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Behar: The Land Shall Keep a Sabbath to the Lord

Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: “When you come to the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Sabbath to the Lord.” Regarding this verse Alshikh asks:

When you come to the land which I give you: ” There is none who does not know that it is God Who gives, for the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof, and this is also stated several times in the Torah. It therefore seems superfluous here – why does the Torah mention it?

Man is possessed of a strong feeling of proprietorship. It is perhaps most strongly rooted in the peasant who dwells and lives on his own land. The sensation of mine is fraught with danger. It is to counter it that the Torah emphasizes that the Land is a gift from God to Israel, and in order to remind him that not the power and the might of his hand have gotten him his wealth.

Then the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord. 25:2 Rashi comments (citing Sifra): “To the Lord”: For the sake of the Lord, as it is stated in regard to the Sabbath day. The commentators on Sifra and Rashi’s super-commentators observe that none of the Festivals, not even Yom Kippur, is predicated Sabbath to the Lord. This distinction has fallen only to the Sabbath day and to the Sabbath year, indicating a close link between them. Indeed, we find juxtaposition of the two in Parashat Mishpatim: And six years thou shall sow thy land, and shall gather in its fruits, Ex. 23:10 but the seventh year thou shall let it rest and lie fallow… 23:11 Six days thou shall do thy work, and on the seventh day thou shall rest… 23:12 A study of verses 2-8 in our chapter which deal with the subject of the Sabbath Year reveals an even closer link between the Sabbath Year and the Sabbath day. …then shall the land keep a Sabbath to the Lord Lev. 25:2 Six years thou shall sow thy field, and six years thou shall prune the vineyard, and gather in its fruit. 25:3 But in the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath for the Lord; Thou shall neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard. 25:4 That which of its own accord of thy harvest thou shall not reap, nor gather the grapes of thy undressed vine, for it shall be a year of rest for the land. 25:5 And the Sabbath produce of the land shall be food for you, for thee and for thy servant and for thy maid and for thy hired servant and for thy stranger that sojourns with thee. 25:6 We note the poetic style of these verse, the metrical harmony between the verses dealing with field and vineyard (first part of v. 3, and of verse 4, and beginning of v. 5) as well as the chiasmus – in v. 3 the order is predicate – object (sow thy field, prune thy vineyard), whereas in v.4 the order is object-predicate (thy field thou shall not sow, thy vineyard thou shall not prune), and this occurs also in v. 5. Derivatives of the root Sabbath appear seven times, either as a verb or as a noun. This is reminiscent of the first chapter of Genesis, which is divided into seven passages, and where “that it was good” appears seven times. Prof. M.D. Cassuto draws our attention to some other multiples of seven in Genesis 1: The first verse contains seven words, the second fourteen, i.e., twice seven. The seventh passage, dealing with the seventh day, contains three successive verses, each one with seven words: (And by the seventh day God ended His work which He had done) (7 words in Hebrew) (And He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done) (7 words in Hebrew) (And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it) (7 words in Hebrew)

The number of words in the seventh passage is 35 (5X7). That all this is just coincidence, is inconceivable.

Indeed, many commentators consider that, similarly to the Sabbath day, the remembrance of the Creation is the main reason for the Shemitah year of rest for the land. And this is one of the reasons that R. Yitzhak Arama states for the Shemita year, in his work Akedat Yitzhak, Chap. 69:

…its purpose is to bring home to us the Truth, and to open our ears and illuminate our hearts through great and wonderful signs, and to open the eyes of those who are steeped in the illusions of this world, and are addicted to earthly labor. But seeing that they (the Children of Israel) agreed to serve God out of love, He enlightened us and opened for us windows in order to open the blind eyes, to bring those that sit in darkness out of the prison house, and to bring out of prison those who are prisoners of their own greed, shackled by vain and futile things. He fixed periodical milestones in the course of our days, weeks, and years, which cannot go unnoticed, unless we foolishly ignore them and are blind to them…For the six days of work and the seventh day of rest bear testimony that the world was created by God’s will…and this is the genuine sign and symbol for truth of God’s existence…and this is the most fundamental article of faith of every believer…

This analogy between Shemitah and Shabbat is emphasized also by the author of the Meshekh Hokhma, since Shemitah, like Shabbat testifies that the world was created by the Lord – for the Land is mine (Lev. 25:23). And he found a further allusion to this principle in the Torah:

Six years: The six years correspond to the six days of Creation. Similarly, Torat Kohanim points out that the seventh day of Creation and the seventh year are both referred to as Sabbath to the Lord. It may be noted also that “that it was good” is stated twice both on the third and on the sixth day! It is therefore that the Tithe for the poor must be given every third and sixth year, in order to be good to one’s fellow man. This is a very appropriate hint.

However, he considers this only as one of the reasons for the Shemitah precept, and in another place he makes the following observation:

The reasons for Shemitah are many and unfathomable, known only to God the Omniscient. This, let it be understood, is indicated by “Sabbath to God.”

The reading of the texts will show the conspicuous similarity between the Shemitah law and the commandment to rest on the Sabbath day. The designation of the Shemitah year as the Sabbath of the land is not without significance. The Torah thus bears out as being the most obvious reason the one which underlies both the Sabbath day and the Sabbath Year. And the principal reason for the Shabbat (without ignoring a wealth of reasons, including some mentioned in the torah) is without a doubt, for in six days that Lord made heaven and earth.

The ideological importance of the belief in the Creation of the world lies not in its lesson about the formation of the universe but as Prof. Y. Guttman writes in his work Dat uMada (Religion and Science) (Jerusalem 5715-1955), p. 263:

Rather than in the origin of the world, faith is interested in teaching man about his origin. The ideological import of the account of the Creation is to show man that God is Master and lord of the world: the universe is His creation. And I am His creature.

The idea of our dependence on God, His sovereignty and of our duty to accept the yoke of His commandments is based on our belief that He has made us, and we are His. The Sabbath and the Shemitah year are, therefore, reminders of God’s creation of the world.

However, not all commentators have accepted this as being the reason – and certainly not the only reason – for the law of Shemtah. In order to understand the various interpretations of the significance of the Shemitah year, we must first know something about its basic rules. We shall content ourselves with two rules referring to the resting of the land. Maimonides. Hilkhot Shemitah veYovel 1:1:

It is a positive commandment to suspend work on the land and the cultivation of trees. Maimonides, Hilkhot Shemitah 4, 24: It is a positive commandment to release all agricultural produce on the seventh year, as it is stated (Ex. 23:11) “but the seventh year thou shall let it rest and lie fallow.” Thus, whoever, encloses his vineyard, or fences in his field on the seventh year, violates a positive c. So, too, if he gathers in all his produce into his house. Rather let him abandon it all and allow everything unrestricted access, as it is stated (ibid., ibid.) “…that the poor of thy people may eat.” He is permitted to bring into his house small quantities, as is done in the case of abandoned produce.

Thus there are two precepts to be complied with by the Jew in the Shemitah year, which will leave their imprint on life during that year; The suspension of all agricultural work, and the renunciation of ownership of all agricultural produce, declaring it public property. (we shall not now deal with the third precept, the cancellation of all monetary debts mentioned in Parashat Re’eh (Deut. 15:1-11).

Whoever wishes to find a reason for the institution of the Sabbatical year of the land, must bear in mind, not only one, but both above mentioned aspects of the Shemitah year. We present some of the views regarding the reason for the Shemitah laws, in their chronological order, and will subsequently classify and compare them.

Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed, 3,39:

As to the precepts enumerated in the laws concerning the year of Shemitah and the Yovel (Jubilee) year, some of them imply sympathy with our fellow men and promote the well-being of mankind; for in reference to these precepts it is stated in the Torah: That the poor of thy people may eat (Ex. 23:11); and besides, the land will also increase its produce and improve when it remains fallow for some time.

The first motive explains the precept of renunciation of all produce (mentioned by Maimonides in Chapter 4), and the second reason a purely agricultural one—explains why the land must lie fallow.

Many commentators reject the agricultural motive. Abarvanel strongly repudiates this explanation:

The truth is that this is not so.

And Abarvanel adduces two arguments against Maimonides’ view. One from verses 20-21, from whose text it is obvious that uninterrupted working of the land for six years does not result in its weakening, but on the contrary – its yield will be exceedingly bountiful (in the sixth year). We cite Abarvanel:

If the Torah is concerned about the natural weakening of the land in consequence of working year after year, how then is it going to yield produce for three years?

A counter-argument could be that what the Torah promises is not a natural phenomenon, but as it explicitly states – this will occur if you will keep the Lord’s commandments:

And I will command My blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth fruit for three years. (25:21)

The text and style of the verse indicate clearly a very special and wondrous blessing. However, there is another argument which motivates the rejection of the agricultural reason for the Shemitah law.

We find that argument in Akedat Yitzhak 89, whose author also opposes this idea of Maimonides:

Our Sages have said (Avot 5,11): Captivity comes into the world on account of…and the neglect of the year of rest for the soil. Why should this transgression be punished so severely?…If the suspension of work is for the benefit of the soil, in conformity with the custom of farmers to let the land lie fallow for some years, in order that it may gather strength and yield more…then their failing to keep the Shemitah law…will be punished by the resulting poor crops – why should they be punished with exile into captivity? Other commentators adduce the text of the verse for their counter argument. Thus Keli Yakar states: Many affirm that the purpose of the rest for the land is it reinvigorate it and increase its field. The master (Maimonides) also adopted this view. However, many commentators reject it, arguing that if that had been the purpose of the Torah – to avoid the weakening of the soil – why should the violation of this law be punished by exile… Furthermore, in this case the Shemitah year would not be a Sabbath to the Lord) but for the benefit of the land.

On the other hand the commentators agree with Maimonides’ first reason, of social significance, i.e., sympathy with our fellow men and to promote the well-being of mankind, or as expressed by the author of Minhah Belulah:

And the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord: this law was given in order that we may show sympathy for our fellow men who have neither land nor vineyards, and that they may be happy in the Shemitah year, as the rich are happy every year.

Giving emphasis to brotherhood and not only to equality, Keli Yakar in Deut. 31:12 explains the Shemitah of the land, relating it to the Shemitah (cancellation) of debts:

Gather the people together: The Shemitah year contains factors conducive to union and peace. For since no sowing and planting is allowed, the poor may eat freely and none may store produce and treat it as his own, this undoubtedly creates favorable conditions towards peace, because all strife originates from the attitude of “mine is mine” and people claiming their rights. But in the seventh year all are equal – this can indeed generate peace.

The Or Hahayim sees also in the last verse of the Shemitah chapter an allusion to the atmosphere of peace, which the Shemitah promotes, as being the reason for the commandment:

“Shall be food for you” – for thee and for thy servant and for thy maid and for thy hired servant and for thy stranger that sojourns with thee (v.6): Although the above-mentioned had already been included in the general statement for you (plural), the Torah enumerates them. Why then does the Torah state for you? It would have sufficed to state: And the Sabbath produce of the land shall be food for thee and for thy servant, etc. But (for you) precedes for thee, etc., in order to intimate that the sequence in the list that follows does not indicate any priority (contrary to the example of “If there be among you a poor man, one of my brethren, within any of thy gates” (Deut. 15:7) (se Rashi’s comment), where the sequence indicates that the poor of your city have priority over those of other cities). The collective implies that in regard to food in the Shemitah year all are equal and none enjoy any priority.

However, all the reasons cited explain only or mainly the precept of the renunciation of ownership, but not the suspension of agricultural work.

Let us, therefore, cite Ibn Ezra’s very concise comment in deut. 31:10-12:

At the end of every seven years: At the beginning of the year. And that they may learn: Throughout the years, including the Sabbath days.

In this case, the suspension of work (in the Shemitah year) is to facilitate the study of the Torah.

Among the several reasons adduced, the Akedat Yitzhak elaborates on this point emphasizing the danger inherent in continual work without limits which leaves no time for matters of spiritual interest:

The second point …that the seven years of work and the suspension of work in every seventh year causes us to realize that our mission on earth is not to be slaves to the soil but a much higher and nobler one. Work should only serve the purpose of providing food and other needs, while our task is to attain to the supreme end; the purpose of giving this land to this people was not to be brought into the land in order to be enslaved by it, and addicted to tilling it and gather in the crops and enrich themselves, as do the other nations in their lands, as it is stated, “… let them dwell in the land and trade in it; for the land, behold, it is large enough for them” (Gen. 34:21). Their purpose is to accomplish themselves and seek perfection, according to the will of their Creator, while satisfying the needs of their sustenance.

In order to underscore this vital task they were given this great sign to remind them that they should work the land six years and let is rest in the seventh, to make them realize that earthly work

And toil were not intended to be the road to man’s might but something from which they should take a rest for the sake of the Lord. This is implied in the verse, “And the Sabbath produce of the land shall be food for you, for thee and for thy servant and for thy maid and for thy hired servant and for the sthat sojourns with thee,” this should bring home to you the fact that you should work no more than just to provide food for you, your servant and maid, your hired servant and the stranger, i.e. the poor among your people. Any surplus should be given to the cattle and beasts of the land.

Accordingly, the Shemitah year should lift man out of his materialism. Interestingly, Akedat Yizhak cites Hamor, the father of shekhem, as the archetype of the seeker of material gains, of those enslaved by it (the soil) and its cultivations, work it and gather in the crops, as representing this outlook on life, who wishes to persuade his townspeople to undergo even conversion to the Jewish faith for the purpose of commercial expansion and the raising of the material quality of life.

Now comes the Shemitah year with its two demands—suspension of work, implying the foregoing of profit, and the renunciation of ownership, with the consequent renouncing of existing possessions – in order to gain the right moral values. R.A.Y. Kook, following this idea, explains admirably the meaning of Shemitah, in the introduction to his work Shabbat HaAretz (The Sabbath of the Land):

The treasure of the nation, the Divine blessing that is implanted in it, the order of the world, the righteous and good life, lived in harmony with justice and honesty, peace and tranquility, grace and courage, permeated by the all-embracing contemplation of the Diviner purpose, as it exists in the national soul – none can be activated in the day-to day life. The very nature of this life obfuscates the spiritual majesty of the Divine soul (which dwells in the nation) and prevents its bright and shining light from penetrating the profane reality.

Life can only be perfected through the affording of a breathing space from the bustle of everyday life. The individual recovers from the influence of the mundane at frequent intervals, every Sabbath day… What the Sabbath achieves regarding the individual, the Shemitah achieves with regard to the nation as a whole. This nation (in which the Divine spirit dwells prominent and eternal) has special need of expressing from time to time the revelation of its own Divine light at its fullest brightness, not suppressed by the cares and toil of the passions and rivalries of everyday life, so that the totality of the soul’s purity may be revealed within it. And if that callousness which is bound to be present in the life of a community, causes the deterioration of the moral standard of life, and the constant conflict between the ideal heeding of the appeal top practice of loving kindness and truthfulness, compassion and pity, on the one hand, and the raging oppression, coercion, and pressure of the quest for material gain, inevitable in daily life, on the other, cause the distancing of the Divine light from the cognitive capacity of the nation… The periodical suspension of the normal social routine raises this nation – when morally settled – spiritually and morally, and crowns it with perfection. This is achieved through the divine content that is rooted in the nation, and which stands high above any social system and order, and which raises and perfects the social order.

A year of solemn rest is essential for both the nation and the land, a year of peace and quiet without oppressor and tyrant—he shall not oppress his neighbor and his brother, for a Shemitah has been proclaimed to the Lord. It is a year of equality and rest, in which the soul reaches out towards divine justice, towards God who sustains the living creatures with loving kindness. There is no private property and no punctilious privilege but the peace of god reigns over all in which there is the breath of life. It shall be a Sabbath of the land to you for food, for your manservant and hired servant and the sojourner who sojourns with you, and for your cattle and the animalism your land, all its produce shall be for food. Sanctity is not profaned by the exercise of private acquisitiveness over all this year’s produce, and the covetousness of wealth stirred up by commerce is forgotten. For food – but not for commerce. Generosity and gratefulness for the blessing of God over the fruits of the earth – for food – but not for loss (Pesahim 52b – that is, it is forbidden intentionally to spoil food fit for human consumption). Man returns to the pristine nature before he required drugs to combat disease, which is largely the result of upsetting the equilibrium of life, and is symptomatic of his divorcement from nature in its spiritual and material aspects. For food and not for drugs, for food and not for making an emetic (Sukkah 40b). Pour out a spirit of sanctity and nobility over all! – it shall be a solemn Sabbath for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord.

Thus Ibn Ezra and Rav Kook see in the raising of the spiritual level the main purpose of the Shemitah, through the farmers dedicating the year to the Torah studies and thus reaching higher spiritual levels, as Ibn Ezra explains. R. Kook, on the other hand, sees in the suspension of the normal social order of labor, of the quest for sustenance, of commercial activities (including the cancellation of debts), in the abstention from the profanation of the holy as reflected in the passionate consciousness of private property – in all these he sees a means of purifying the soul and of uncovering and activating the Divine treasure which dwells in the soul of the nation.

Nothing more need be added to his words.