Parashat Behar begins with the command of shemitta, requiring that farmers refrain from agricultural work in the Land of Israel every seventh year. The Torah introduces this command by stating, “When you enter the land which I am giving you, the land shall observe a rest for the Lord. For six years you shall plant your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather its produce. But on the seventh, there shall be a year of complete rest for the land…” (25:2-4).
Rav Meir Simcha Ha-kohen of Dvinsk, in Meshekh Chokhma, notes that the Torah introduces the concept of shemitta, of the land “resting,” even before mentioning that Benei Yisrael should till the land for six years. The Torah first establishes that “the land shall observe a rest,” and only then says, “For six years you shall plant your field…” Rav Meir Simcha explains that the concept of shemitta is relevant not only after six years, when the shemitta year begins in practice, but even during the six years when the land is tilled. Right from the outset, from the time that Benei Yisrael “enter the land which I am giving you,” they must be cognizant of the fact that “the land shall observe a rest for the Lord,” that their rights to the land are inherently limited. The knowledge that they must leave the land fallow during the seventh year affects their mindset and outlook on their relationship to the land even during the preceding six years.
The practical halakhic expression of this cognizance, Rav Meir Simcha writes, is found in the ruling of the Talmud Yerushalmi (Pesachim 4:9) regarding a vineyard that one planted as a donation to hekdesh (the Temple treasury). When shemitta arrives, the Yerushalmi establishes, the laws of shemitta pertain to this vineyard, and the Temple treasury cannot sell the produce, just as ordinary farmers cannot sell their produce during the shemitta year. One explanation given for this halakha in the Yerushalmi is that the institution of shemitta preceded the consecration of the property. Already from the outset, when the individual planted the vineyard for hekdesh, his ownership and control over the property was inherently limited by the institution of shemitta. He can donate to hekdesh only that which he owns – and thus the shemitta year is, from the outset, excluded from the donation, as the individual himself never had rights over his land during shemitta.
Rav Meir Simcha thus suggests explaining the introductory verse to Parashat Behar – “When you enter the land which I am giving you, the land shall observe a rest” – to mean that from the moment Benei Yisrael took possession of the Land of Israel, the shemitta year was excluded from their possession. Although the restrictions begin only with the onset of the shemitta year; fundamentally, even during the preceding six years, the farmers’ control and authority over their property is limited by virtue of the prospect of the shemita year. Right when Benei Yisrael entered the land, they were told that they were being given the land so they could enjoy and benefit from it – but that ultimately, the land belongs to the Almighty, and it is by His grace and with His permission that they were invited to cultivate it and reap its benefits.