this idea in his introduction to Shabbat ha-Aretz.


Another question arises: As for its contents, what about the sabbatical year parallels Shabbat? Regarding the rest and repose of Shabbat, we find a parallel in shemita: what we may not do, from what we are liberated, over what we must elevate ourselves. But what aspect of shemita parallels the positive content of Shabbat? What do we do, with what do we occupy ourselves, on what plain do we act? Here there is a certain halakhic vacuum. Rabbi Kook relates to this question in his introduction. He answers: The same effect that Shabbat has on the individual, shemita 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 might be able to identify specific social content. We refer here to the structure of society during the sabbatical year. A society in which equality reigns, a society in which produce has no owners, where there is no employer and no employee, but rather all share the same status. Such a society acquires new and revolutionary content that can change the face and nature of that society at least during that period.


The shemita 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.


Before we conclude, we might add yet another idea, one that is rooted 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… that 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." Here we should mention a verse appearing 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 shemita 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 which appears in this verse appears in other places as well, but 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" (Tehilim 39:13).


Says the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 96) on the verse in I Divrei Ha-yamim 29:15, "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": 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" (Tehilim 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 rises from the sabbatical year as well.


(Translated by David Strauss)


* HaRav Lichtenstein delivered this lecture at the twenty-fifth Congress of Jewish Thought of the Torah Culture Department of the Ministry of Education and Culture which took place on Sukkot 1979. It was not reviewed by HaRav Lichtenstein.

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