DIVREI TORAH

BEHAR: SHEMITTA – SPIRITUALITY, SOCIAL STABILITY OR BOTH?

Rabbi Yehoshua Weber

“Six years you should plant your field…..and on the seventh year….don’t harvest…let it be a year of rest…..let the land be open to all ….”[1]

This is the “shemitta” year. It’s a year in which we, essentially, “abandon” our fields. We don’t plant, work or harvest our fields. Yes, we’re allowed to gather our produce from our fields. We were only allowed to gather enough for our personal use. The rest of the produce needed to remain in the fields where it could be taken by all members of the community.

And those community members weren’t just allowed to take produce. They were also allowed to access that produce - which meant that they were allowed to meander across the farmer’s ‘ property.

As you can imagine, farmers found these laws trying.

It was trying because – especially back when people lived without today’s advances in food production and storage – farmers worried that a year without agricultural activity would destroy livelihoods and cause famine.

It was also trying because, farmers were concerned about the visitors that traipsed across their land. Wouldn’t those visitors intrude on the farmers privacy? And wouldn’t they damage the fields.[2]

Yes, shemitta was challenging. The Torah, though, still mandates it’s observance. Why? Because it’s benefits outweighed its challenges.

Those benefits are both spiritual and physical.

The spiritual benefits are outlined by the Sefer HaChinuch that notes: “this mitzvah … is to remind us of creation … for in six days, Hashem created the world and Hashem rested on the seventh. So, too, we work for six years and we rest on the seventh shemitta year …another reason for this commandment is that we were commanded to renounce ownership over our produce so as to show Hashem’s mastery over the Earth (Hashem is everyone’s master so Hashem can force us to renounce our ownership).”[3]

The physical benefits are described by the Rambam who notes: “these mitzvos (of shemitta) are about being merciful to people and about creating greater comfort for humanity as it says, “the poor people will eat (fields are left open and agricultural produce is freely available to everyone during the shemitta)”.[4]

The Rambam sees shemitta as about affording poor people a number of material benefits. Firstly, it let poor people access food that they wouldn’t have otherwise accessed. Secondly, it empowered poor people socially. The poor were empowered when by being able to enter the rich man’s fields.

It’s safe tio assume that the empowerment wasn’t restricted to the visits that occurred only on shemitta.

That empowerment was, rather, at least on some level, maintained for the long-term. And that’s because people who live with empowerment, even if only for short while, don’t “unlearn” that empowerment. Some empowerment of t poor, then, remained. And that - and the social equalization that it fostered – may have been been another one of shemitta’s benefits.

Shemitta, then, had both short term and long term social benefits.

The Rambam also notes shemitta’s economic benefits. It’s the Rambam that notes that not cultivating the land during shemitta lets the land regenerate its nutrients. That lets: “the land better its agricultural production and be strengthened by remaining”[5] That, of course, increases the land’s productivity.

Shemitta, then, isn’t just about the spiritual. It’s also about the social and the economic. And that means that shemitta is about everything.

The mitzva that our parsha mentions right after the shemitta mitzva is the “yovel” mitzva. Yovel, among other things, bans the long term sale of most land in Eretz Yisrael. It does that by turning most land sales into long term leases that last no more than fifty years. It’s the possuk: .[6]

Why did the Torah do this? Why did it to limit people’s ability to buy and sell land?

Here, too, the Chinuch and the Rambam offer diverging answers.

The Chinuch writes: “The reason for [ yovel] is the same reason as the reason for shemitta.”[7]

We noted before that shemitta’s abstention from agricultural activity is a reminder that Hashem owns the land.[8] If yovel is shemitta déjà vu, then it too, mot be about reminding sui that Hashem – and nit we – who owns the land.

Being unable to sell the land does, indeed, create such a reminder.

The Rambam, on the other hand, sees yovel as addressing social and economic needs. According to the Rambam, on yovel, land is returned so that “people’s land should remain in their hands and in their heirs’ hands”[9]- so that families shouldn’t lose this fountainhead of economic stability.

No, the Torah didn’t totally ban the sale of land. It couldn’t. And that’s Financial crises, debts and all sorts of personal challenges all, sometimes force people to sell their homesteads.

Such sales, though - in a world in which almost all income was land based – would denude seller’s descendants of all sources of income. To avoid multi-generational destitution, the Torah “returns” land to its “original owner” every yovel.

Such “land return,” then, was about maintaining an economically healthy society of middle-class homesteaders.

It’s not just shemitta.

And it’s not just yovel.

It’s other mitzvos too.

Other mitzvos are also not just about esoteric spiritualty. They’re also about social, economic, individual and communal health.

They are also about healthy selves, families and communal, social, and economic realities.

Yes, mitzvos are about there and then.

And mitzvos are also about here and now.

Our Torah is everything, isn’t it?

But would we expect anything less from a perfect Torah?

[1] Bamidbar 25:3-6

[2] See Tanchuma Vayikra 1 that considers the farmers’ allowance of such “trespass” angelic.

[3] Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzva 84

[4] Moreh Nevuchim 3:39

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bamidbar 25:11-12

[7] Sefer HaChinuch Mitzva 329

[8] Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzva 84

[9] Moreh Nevuchim 3:39

[2] See Tanchuma Vayikra 1 that considers the farmers’ allowance of such “trespass” angelic.

[3] Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzva 84

[4] Moreh Nevuchim 3:39

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bamidbar 25:11-12

[7] Sefer HaChinuch Mitzva 329

[8] Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzva 84

[9] Moreh Nevuchim 3:39

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