Against the backdrop of terraced hillsides covered with vineyards and thousand-year-old olive trees, over a thousand people of all ages and backgrounds come together every summer to learn Tanakh. Amid the everyday miracle that is Israel, a Jewish renaissance is underway. One of the many expressions of this revolution in Jewish learning is the annual Tanakh Study Days, a week-long celebration of the Tanakh in all its complexity.
As we are only two months away from the start of the Shmittah Year, I signed up for several classes on Shmittah, as well as some lectures by such luminaries as Rav Ya’akov Medan and Rav Yoel Bin Nun, who have been among the true movers and shakers of the current revolution in Jewish learning. Most of the speakers were unknown to me, but had I googled them ahead of time, I would have learned that several of them are the experts in their fields.
Among the lecturers on Shmittah were Rav Ze’ev Vitman, R’ Eliezer Kashtiel, and R’ Meir Nehorai. Each of them presented a different aspect of the issue, and unsurprisingly, very few of their views overlapped!
Shmittah: Social law or religious commandment?
R’ Ze’ev Vitman’s class was titled “Shmittah and Shvitah”, which translates roughly as “Remission and Cessation”. R’ Vitman opened with a question: Is Shmittah a mitzvah bein adam l’chavero (a social law) or bein adam l’Makom (a religious law)?
The text in Dvarim highlights the social aspects:
מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים תַּעֲשֶׂה שְׁמִטָּה: וְזֶה דְּבַר הַשְּׁמִטָּה שָׁמוֹט כָּל בַּעַל מַשֵּׁה יָדוֹ אֲשֶׁר יַשֶּׁה בְּרֵעֵהוּ לֹא יִגֹּשׂ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ וְאֶת אָחִיו כִּי קָרָא שְׁמִטָּה לַה’: אֶת הַנָּכְרִי תִּגֹּשׂ וַאֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֶת אָחִיךָ תַּשְׁמֵט יָדֶךָ: אֶפֶס כִּי לֹא יִהְיֶה בְּךָ אֶבְיוֹן כִּי בָרֵךְ יְבָרֶכְךָ ה’ בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ:
At the end of every seven years, you shall enact the remission year. The substance of the remission is that every creditor shall remit any debt owed by his neighbor. You shall not press your neighbor or your brother to repay a debt owed when the year of remission is in force. You may collect from the alien, but if you have any claim against your brother for a debt, you must relinquish it…. (Deuteronomy 15:1-6)
“But when does this come into effect?” asked R’ Vitman. “The plain text establishes a state of affairs where, in the blink of an eye, loans are suddenly forgiven. Any loan before that point can be collected; any loan after that point can’t be collected. And yet, the text also emphasizes the command not to actively press the borrower to repay the loan, and this obligation remains in place for the entire year. But which year? The text appears to refer to the eighth year—at the end of seven years, or ‘after the passage of seven years’.”
Either year would support the social aspects of the mitzvah. After all, farmers who haven’t sown their fields or harvested their crops are not going to be in any position to repay loans in either the seventh or the eight year. If anything, they’ll be eking out a subsistence living during those years. Thus, the requirement not to collect loans while the Shmittah year is in progress would appear to be a form of “Tikkun Olam”, that is, a law that comes to rectify the negative social consequences of existing laws.
But the odd thing here, R’ Vitman pointed out, is that the text in Dvarim nowhere mentions Shmittat Karkaot—the agricultural Shmittah.
The connection between shmittat ksafim and shmittat karkaot
And so we moved on to the second source for Shmittah, Shmot (Exodus) 23.
וְשֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְרַע אֶת אַרְצֶךָ וְאָסַפְתָּ אֶת תְּבוּאָתָהּ וְהַשְּׁבִיעִת תִּשְׁמְטֶנָּה וּנְטַשְׁתָּהּ וְאָכְלוּ אֶבְיֹנֵי עַמֶּךָ וְיִתְרָם תֹּאכַל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה כֵּן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְכַרְמְךָ לְזֵיתֶךָ.
You may plant your land for six years and gather its crops. But during the seventh year, you must release it and abandon it. The needy among you will be able to eat along with you, and whatever is left over can be eaten by wild animals. This also applies to your vineyard and your olive grove.” (Exodus 23:10-11)
The text in Shmot does specify the agricultural Shmitah, and it also appears to emphasize the social aspects of the law. See for example the juxtaposition of Shmittah with Shabbat, which immediately follows it:
שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲשֶׂה מַעֲשֶׂיךָ, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי תִּשְׁבֹּת–לְמַעַן יָנוּחַ, שׁוֹרְךָ וַחֲמֹרֶךָ, וְיִנָּפֵשׁ בֶּן-אֲמָתְךָ, וְהַגֵּר.
Six days you may carry out your activities, but on the seventh day you must cease, in order that your ox and your donkey may rest, and your servants can relax, along with the resident alien.
Note that in the case of Shabbat, the word “l’ma’an”—”in order that”—plays a crucial role. We are to cease working so that our families, our workers, and our farm animals may rest.
It would appear that Shmittah is a parallel to Shabbat: we are to refrain from sowing and harvesting, which is followed by the statement that the fruits will be for the poor and the beasts of the field.
And yet, the word, “l’ma’an” is missing here! Also, if the reason for the Shmittah is to allow the poor to eat of the ownerless produce, why the ban on planting and seeding? Surely it would be advantageous to the poor if the farmers were to plant crops for them to gather! This would seem to argue against Shmittah being purely a social issue.
A Shabbat for the Land
Meanwhile, the text in VaYikra also connects Shabbat and Shmittah, but in a far more direct fashion. Rather than the term “Shnat Shmittah”—the Shmittah Year—VaYikra calls for a “Shabbat for the Land”, an agricultural parallel to the weekly Shabbat observed by human beings. Interestingly enough, this Shabbat is mentioned exactly seven times in the relevant text.
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְּהַר סִינַי לֵאמֹר. דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַה’ שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְרַע שָׂדֶךָ וְשֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְמֹר כַּרְמֶךָ וְאָסַפְתָּ אֶת תְּבוּאָתָהּ. וּבַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן יִהְיֶה לָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַיקוק שָׂדְךָ לֹא תִזְרָע וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תִזְמֹר. אֵת סְפִיחַ קְצִירְךָ לֹא תִקְצוֹר וְאֶת עִנְּבֵי נְזִירֶךָ לֹא תִבְצֹר שְׁנַת שַׁבָּתוֹן יִהְיֶה לָאָרֶץ. וְהָיְתָה שַׁבַּת הָאָרֶץ לָכֶם לְאָכְלָה לְךָ וּלְעַבְדְּךָ וְלַאֲמָתֶךָ וְלִשְׂכִירְךָ וּלְתוֹשָׁבְךָ הַגָּרִים עִמָּךְ. וְלִבְהֶמְתְּךָ וְלַחַיָּה אֲשֶׁר בְּאַרְצֶךָ תִּהְיֶה כָל תְּבוּאָתָהּ לֶאֱכֹל.
Hashem spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, telling him to speak to the Israelites and say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest period, a shabbat to Hashem. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a shabbat of shabbats for the land. It is Hashem’s shabbat during which you may not plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards. Do not harvest crops that grow on their own and do not gather the grapes on your unpruned vines, since it is a year of rest for the land. [What grows while] the land is resting may be eaten by you, by your male and female slaves, and by the employees and resident hands who live with you. All the crops shall be eaten by the domestic and wild animals that are in your land. (VaYikra 25:1-7)
Rav Vitman pointed out that the Shmittah involves the setting apart of the produce as Kadosh, something special, akin to the produce set aside for Kohanim, who must eat them in a particular state of cleanliness. This is perhaps to be expected; after all, VaYikra is called Torat Kohanim!
In God we trust?
As for social welfare, the Shmittah year appears to be setting us up for potential disaster. Considering that the ban on sowing and harvesting can affect three years’ worth of produce, it’s natural to wonder what we’ll eat in the interim.
וְכִי תֹאמְרוּ, מַה-נֹּאכַל בַּשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת: הֵן לֹא נִזְרָע, וְלֹא נֶאֱסֹף אֶת-תְּבוּאָתֵנוּ. וְצִוִּיתִי אֶת-בִּרְכָתִי לָכֶם, בַּשָּׁנָה הַשִּׁשִּׁית; וְעָשָׂת, אֶת-הַתְּבוּאָה, לִשְׁלֹשׁ, הַשָּׁנִים. וּזְרַעְתֶּם, אֵת הַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁמִינִת, וַאֲכַלְתֶּם, מִן-הַתְּבוּאָה יָשָׁן; עַד הַשָּׁנָה הַתְּשִׁיעִת, עַד-בּוֹא תְּבוּאָתָהּ–תֹּאכְלוּ, יָשָׁן.
And if you’ll say: “What shall we eat during the seventh year, if we can neither sow nor gather in our produce”, I will command My blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth produce for the three years. You may sow in the eighth year, and eat of the produce, the old store; until the ninth year, until her produce comes in, you shall eat the old store. (VaYikra 25:20-22)
So there is an element of trust in all this. It’s accepted at the outset that keeping this “Shabbat of shabbats” will not be easy. This radical requirement—that we throw caution to the winds and trust that we’ll have enough to eat is unprecedented in the Torah. Generally, when material welfare is at stake, the Torah tends toward relaxing religious laws in order to strengthen social laws. Mitzvot bein Adam l’chavero generally take precedence, a trend that has been carried over into the Mishna and Talmud. But then, this is Sefer VaYikra—Torat haKohanim. Having been told that we must be a nation of priests, we may not find it so surprising that the entire nation is held to a high standard.
For R’ Vitman, the bottom line of Shmittah is the understanding that we aren’t in charge, that our land, our fortunes, and our lives are not our own. Together with this is the inculcation of a certain degree of trust—even of naïve optimism—that we’re in good hands. It’s about letting go, and about relinquishing our constant pursuit of ownership.
A grammatical anomaly
But there’s more to it that just an exercise in trust. In his class: “Between Shimttah and Yovel,” R’ Eliezar Kashtiel emphasized the intimate connection between Shmittah and Yovel.
וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ שׁוֹפַר תְּרוּעָה, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִעִי, בֶּעָשׂוֹר, לַחֹדֶשׁ; בְּיוֹם, הַכִּפֻּרִים, תַּעֲבִירוּ שׁוֹפָר, בְּכָל-אַרְצְכֶם. י וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּם, אֵת שְׁנַת הַחֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה, וּקְרָאתֶם דְּרוֹר בָּאָרֶץ, לְכָל-יֹשְׁבֶיהָ; יוֹבֵל הִוא, תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם, וְשַׁבְתֶּם אִישׁ אֶל-אֲחֻזָּתוֹ, וְאִישׁ אֶל-מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ תָּשֻׁבוּ
We are to count seven of these Shabbatot, after which we are to blow the shofar on Yom HaKippurim and declare “Freedom in the land”. The fiftieth year is to be a year of restitution—indentured servants are to go free, debts are to be forgiven, and land sold under economic duress is to revert to its initial owners. It is the idea of financial and social Shmittah taken to its ultimate conclusion.
During the Shmittah, inequalities between the haves and have-nots are to be evened out as far as possible. The produce is free for to all comers, regardless of where it grows. Gates must be left open to allow entry to anyone who wishes to eat from one’s trees. The Shmittah is the great equalizer. But the Yovel goes way beyond that—it erases economic hardships and misfortunes in a single bold step.
And yet…The text of VaYikra contains two odd elements. First, the text doesn’t mention human beings at all, but rather speaks of a Shabbat for the land. Secondly, the change of subject—from Shmittah to Yovel, occurs in mid verse, and is signaled by an abrupt change from the singular to the plural form of address:
וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ שׁוֹפַר תְּרוּעָה, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִעִי, בֶּעָשׂוֹר, לַחֹדֶשׁ; בְּיוֹם, הַכִּפֻּרִים, תַּעֲבִירוּ שׁוֹפָר, בְּכָל-אַרְצְכֶם.
R’ Kashtiel brought a few other examples of texts that jump in mid stream from plural to singular and back again. For example:
ויעמידה ליעקב לחק לישראל ברית עולם: לאמר לך אתן ארץ כנען חבל נחלתכם:
To say: to you (singular) I will give the Land of Canaan, the portion of your (plural) inheritance.
On this latter passage, Rav Kook writes that the juxtaposition of singular and plural is an expression of the inner reality reflected in an outward condition. Each individual Jew has his or her own place in the Land, while at the same time, the Land is given to Am Yisrael as a whole as an eternal inheritance. Or, as the Tosafot said regarding collateral for loans, “Each individual Jew owns four cubits of the Land of Israel” (meaning that no one can refuse to lend to his fellow on the basis of lack of collateral).
“Why does our text in VaYikra begin with ‘at Har Sinai’? What was special about Har Sinai?” asked R’ Kashtiel. “Everyone stood together at the foot of the mountain. So long as everyone is there together, the differences are evened out. We are a ‘you’, a singular individual entity, ‘as one man’. But as soon as the restrictions are removed, and we’re allowed to climb the mountain, each individual picks out his or her own path. Some climb faster, some slower. Some go up this way, and some go up that way.”
The significance of the Yovel, argues R’ Kashtiel, is to bring us all back to the foot of Mt. Sinai. The text is phrased to remind us that no one of us is “only” an individual, while at the same time, teaching us the value of individual freedom.
Shabbat and Shmittah
So is Shmittah a social mitzvah, or a religious mitzvah? In his class, “The Smittah in the Written and Oral Tradtions”, Rav Meir Nehorai also drew connections between Shabbat and Shmittah. Of Shabbat too, we can ask whether it’s essentially a social commandment or a religious commandment. In light of the text of VaYikra, it’s clear that this is not coincidental. The commandment of Shabbat occurs in two different versions:
- Remember the Shabbat as a reminder that you were slaves in Egypt
- Observe (lit. Keep, protect) the Shabbat so that you, your family, your workers, and your animals can rest.
What is the common denominator? Like Shmittah, the Shabbat requires us to loosen our grasp. The prohibitions of work on Shabbat include exactly those things that set human beings apart from other animals—creative, pre-meditated work. (More on the connection between Shabbat and Gan Eden). To refrain from work on Shabbat is to reenter the world of our pre-human ancestors, to revisit Gan Eden.
And Shmittah? Here is where R’ Nehorai offered some very interesting insights. The mitzvot of Yovel and Shmittah were singled out in Sefer VaYikra as the representative mitzvot for the people to observer upon their entrance into the Land of Israel. In addition, the Tochachah of VaYikra—the dire prediction of exile—attributes the exile to the failure to observe the Shmittah: “During your absence, the land will be repaid her Shabbatot.”
Bottom line: Social or religious law?
But why these particular mitzvot? R’ Nehorai’s answer—following the Ramban—is that the mitzvot of Shmittah and Yovel actually contain a host of other relevant mitzvot—both social and religious. These mitzvot lay out a complete program of social and religious living that encompasses respect for others, for the the land, and for God.
And the connection to Shabbat? “What types of work are we prohibited from doing during the Shmittah Year?” asks R’ Nehorai. “Exactly those types of work that typified Adam after expulsion from the Garden—plowing, sowing, harvesting!” In short, all those types of work that set us apart from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The Shmittah brings us back to Gan Eden, where all we have to do is pluck the fruit growing freely without human intervention
Both Shabbat and Shmittah are thus reminders of a life free from any great effort on our part at securing sustenance, but also free from the moral and ethical challenges of free human beings, who are faced with inequalities on all sides. But what do these reminders do for us? Why do we need them?
The three different teachers emphasized different messages, but there was one thing on which they all agreed: the central message of Shmittah is that the land does not belong to us, that we are indeed sojourners on Hashem’s property. We are to surrender ownership as a reminder that nothing is really ours—everything belongs to Hashem.
So the answer to the question of whether Shmittah is a religious mitzvah or a social mitzvah appears to be “Yes!” The understanding that we aren’t in charge, and the attempt to inculcate trust and optimism for the future are both life-affirming and life-sustaining. The ability to relinquish control inculcates an underlying resilience—an ability to ride out times of uncertainty and misfortune, in the firm belief that when all is said and done, we’re in good hands.
וְהָאָרֶץ, לֹא תִמָּכֵר לִצְמִתֻת–כִּי-לִי, הָאָרֶץ: כִּי-גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים אַתֶּם, עִמָּדִי.
The Land cannot be sold for eternity, because it is Mine, and you are tenants and sojourners with Me.