The Challenge of Shmita

Avraham Putney

“G-d spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying:  Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, when you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a shabbat to G-d. For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, but in the seventh year there shall be a shabbat of solemn rest for the land, a shabbat to G-d, you shall not sow your fields or prune your vineyards.” (Vayikra 25:1-4)

This opening to Parshat Behar contains some interesting phrasing.  One phrase that causes some discussion among the commentators is “a shabbat for G-d”.  Rashi explains this unusual phrase be explaining it to mean “a shabbat in the name of G-d.”  There are a few explanations of what Rashi means through this comment.  It could be taken to mean that shmita is not simply that we should take a vacation from working the land but rather we should use it as an opportunity to reflect on G-d.  It could also be seen as a reminder that although the phrase says that it is a shabbat for G-d, the mitzvos were given for solely for our benefit and we do them to bring ourselves closer to G-d.  G-d himself derives no benefit from our performance of the mitzvos.

The Ramban may agree with these ideas but for the interpretation of the pasuk he notes that the relevant midrashim go in a different direction, focusing on the hidden nature of the world’s existence.  In his discussion, the Ramban highlights the importance of the mitzvah of shmita.  One source he quotes to emphasize this point is Pirkei Avos (5:9) which states that exile can come from four causes:  (1) idolatry, (2) sexual violations, (3) murder and (4) not following shimta.  

This listing begs the question of what is so unique about shmita, such that it is included in this group.  The other three averios here are very severe.  In fact, they are the three for which a person must accept death rather than violate.  While shmita is important, why would it result in the same punishment as these three?

The first step in understanding shmita is the difficulty that the mitzvah presents.  There are two main reasons that shmita is especially difficult for a person to keep.  

The first reason is general to a person’s general financial security.  We are no longer primarily engaged in agriculture as a business, so it can be hard to identify the test which a Jewish farmer in Israel endured when shmita was approaching.  It may be easier for us to understand this challenge if we consider how we would react if this mitzvah was applied in a parallel manner to our jobs.  What if there was a mitzvah which required us to take a year off from our jobs every seven years, or required that we close down our businesses with that frequency?  Would we find it easy to close up shop for a year?  We may understand the promise that G-d will cause us to succeed in other years to the extent this will not harm us, but abandoning our livelihoods for a year is still not an easy action. 

The second reason is specific to the activity of farming.  Much talk can be found about the relationship between a farmer and his land.  Farming creates a bond between a person and a particular piece of earth.  He puts his work and toil into the land and the land yields crops which sustain him.  While other professions may have tools or places of business which provide them with sustenance, they do not develop the same level of bond with these things as someone who lives and works a particular plot of land for many years.

Therefore, a farmer, as shmita approaches, has two concerns, one is a challenge regarding his ability to accept G-d’s promise that he will be able to live without working for that year.  The other is a challenge of surrendering the personal relationship with the land and the sense of entitlement to use the land as one wills.

The idea behind shmita, suggested through the Torah’s language and through chazal, is that just as the weekly shabbat reminds us of the original shabbat when G-d ceased creating, the shabbat of shmita also reminds of the creation.  The particular vehicle of shmita reminds us that through his creation of the universe, G-d is the true owner of the world and everything in it. 

A person who truly recognizes that G-d is the cause of his personal existence and the cause of the world will also recognize that his livelihood is comes from his Creator.  Since that Creator states that He will sustain us person even when we do not engage in our usual work, we can trust that He has the ability to sustain us.  If G-d can maintain the entire universe, He can maintain us as well.  The law of shmita forces a person to evaluate his beliefs and to see whether he truly accepts that his existence depends on his Creator or whether he has fallen into the error of believing that he can exist independently of G-d’s will.

Similarly, although the farmer may be naturally inclined to view the land as an extension of him, he must be willing to accept that ultimately the land is not really his.  It belongs to the One who created it.  It is only through following G-d’s laws that he has the right to make use of the land.

Using this approach, we can explain why shmita is listed among the sins which result in exile.  Eretz Yisrael was given to us for a reason.  We are expected to use it to live in accordance with G-d’s will.  Idolatry, sexual violations and murder all go against the Torah’s minimum expectations of how a society should function. Therefore when these are violated, that society no longer deserves to exist.  When this happens, we no longer have the right to possess the land, since G-d gave the land to use in according to a proper lifestyle, but it is being used in the opposite way.  Similarly, shmita is a primary distortion in the relationship with the land, G-d gave the land subject to conditions regarding its use and the shmita-violator has rejected them.  In each case, we no longer merit the land we were given to use.