Shiur #02: Examining the Two Shemitta Sections in the Torah Part II

  • Rav Moshe Taragin


This week’s shiurim are dedicated in loving memory
of Yehuda Nattan Yudkowsky z”l whose yahrzeit is 17 Cheshvan



Having examined the textual basis for shemitta we will now consider some of the reasons behind the mitzva.


The Rambam, in his Moreh Nevukhim, (3:39) raises two themes of shemitta. The first, as presented in last week's shiur, is to "provide generosity and charity for man [needful of such treatment]." The Rambam cites the phrase from Mishpatim, "Let the needy of your people eat of [the land]" (23:11), to stress the relief which shemitta undoubtedly provides for the impoverished. He makes particular mention of shemittat kesafim (the canceling of all debits - see Devarim 15:1-6), a facet of shemitta which is clearly designed to restore financial stability to those who have fallen on hard times. In addition, he lumps the social benefits of shemitta together with those which stem from Yovel (the restoration of sold fields and the emancipation of slaves), all of which he sees as contributing to a more ethical and fair society. As I mentioned in last week's shiur, this function is implicit in Parashat Mishpatim and arouses little disagreement. It is interesting to note that the laws of shemitta were delayed until the land was conquered and fully divided, long after the laws pertaining to the Land of Israel took hold. If indeed shemitta and yovel play crucial roles in providing checks and balances against an imbalance of wealth, we could easily understand their postponement until the stage at which the socio-economic reality begins to develop.


            The Rambam lists a second and more controversial utility of shemitta-to allow the land a recess to recover its "strength" and assure continued production. The Akeidat Yitzchak (Vayikra siman 69) strongly rejects this concept and offers several reasons for its dismissal. The Torah promises us that if we implement shemitta, the sixth year will provide at least three years worth of crops, insuring that we have enough to eat and are not threatened by the abstinence from work during shemitta. If the seventh year were necessary to restore the land's energy, it is unlikely that the year immediately before would be so prodigious. In addition, the Torah presents extremely harsh punishments for violating shemitta. Bechukotai promises that we will be exiled from the land to insure that if we do not observe shemitta, it recovers its deserved but violated shemitta years. If shemitta were purely utilitarian, the penalty for non-compliance should not be as severe and should logically be the gradual weakening of our land and its diminished production. The severe penalty of exile suggests a more theological notion to shemitta.


            The Sefer Ha-chinukh (mitzva 84) does indeed propose these theological themes. The first idea he raises is the recognition that Hashem created the world in six days. By resting during the seventh period of a cycle, be it the seventh day of the week or the seventh year of a shemitta cycle, we constantly commemorate Hashem's creation of the world and consequent authority over it. Of particular poignancy is the repudiation of ownership (hefker) performed upon the yield of shemitta which is meant to underscore that Hashem, not the natural system, is behind the production of these crops. The Chizkuni (Vayikra 25:2) comments on the phrase "shabbat la-Hashem" that our refrain from work during shemitta demonstrates the fact that Hashem owns the land. In his next comment he adds, "Don't desist from work merely to improve the land but rather to perform Hashem's command," rejecting the Rambam's approach. While the Chinukh was interested in establishing God's having created the world, the Chizkuni points more toward His ownership of it. In fact, we might now better understand the introduction to this section, "When you enter the land that I CONFER to you" (25:2). The purpose of shemitta is to remind us of Hashem's ultimate ownership of the land and the Torah lays clear emphasis upon this facet.


Rashi himself (25:2) probably intends the Chinukh's position when he accents the phrase "shabbat la-Hashem" and draws the similarity between shemitta and Shabbat. This theme is also elaborated upon by the Ramban in his commentary to Behar when he notes the obvious parallel between Shabbat and shemitta, which is labeled Shabbat la-Hashem." The Ramban sees Shabbat proper as commemorative of the history of creation, while shemitta evokes the history of the world, which is constantly unfurling to that "seventh day of absolute rest" (yom she-kulo shabbat u-menucha). Because shemitta symbolizes the implications of creation upon world history, its violation is so severely punished. It should be noted that the Ramban's view is more cosmological (history of creation and history of the world), while the Chinukh's position is far more existential (desisting from work to personally affirm your belief in Hashem's authority).


The Chinukh poses an additional connotation to shemitta: it conditions us to greater generosity. Keep in mind that unlike the Rambam, the Chinukh is not interested in the socio-economic benefits of shemitta, but rather the personal character growth which is inevitable for someone who exhibits such selflessness during this experience. In a related sense, the Chinukh points to the formidable faith which must underlie proper adherence to shemitta. Again, this mitzva is geared to condition proper traits (generosity and faith) within the human heart and not to provide economic relief to those who suffer.


The Akeidat Yitzchak offers a novel suggestion when he describes shemitta as a break from the endless pursuit of monetary wealth. Once in seven years we are given the "opportunity" to regain our composure and focus upon the truly important pursuits in life. He writes very poetically about the futility of those who are blinded and enslaved by the lies and mirages of this world. Hashem provides luminous "candles" for us throughout our "time-experience" by obligating us to intermittently withdraw from that habituating experience of work and afford ourselves an opportunity to re-establish our true priorities. The Akeidat Yitzchak's comments are clearly a timeless message not only about shemitta, but more importantly about Shabbat itself. Whether this notion is conveyed by the text of Behar, however, is highly questionable.


The Abarbanel Nachalat Avot 5:11) is dissatisfied with the Akeidat Yitzchak's view primarily because it places too much emphasis upon a human need. The mitzvot serve more transcendent goals, and any benefit for human experience is merely incidental. True shemitta does provide this "wakeup," but it must possess a more essential and central motif. In the back of the Abarbanel's mind is the constant reference to the land and the extreme punishment of exile for shemitta violation. He claims that just as the Jewish people have been chosen, so too the land of Israel enjoys unique status INDEPENDENT of the fact that the people of Israel live there. In fact, Avraham was directed to relocate to Israel and receive prophecy even before a nation had developed. This unique status shared by both the people and the land of Israel require that both testify and announce Hashem's creation of the world by resting during a seventh cycle. People work on a daily schedule, so the seventh day is selected as a day of testament. Land, which operates on a yearly schedule, must exclaim Hashem's ownership every seventh year. It is truly an experience which is centered upon the land and which only incidentally affects man and his behavior. In fact, exile is not a punishment as much as an unpaid debt. By working the land during shemitta, we prevent it from performing its duty and must be evicted to allow the land to compensate.



The novelty in the Abarbanel is in the emphasis he lays upon the land as an independent force in the shemitta process. Future shiurim will i"yH explore the halakhic manifestations of this idea.