Shiur #12: Between Man, the Earth and His Land

  • Rav Binyamin Zimmerman

Shemitta's Connection to Land


In the last few lessons, we have discussed shemitta's part in deepening one's relationships with God through its bein adam la-Makom messages, forging a healthier relationship with one's neighbors and society through its bein adam le-chavero elements, and aiding one in improving his character and building a more kind and mindful personality through its bein adam le-atzmo elements. While all these elements are essential for understanding and appreciating shemitta, they clearly do not tell the entire shemitta story, and the reason is simple: shemitta is inherently connected to land. As we have seen, shemitta's application is broad, appearing not only in Torah portions dealing with its agricultural laws, but also ones that focus on financial and spiritual matters as well; nevertheless, the fact that almost all the laws of shemitta are unique to the Land of Israel is a solid indication of the role that the land plays in the mitzvot of shemitta.


To gain a better grasp of exactly how intertwined the land is with shemitta, we will have to investigate the question of whether the restrictions of agricultural work during shemitta are exclusively upon the inhabitants of the land or on the land itself as well, an issue we hope to discuss in a later lesson. Yet, even if the mitzvot of shemitta are not directed towards the land itself, we have already seen how shemitta is uniquely connected to the Land of Israel, as the Abarbanel (lesson 7) explains its nature and in the Torah's linking the Jewish people's rights to the Land of Israel to their observance of shemitta.


Yet what exactly is the nature of shemitta's land-based message? Does it merely present more agricultural mitzvot unique to the Land of Israel, or express a unique perspective regarding our attitude to nature in general and to the Land of Israel in particular?


Shemitta and Nature


There is good reason to believe that shemitta bears a universal message for our attitude towards land in general. The farmer, who exhibits his control of his field throughout the six years of working the land, must take a break from his work and let the land rest.  Besides the social benefits involved, the Rambam (see lesson 7) sees a benefit for the land itself:


The laws… are meant to make the earth more fertile and stronger through letting it lie fallow. (Moreh Ha-nvukhim III, 39)


This reasoning of the Rambam seems at first glance to be rather practical, for the benefit of the farmland. Since ancient times, it has been recognized that excessive planting of the same crops year after year is detrimental to the land. In fact, it was common practice for many to plant in certain fields only every other year, to ensure the land would not be depleted of its nutrients. According to the Rambam, allowing the land to "rest” for a year will enable it to produce greater yields in the future.


In lesson 7 we saw that a number of commentators take issue with this understanding of the Rambam: if shemitta is an agriculturally beneficial set of mitzvot, why does it carry such dire consequences for non-fulfillment? Moreover, why would specifically the crops of the sixth year, the period in which the soil would be the most depleted, be trebled?


In light of these questions, we must try to comprehend the implications of the Rambam’s view.


Understanding 1: An Additional Benefit


The Rambam, who presents this idea as his second reason, might merely be adding: alongside the social aspects of shemitta he outlines in the same chapter, there is also a benefit for the land.


This is the approach of Rav Avigdor Miller. He explains that shemitta is an entire year of awareness of God as the Creator of everything, a concept which is even more emphatically pronounced during yovel. Then he adds:


But just as Shabbos is intended also "In order that your ox and your donkey should rest, and the son of your handmaiden should be refreshed" (Shemos 23:12), so also is the Shabbos of the Seventh Year and of the Yovel also intended for the soil to recuperate its fertility and to refresh its resources. The practice of the fallow year ensured the land against the baneful results of over cultivation and allowed it to continue to "flow with milk and honey.”


This is in accordance with the principles that everything in the Torah Is intended also for the material happiness of the nation, and by fulfilling the laws of the Torah the nation is rewarded by material benefits. (Kingdom of Priests, page 303)


Understanding 2: A Lesson


A second understanding of the Rambam’s view is that shemitta's agricultural goal is a lesson in its own right: to gain a proper perspective of nature and the use of the resources of the land.


In fact, the mitzva of resting from work in the seventh year is twofold: not only shall man rest, but "the land shall rest (ve-shaveta ha-aretz) a Sabbath to God.”


We will see some halakhic implications of this terminology, but the verses themselves clearly indicate that the land itself has something to gain from this reality.


Although others dissent, the view of the Rambam may have a source in the Midrash, which states that the rest of the land in its own right is significant.


The Midrash, working off what we explained in earlier lessons (3-5), says that the land "works hard" all the other years, as it expends serious effort to bring forth its yield and also suffers on account of the sins of man. Therefore, God, who is merciful upon His creations, gives the land a year off once every seven years.


For the Holy One, Blessed be He, has compassion on His creations:  as the Jewish people are most precious before Him, the land as well is precious before Him more than any other creation. It is worked and yields, giving birth throughout the whole year; it releases its produce before the Holy One, Blessed be He. When the creatures do God's will, the land blossoms… and when they sin, it is punished on their account: Adam sins, and the earth is punished on his account; Kayin sins, and the earth is punished on his account; the people of Sodom sin, and the earth is punished on their account… Therefore, the Holy One, Blessed be He mandates the law that [the land] rest during the seventh year.


This understanding only makes sense if we view the land not as an inanimate parcel of territory, but rather something with personality. The mitzvot of shemitta inform man that the land is also a living being, and to a certain degree it has feelings as well. In fact, based on this understanding, another Midrashic statement may be interpreted along the same lines.


God said to Moses, "Say to Aharon, 'Stretch forth your staff and strike the dust of the earth, and it shall become lice throughout the entire land of Egypt.'" (Shemot 8:12)


Rashi ad loc. cites from the Midrash as follows:


“Say to Aharon” — it was inappropriate for the dust to be struck through Moshe since it had protected him when he slew the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. Therefore, it was struck through Aharon.


This is similar to Moshe’s not striking the Nile for the first two plagues, to express his gratitude for being protected as a baby (Rashi, ibid. 7:14), indicating that one owes a debt of gratitude even to inanimate objects, but the land may be different. It has personality, just like man, it too needs rest, and part of shemitta's message is to recognize the unique character of the land.


The Rambam's reasoning of allowing the land to lie fallow to regain its strength might have even deeper significance. Throughout the everyday hustle and bustle that is so commonplace in our world, people often become pre-occupied and fail to notice that which is important. Rav Kook (in his Haggada) remarks that the distinction between a slave and a freeman is not determined by who has shackles on them but rather by attitude. Freedom is the ability to be true to one's inner calling. 


Appreciating Nature


With this in mind, it is not hard to see how the everyday pressures of life can damage the connection to those most precious, including oneself. Most often, this is expressed in a disassociation from one’s surroundings.


The Rambam (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 2:2) sees observing nature as an opportunity for deepening one's love of God; but one who stays working ambitiously in his own field (or cubicle) often sees little of the wider world.  Observing nature allows one to recognize God's Hand in all aspects of Creation, and to see a Godly spirt and message even in the physical world.


The Midrash (Tanchuma, Vezot Haberakha) equate a lack of appreciation of nature with wickedness:


A wicked man even in his lifetime is considered dead, for he sees the sun shining, and he doesn't recite the blessing of “Who creates the lights”; [he sees the sun] setting, and he doesn't recite the blessing of “Who brings on the nights;” he eats and drinks, and doesn't recite the blessings over food. However, the righteous [are different, in that they] recite blessings on every single thing.


This indicates that an aspect of wickedness is the inability to contemplate and recognize God's Hand in the basic aspects of nature.


Rav Yochai Rudik (Be-sod Ha-shemitta) notes that not everyone who indeed recites these blessings recognizes them as a call to analyze the fascinating aspects of daylight, nightfall, and God's overall Creation. These blessings are often recited in synagogues from which the natural wonders may not even be visible. In fact, the various morning blessings were meant to be recited as one did different things every morning, such as standing up straight, etc., but now they are all said in one list in the morning. Our link to ourselves and our surroundings has been weakened; it may be that we only appreciate certain gifts from God while in the synagogue.


A specific blessing which aims to push man to recognize God in nature is the blessing upon witnessing the blossoming of fruit trees in the month of Nissan. The Shulchan Arukh (OC 226:1) details the emotional connection to God upon observing the vernal ritual:


One who goes out in the month of Nissan and sees trees that are blossoming recites: “The source of all blessing are you, the Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has not made anything lacking in His world, and created in it good creations and good trees in order for mankind to benefit from them.


Unfortunately, for many people, this rendezvous with nature never occurs, and individuals need to seek out blossoming trees in order to be able to recite the blessing, while the language of the Shulchan Arukh refers to a natural unplanned encounter with nature.


An Interruption?


To consider the Jewish attitude towards nature, we must analyze a Mishnaic statement:


Rabbi Yaakov said: “If one is walking along the road and is studying [Torah], and then interrupts his studies and says, 'How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field!' the verse considers it as if he has forfeited his life.” (Avot 3:7)


This unusually harsh statement, declaring that one who interrupts Torah study to recognize the beauty of nature forfeits his life, indicates that nature is either religiously insignificant, or at least insignificant as compared to Torah study. Based on other statements of the Sages, including the blessings they codified to praise God’s creations in the natural world, it is clear that the latter is the only valid interpretation. As inspiring as nature may be, Torah study is a more complete way of reaching God and therefore one involved in it should realize the repercussions for stopping to marvel at the natural world. This is the understanding of Rav Ovadia of Bartenura, who states that although the same liability holds true for any interruption from one's learning, nevertheless the Mishna specifically chooses the example of stopping to see a beautiful tree, for although one may make a blessing upon seeing it, nevertheless it is improper to halt one's learning for such a purpose.


A number of commentators, however, tone down the harshness of the Mishna. Some note that the Mishna says it is "as if he has forfeited his life,” indicating hyperbole. Rashi explains that it is not that one forfeits his life, but rather that amid the dangers of travel, especially in those days, Torah study serves as a constant protector. Even if nature is important, marveling at it is not direct Torah study, and therefore, will not be sufficient to protect one if bandits arrive.


One might go one step further: the Mishna is not erasing or minimizing the religious importance of nature, but putting it in perspective. In fact, the Mishna uses the term na'eh to describe the beauty of the tree, the same term that is used in the actual blessing made in the month of Nissan. Recognizing beauty can be a religious experience, a sign of righteousness, but only in consonance with Torah study.


Rav Tzvi Yehuda Ha-kohen Kook, in an article entitled "The Beauty of a Tree,” notes the unique phraseology of the Mishna.  Unlike the law in Shulchan Arukh regarding one who is walking and notices a tree in bloom, the Mishna refers to one who is mafsik, who interrupts his learning, to comment on the beauty of nature. Recognition of nature is truly holy when one views it as an extension of Torah study rather than an interruption or distraction.


The Mishna, in its carefully worded formulation, is informing us of the dangers of disconnecting the beauty of nature from our religious outlook. One should not reject the beauty of the world but see it through the eyes of the Torah, the blueprint of creation.


Rav Tzvi Yehuda adds that although different Mishnaic texts attribute this teaching to Rabbi Shimon, he prefers the one which cites Rabbi Yaakov, as he is the one who teaches elsewhere in Avot (4:16-17): “This world is like a portal before the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the portal so that you may enter the banquet hall. One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than the entire life of the World to Come; and one hour of spiritual bliss in the World to Come is better than the entire life of this world.” Rabbi Yaakov's primary message is consistent; one must never lose sight of the spiritual essence and must not be distracted by the appearance of nature as an end in itself. For this reason, Rabbi Yaakov warns that one's appreciation of the beauty of nature should never interrupt Torah study.


As many a scientist has been an ardent atheist, it is clear that appreciating nature outside of the proper context can be detrimental and counterproductive. On the other hand, a Torah-based outlook allows one to realize how awesome God's creations are.


Shemitta teaches the importance of stopping and interrupting — not one’s Torah study, but one's work for a period of Torah study.


The ground, adama, can actually be a portal to recognizing God, as the same letters spell adameh, as in Yeshayahu 14:14: “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like (adameh) the most High.” One who sees beyond the physical beauty of nature and finds the source of that beauty is able to make nature a part of one's spiritual repertoire.


Which Land?


We may further develop this notion by looking at the first mention of shemitta in the Torah. A quick reading of the verses there doesn't yield a reference to the Land of Israel, as the Torah merely states:


And six years you shall sow your land (artzekha) and shall harvest its fruits. But [in] the seventh, you shall release it (tishmetenna) and let it lie fallow, and the poor of your nation will eat, and what they leave over the beasts of the field shall eat. So you shall do with your vineyard and with your olive grove. Six days you shall do your work, and on the seventh day you shall rest (tishbot)… (Shemot 23:10-12)


In fact, one might have easily interpreted it to apply to all land owned by Jews anywhere in the world.


The commentators struggle with this omission, explaining that since this law precedes the Sin of the Golden Calf, there was no reason to imagine a Jew in exile, outside of the Land of Israel. Alternatively, the word “artzekha” (your land) may be a reference specific to the Land of Israel.


However, one may offer another explanation: even though shemitta's application is really limited to the Land of Israel, it certainly does have universal messages that in no way should be limited to the Land of Israel but should impact the way we use the earth and its resources wherever. We hope to further investigate the implications of shemitta's significance for our overall outlook regarding the proper relationship one should have with nature and regarding modern-day perspectives on ecology.


With that being said, one cannot overlook the fact that the Torah's most lengthy description of shemitta is in Parashat Behar, where it wastes no time in telling us that shemitta's laws are unique to the Land of Israel and its message is primarily applicable there.


The Torah states:

When you come to the land which I shall give you, the land shall rest (ve-shaveta ha-aretz) a Sabbath to God... But the Sabbath of the land (shabbat ha-aretz) shall be for you to eat, for you, and for your servant and for your maid, and for your hired servant and for the residents by your side that sojourn with you. (Vayikra 25:2, 6)


In fact, it may be that, according to the Rambam, the need for agricultural rejuvenation is a unique need of the Land of Israel. Israel should not just be a land of agricultural development, but a beautiful country that bears the right to retain its nutrients.


Nevertheless, the Abarbanel, in his commentary on Avot, explains that one should not take into account the agricultural benefits of shemitta, as the essence of shemitta's message is that the Land of Israel is the chosen land, much as the Jewish people are the chosen nation, duty-bound to bear the banner of declaring God's kingship to the world. The Jews as a people fulfill this mission by resting on the seventh day of the week, and the land which works on a yearly agricultural cycle rests every seven years.


The Unique "Natural Laws" of the Land


In fact, some commentators openly discourage focus on the utilitarian benefits of refraining from planting for a year, as the Chizkuni (Vayikra 25:2) explains the phrase “the land shall rest a Sabbath to God.”


This is to say, that your intention in not planting should not be to benefit and improve the land, but rather to fulfill the mitzva of God.


There is even indication in the verses themselves, according to some commentators, that the Land of Israel clearly doesn't play by the normal rules of nature. Common custom at that time was to allow the land to lay fallow every other year, but the Torah goes out of its way to state: “Six years you may sow your field.” The Keli Yakar (ad loc.) sees this as an indication that the mitzvot of shemitta are given to ensure that the Jewish people view their agricultural settlement in Israel against the backdrop of trust in God.  


God therefore wholly removes them from the natural order of things, for it is the way of the other nations during these six years to observe a cycle of two years planting and one year fallow, so as not to deplete its resources. Yet the Holy One, Blessed be He, says, “‘Six years you may sow your field’ — every year — and I promise you to augment its energy so that it is not depleted.”

Furthermore, there is a miracle within this miracle, for if anyone where to cultivate the land for six years in a row, even were its power not depleted, it would certainly not be strengthened. Yet God says that in the sixth year, on the contrary, He will bolster and increase its fecundity: “I shall command my blessing in the sixth year, and it shall produce the crop of the three years." If the miracle were that it produce the crop of three years, this would be miraculous enough, but on top of this, even if the crop that it produces in the sixth year is sufficient for the needs of only one year, God will send His blessing to their granaries, so that one eats a little and it is blessed in his innards — so much so that the crop will suffice for three years…

God will increase the energy of the land so much that the same crop will suffice for three years, which certainly is the greatest and most manifest miracle of all: through all these proofs that I have demonstrated to you, know that the earth is mine.


In the Land of Israel, it is not just that the land has character, personality and needs similar to those of man; it is directly affected by the Jewish people. Observance of shemitta allows for the realization that Israel's nature is inherently connected to the Jewish people. The nature of the entire earth is important, but the supernatural quality of the Land of Israel is the ticket to appreciating shemitta.



In the next lesson, we will analyze Rav A.Y. Kook's fascinating introduction to Shabbat Ha-aretz, where he details the historical process relating to the internal connection between the Jewish people and their land, as expressed through shemitta. After doing so, we will be able to better appreciate shemitta's message for the earth in general, and the people of the Land in particular.