Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller
This week we read the Torah’s main description of the mitzva of Shmita – the sabbatical year. This mitzva obligates us who are fortunate to be in Eretz Yisroel to leave the ground fallow, make the perennial fruits available to all and to treat the fruits with special sacredness. There are several rationales given for this great and difficult mitzva.
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 39a) says that it is Hashem’s reminder to us that in spite of all of our work and our investment in it, the land is still His. This is demonstrated by the אפקעתא דמלכא – the “seizure of the King” meaning that we lose ownership of the land for the Shmita year so that we always remember who the true owner is. This idea reappears later in the parsha when the Torah tells us that all land must revert to its original owners in the Jubilee year and that the land cannot be sold in perpetuity.
The Chinuch (a Spanish medieval sefer which expounds on the rationale of the 613 mitzvos) says that the mitzva is intended to reinforce our belief that the world was created ex nihilo. When we stop our work in the field once every seven years, it is just like when we stop our activities for Shabbos. We also make the fruits available to all to show that we understand that it is all the creators and not ours.
The Sfas Emes (Rabbi Yehuda A. Leib of Gur 1847-1905) explains that since our right to Eretz Yisroel (and the true response to those who challenge our right) is grounded in a divine grant which is recorded in the Torah, it is appropriate that the Torah dictate the parameters of its usage. This unusual and seemingly impractical mitzva is the Torah asserting its sovereignty over the land and, in turn, it justifies our presence in it.
Reb Meir Don Plotsky (prominent Rov and Rosh Yeshiva in Congress Poland 1866-1925) in his sefer, Kli Chemdah, explains that Hashem stops all agricultural work for a complete year to show us that He can provide us with food without our efforts to make it grow. This is done when Hashem blesses the previous year’s crop and it provides us with abundant food for three years, all from one crop. The Chinuch alludes to this idea by saying that it strengthens our faith when Hashem demonstrates His ability to provide for us without our own efforts and intervention.
The Rambam writes in his Guide to the Perplexed that the benefit of this mitzva is a social one by making the produce available to the poor. It is also beneficial from the agricultural standpoint since the land can rejuvenate when it is left fallow.
The Kuzari (R. Yehudah Halevi) writes that the Jewish farmer restores balance to his life by abandoning physical work and the pursuit of material wealth during this year and focuses on his spirit and his spiritual acquisitions since he is unable to work in the fields.
Rabbi Yitchak Abarbenel (Spanish Torah commentator 1437-1508) adds that a man needs to realize his mortality and recognize that the “the day is short, and the work is abundant.” When we pause from our intense agricultural work and take the year off, it helps us focus on the waning years of our lives when we need to withdraw from the “rat race.” The seventh year should remind us of the seventh decade of life which is typically close to the end of a person’s lifespan.
Rav S. R. Hirsch says that this mitzva is a national statement that we recognize that we are all guests of Hashem in the land, and we will show more concern and respect to the strangers and those who are disenfranchised from society.
While many of these explanations to this mitzva vary and some are quite similar, this discussion teaches us how nuanced the mitzvos are. While some relate to the Torah and mitzvos as a set of legal and technical parameters for all aspect of our lives (which it is), it also contains a whole layer of beliefs that are aroused and brought into our consciousness by the practice of these laws. Shmita frames our relationship to Eretz Yisroel which is not just a territory which is dear to us from a nationalist standpoint. Instead, it is a spiritual mandate granted to a Chosen People by the King of Kings. It changes the whole national enterprise on the Land to be a special and holy one.
Perhaps this is why the Torah introduces this specific mitzva as being given at Har Sinai. All the mitzvos were given at Sinai, why mention it here? Perhaps the message is that the Holy Land which was given to us by Hashem needs to be appreciated as a mitzva from Sinai and not a land granted to a conquering people which is subject to the waxing and waning of historic events. The Torah defines us and our homeland, and it is not that the land defines the nation.