Shiur #08: Emuna and Bitachon

  • Rav Binyamin Zimmerman

The Four Chambers of Shemitta


In last week's lesson we presented various rationales offered by the commentaries for the mitzvot of shemitta, in particular the Rambam's discussion of the dual nature of shemitta. We saw that shemitta's message is broad and multifaceted, and its significance is rooted in the fact that it provides guidance in the four fundamental dimensions of our existence: spiritual relations, bein addam la-Makom; interpersonal relations, bein addam le-chavero; character development, bein addam le-atzmo; and our relationship to the land, bein addam le-artzo.


In the bein addam la-Makom realm, shemitta inculcates emuna (faith) in God's command over the world He created and continues to control. It also displays uncharacteristic bitachon (trust) in God: leaving nature to itself and refraining from planting and cultivating one's crops for an entire year will not naturally yield enough food for survival, let alone prosperity. Additionally, it gives people time for the important things in life, particularly enabling one to dedicate a year to spiritual pursuits. All these ideals culminate in the Hakhel experience on the Sukkot following a shemitta year; it is there where the experience of receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai is reenacted with its definitive unity of purpose and vision, re-experienced, and even relived.


Regarding the bein addam le-chavero aspect, we will see how shemitta allows for a type of kindness to the unfortunate where one can actually appreciate the distress and troubled circumstances of those in need. Additionally, shemitta provides an equalizing measure which puts everyone on the same playing field for a year, and corrects some of the extreme imbalance of wealth that can occur over time in almost any society and financial climate. Furthermore, it imparts through a host of other measures true achdut (unity) in identity, privilege and purpose that is almost unparalleled. Additionally, in the process, one's character is elevated and even transformed. This is the bein addam le-chavero flavor of shemitta.


Shemitta’s unique expressions of kindness, as well as its call to abandon ownership of one's produce for a year, among other things, is not only aimed at benefitting others. A deeper analysis of the mitzvot of shemitta clearly indicates that it aims to develop the personality of the Jew in the process, teaching him how to do without and to recognize what one's needs really are. This is what is known as bein addam le-atzmo. As we will see, one who emerges after a shemitta year has a refined character and is prepared to weather the trials and tribulations that might befall him before the next shemitta reiterates the messages.


Lastly, shemitta has a distinct bein addam le-artzo message. It has a significant impact on the way we view the world — nature in general, but primarily our land. Much of these lessons relate to what we have seen regarding the divine promise of dwelling securely in the Land of Israel for those who uphold the mitzvot in the Land, primarily the agricultural ones. The punishment of nonobservance of shemitta through destruction and desolation of the land also emphasizes this symbiotic relationship. At the same time, shemitta is a component of the prophecies of salvation, as the agricultural rebirth of the land tells the story of the Jewish return through the land's reawakening. The people must live shemitta's message in order to achieve the ultimate redemption.


The Talmud's Rationale


In truth, although various rationales of the mitzvot of shemitta abound, the Talmud itself presents a reason based upon a verse that appears later in Parashat Behar, where in the context of yovel, the Torah states:


The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land in mine, for you are strangers and residents with Me. (Vayikra 25:23)


The Talmud understands this verse in the following way:


God said to Israel: Plant for six years and let it lie fallow the seventh, so that you will know that the land is Mine. (Sanhedrin 39a)


A number of commentators interpret this passage as defining shemitta as a year that will allow one to properly recognize God's hand in our prosperity. Rashi there (s.v. Kedei) explains:


So that your heart will not grow haughty with the prosperity of your land, leading you to forget the yoke of his kingship.


The mitzva of shemitta thus comes to teach us that even if one works the land and makes it yield fruit, he must always recall that he is not its owner; it belongs to God.




The recognition which shemitta is supposed to impart is not a septennial message; rather it should transform one's outlook and behavior throughout the other years as well, enabling one to recognize God's place in Creation and in the continued existence and sustenance of the world. The Chinnukh (Mitzva #84) explains that imparting emuna is the basis of the mitzva of shemitta:


At the root of this precept lies the purpose of establishing in our heart and setting in our thoughts a firm conception of the doctrine that the world was brought into being as a new entity, ex nihilo: "For in six days God made the heavens and the earth," and on the seventh day, when He created nothing, He himself is described as "resting." Thus, it serves to remove, uproot and extirpate from our thinking any concept of the world's timelessness and eternity, in which those who deny the Torah believe. Such a belief would destroy every corner of the Torah and demolish every wall; therefore, the obligation was imposed on us to spend our entire time, day by day, year by year, counting six and resting on the seventh… so that it not depart from our mind…


For this reason, God commanded us to leave free and ownerless all that the land yields this year, so that a man will remember that the land that grows produce for him every year does not do so by its own power and ability, for both the land and its lord have a Master over them, and when He so desires it, He commands him to leave his produce ownerless.


Rav Shaul Yisraeli adds that this is the primary message of "the land is mine," as shemitta makes it clear to all that it is God's land and testifies that even if man possesses land, the true master and controller of its growth, is God, its Creator.


The demand that private property be voided this year has no justification and can have no validity without the explanation "for all the earth is mine" (Shemot 19:5). The earth is not ours; neither is the power to produce: "The earth and all in it belong to God, civilization and those dwelling therein" (Tehillim 24:1). We are His and have given of what is His. One who fulfills this mitzva returns ownership to Him who gave it to him. He thus proclaims his recognition of the mastery and sovereignty of the Master of the World, in theory and in practice. Only one who wholly believes can have the strength to fulfill this mitzva in its entirety. This is his test!


This idea is also used by some to explain why shemitta is referred to in the Torah as Shabbat. Just as Shabbat testifies to God's creation, so does shemitta (Mizrahi, Vayikra 25:2; Abarbanel in previous lesson).


Some explain (Malbim, Vayikra 25:4) that just as man and his animals rest every Shabbat, the land should have stopped growing on its Shabbat. Nevertheless, to maintain the natural order, the Shabbat of the land was moved to the seventh year, where for a full year the land has its Shabbat rest.


Similarly, a number of Midrashic sources explain the severity of the punishment for not observing shemitta in light of the fact that shemitta represents emuna, so that violating shemitta is akin to denying God. Torat Kohanim (Bechukkotai) states:


I told you to sow for six years, and let it rest for me for one year, to impress upon you that the land is mine. But you failed to do so. Get up and be exiled therefrom and the soil will earn the rest due to it on account of all the Sabbatical years that it owes me.


This idea is reiterated in Midrash Aggada (Buber), Vayikra, Parashat Bechukkotai 26, par. 43


"And the land shall be vacant of them and shall enjoy its Sabbaths." How problematic are the auxiliary prohibitions of the seventh [year], for this verse was stated above—"Then… shall enjoy its sabbaths" (v. 34)—and He again stated, "and shall enjoy its Sabbaths!” Why so much? Because one [who fails to observe this] denies the essential One, for the Holy One, blessed is He, said, "For the land is Mine" (Vayikra 25:23): plant six [years] and relinquish in the seventh so that you know that the land is Mine.


One who doesn't observe shemitta is like one who denies God, as shemitta observance is a testament to the recognition of God's role in all prosperity, especially that of the Holy Land.  This is "For the Land is mine", as the verses themselves present in the shemitta year the opportunity for deepening one's connection with God.


The opportunities the shemitta year provides to deepen one's relationship with God are manifold. The earlier opinions cited focus on the aspects of emuna, often translated as belief in God but more properly defined as steadfast knowledge and an unwavering commitment to God (see Yet, emuna alone, despite its importance, is insufficient. Emuna is the untested knowledge and recognition of God. But shemitta also involves a very practical test of whether in the challenging circumstances that shemitta presents, one will be able to rise to the occasion; this entails a different concept, known as bitachon.


Shemitta and Bitachon


Shemitta’s relation to bitachon seems to emerge explicitly from Parashat Behar. The verses there refer to dwelling in security in the Land of Israel as a consequence of fulfilling its mitzvot, and the term la-vetach is used twice.


You shall perform my statutes, keep my ordinances and perform them; then you will live on the land securely (la-vetach).And the land will then yield its fruit and you will eat to satiety, and live upon it securely (la-vetach). (Vayikra 25:18-19)


While la-vetach means securely, it shares its root with the word bitachon, trust and reliance on God, feeling secure due to the knowledge of His control. In fact, in the following verse, after discussing the fear one might have regarding what he will have to eat, the Torah goes out of its way to invoke bitachon through the blessing promised during the sixth year:


And if you should say, "What will we eat in the seventh year? We will not sow, and we will not gather in our produce!" I will command my blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will yield produce for three years. (Ibid. 20-21)


The trust that God will provide for one's needs even without planting and cultivating the field is a prime expression of bitachon. In fact, the Torah, which so often calls for man to do his utmost, to actively seek to improve his lot rather than rely on Divine promise, seems to diverge from its standard message and call on man to not worry about how he will provide for himself during the shemitta year.


To better understand where to draw the line between emuna and bitachon, let's take a look at the Chazon Ish's distinction in his powerful work, understandably entitled Emuna U-vitachon. There he distinguishes as follows:


Emuna and bitachon are one and the same; however, emuna is the general approach of a believing person, and bitachon is one’s personal practical approach, with emuna being the theory and bitachon being the practice. It is easy to trust at times when the need to trust doesn't play an important part in one's decisions; but it is much more difficult to have trust at times when it is indeed called for. It is easy to speak of trust when it is just in theory and not in practice; at times like that, a person is just enjoying beautiful and pleasurable dreams; as time goes on, he fools himself and others into thinking that he indeed possesses greater trust in God than his peers, when the reality is that he is using this attribute to make his dreams of an unknown future more pleasant.


With this outlook, according to which emuna is the philosophy and bitachon is the practice, the Chazon Ish continues by stating that the real test of one’s relationship with God occurs when a test arises, a situation which demands an approach of reliance on God; then, one must either rise to the occasion or come up with excuses in the process.


The fact that shemitta not only teaches emuna but gives one the opportunity to put it into practice indicates that its importance lies in imparting these dual essential truths of emuna and bitachon. One should emerge from the shemitta year with a fortified understanding of God's place in the world, both in theory and in practice.


In fact, the Chinnukh points out that this lesson in bitachon is one of the fundamental lessons of shemitta:


Yet another useful benefit to be found in this is that man increases bitachon in God. For any man who finds it in his heart to give and leave free, ownerless for all the world, all the produce grown by his lands and the inheritance of his fathers for one whole year, he and his family become trained in this for all their lives; then neither the quality of miserliness nor a lessening of bitachon in God will ever seize hold of him.


By refraining from planting for a year, one recognizes the need to depend on God. However, the goal is that one does not just rely on God when in a foxhole and in times of difficulty, but recognizes at all times that God is the provider.  


Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer (Sefer Ha-berit, Behar) provides a number of rationales behind the mitzvot of shemitta, one of which is very much connected to this ideal.


It teaches us to have confidence in the Almighty, for the eyes of God are on us from the beginning of the year until the end of it. And this is the meaning of "Blessed is the man who puts his trust in God;” if we desist from work, God will invoke a blessing for him for those three years. Cursed will be he who places no trust in God. He will be brought to selling his goods and eventually to selling himself to a stranger… In this way, he will accustom himself to trusting in God and believing in His providential care over every detail, since the steps of man are established firmly by God.


Defining Bitachon


As an aside to appreciating shemitta's lesson in bitachon, one needs a working definition of the term. What exactly does bitachon call for? Must one's trust in God entail a conviction that whenever one does mitzvot only easily recognizable good will come from it, or does bitachon call for a different perspective?


The reason for the confusion regarding bitachon's proper definition is rooted in what would seem to be conflicting messages regarding the proper balance of bitachon and active attempts to improve one's lot. On the one hand, the Talmud (Pesachim 64b) seems to state that it is improper if not forbidden to rely on miracles, yet throughout Tanakh there is constant recognition of the need to trust in God. While the exact parameters of bitachon are beyond our purview, two basic approaches might be in order.


One understanding of bitachon defines the terms as the certainty that God stands at your side and will assist you. This would seem to be the understanding of Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher (a disciple of the Rashba) in his work Kad Ha-kemach:


The matter of bitachon in God was explained by the saintly Rabbeinu Yona [Gerondi] to mean that a person ought to accept wholeheartedly that everything is within the power of Heaven. God can overrule the laws of nature and change a person’s fortune, and though a situation may appear to be hopeless, divine intervention can change that reality in an instant. God’s salvation is close at hand, for He is omnipotent. Even if a sword rests on a person’s neck, he should not imagine that salvation is impossible… (Bitachon, s.v. Inyan)


The Chazon Ish, however, categorically rejects a very broad understanding of bitachon as including the conviction that God will always assist to bring about the good desired outcome:


…An old error has become rooted in the hearts of many concerning the concept of bitachon. Bitachon… has come to mean that a person is obligated to believe that whenever he is presented with two possible outcomes, one good and one not, then certainly it will turn out for the good. And if he has doubts and fears the worst, this constitutes a lack of trust. (Emuna U-vitachon, beginning of chapter 2)


The Chazon Ish continues by criticizing this approach, and offering another:


This view of bitachon is incorrect, for as long as the future outcome has not been clarified through prophecy, the outcome has not been decided, for who can truly know God’s judgments and providence? Rather, bitachon means realizing that there are no coincidences in the world, and that whatever happens under the sun is a function of God’s decree.


Recognition of Hashgacha, Especially in the Land of Israel


Yet no matter which understanding of bitachon we have, bitachon surely refers to the recognition that God is in the picture, and all that happens comes from God, and one must certainly rely on Him when the Torah tells us to do so. What is especially interesting is that according to the Chazon Ish's understanding of bitachon, shemitta observance calls for something that is not usually required; beyond the confidence that whatever outcome happens due to the challenging observance is ordained by God, man is asked not to worry about what he will have to eat during the shemitta year. This is the initial approach to bitachon, which he generally rejects.


Financially, economically, and practically, shemitta makes no logical sense, but farmers and citizens are asked to forgo logical business practices for a year; this testifies to one's reliance on God and one's conviction that there is hashgacha, Divine providence.


The Meshekh Chokhma (Vayikra 25:2) mentions the recognition of God's hashgacha as a major element in shemitta, stating that God's providing three years' worth of produce in the sixth year would be reason enough for the mitzvot of shemitta, as it indicates that the Jewish people live miraculously; this, in fact, expresses God's providence over the entire world.


The Netziv (Hamek Davar, Shemot 34:23) goes one step further, noting that the shemitta year is what truly allows for the realization of the distinction between God's hashgacha in the land of Israel and His providence in the Diaspora; it is only in the Land of Israel that one may live such a supernatural existence. He writes:


During the seventh year, God's amazing providence on behalf of the Jewish people is apparent to all. In the other years of the harvest, the distinction between providence in the Land of Israel and other countries is not clear; however, during the seventh year, an entire year without harvesting, it would be impossible for other nations of the world to survive—it is only God who lets them prosper.


Shemitta is indicative of the special providence that is unique to the Jewish nation in the land of Israel.


The Power of these Messages


It is not surprising that the financially revolutionary concepts of shemitta and yovel have even convinced certain people of the veracity of the Torah. We will conclude this lesson with a passage from the founder and Chairman of the Board of IDT Corp., Howard Jonas, in his 2006 book, I'm Not the Boss, I Just Work Here. There he describes his personal search for meaning in existence, which he began to find when reading the Torah. Many of the laws inspired him, as he writes, but one in particular transformed him and convinced him to transform his life:


But there was one law that blew me away and made me into an observant Jew. At the age of 17, this one law literally made me change my life, simply because, once I discovered it, I had to concede that the Bible was the work of Divine genius.


Once every 50 years, in what is known as the Yovel (jubilee) year, all farmland (that is, the means of production in an agrarian society) must revert to its original owner's family. This meant that no matter how destitute or without hope a person might be, once every 50 years -- at least once in the average lifetime -- that person would have the means of production, the opportunity to rise to any level, placed back in his own hands. It took over 3,000 years for ideas like that to resurface in the form of the Homestead Act (which, in 1862, allowed anyone to claim land as theirs if they had worked it or lived there for at least five years), the GI Bill (which, beginning in 1944, provided education and training for millions of veterans) and, of course, public education (which provides free education to all children).


But this biblical law of the jubilee year guaranteed opportunity to every member of society. It wasn't just a redistribution of wealth, because gold, art, houses, even palatial residences in walled cities didn't revert. It was the opportunity that the land represented for independence, self-sufficiency and self-betterment that was redistributed. Prices of such land were always calculated taking this 50-year cycle into account.


In this jubilee year, the ram's horn would be sounded and liberty would be proclaimed to all the inhabitants of the land therein. Do you know where these inspiring words are inscribed today? On the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Makes you think, huh?


It sure made me think. When I discovered these biblical laws, I was simply astonished. What a perfect compromise between pure laissez faire economics and wealth redistribution strategies, which just lead to a welfare-state cycle of dependence.


But who was it who had thought of all this? Could it be Divine wisdom? Or maybe, to be more precise, a Divine decree?


The powerful message of emuna and bitachon which emerges from shemitta and yovel should not only impact the farmer, but anyone who reads the Torah. Anyone who ponders them may clearly see that these laws are not the invention of humans. Only God could be capable of ordaining such laws; clearly, there was good reason for them.