Shemitta – Rights or Obligations of the Individual?

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

Adapted by Immanuel Meyer

Translated by Kaeren Fish


Commenting on the verse, “And God spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai, saying…” (Vayikra 25:1), Rashi cites Chazal’s question: What does Shemitta (the subject that the chapter then goes on to present) have to do with Mount Sinai? Rashi provides the answer given in the gemara. In fact, however, the question pertains not just to the first verse of the parasha, but also to the sections that follow, which the pesukim specify were also transmitted at Mount Sinai. The blessings and curses conclude with the words, “These are the statutes and the judgments and the teachings which the Lord placed between Himself and Bnei Yisrael at Mount Sinai, by the hand of Moshe” (26:46), and at the end of the parasha we find once again, “These are the commandments which the Lord commanded Moshe for Bnei Yisrael at Mount Sinai” (27:34).

It would seem that in terms of chronology, Sefer Vayikra, which opens with the words, “And God called to Moshe and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying…” (1:1), concludes after Parashat Emor, while Behar and Bechukotai actually precede this long unit chronologically. They seem to have been given before God spoke to Moshe from the Tent of Meeting, as mentioned in the first verse of the sefer. The parashot of Behar and Bechukotai go back to the Divine commands given at Sinai.

Indeed, it seems that these parashot themselves represent the covenant which God gave to Moshe at Sinai:

And he took the Book of the Covenant (sefer ha-brit), and he read it in the hearing of the people, and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we shall do and we shall hear.” (Shemot 24:7)

No description is given here of the contents of that “Book of the Covenant.” At the same time, our parasha is brimming with expressions of a covenant. First, the very fact that there are blessings and curses testifies to a covenant, since a covenant (brit) is based on reward and punishment (as in the case of brit mila – circumcision; the brit bein ha-betarim – Covenant Between the Parts; the covenant of the Plains of Moav, etc.). Within the section of the blessings and curses, there is also frequent reference to upholding or violation of the covenant:

For I will turn Myself to you and make you fruitful and multiply you and establish My covenant with you. (26:9)

And if you shall despise My statutes, or if your soul abhors My judgments, so that you will not do all My commandments, but that you break My covenant… (ibid. 15)

Then I will bring a sword upon you, that shall avenge My covenant. (ibid. 25)

If our thesis is correct and Parashot Behar and Bechukotai constitute the sefer ha-brit, then at Sinai God gave Bnei Yisrael the Ten Commandments as well as the commandments of Shemitta and Yovel. What is so special about these particular commandments that demanded that they be given at Sinai?

At first glance, the most conspicuous element in our parasha is the element seized upon by Hillel the Elder and by R. Akiva – “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” R. Akiva declares this to be “a great principle in the Torah” (Sifra, Kedoshim 2), while Hillel the Elder, in his response to the gentile who asked to be converted “while standing on one foot,” replied: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the entire Torah; the rest is its elaboration. Go and learn it” (Shabbat 31b). Indeed, Shemitta and Yovel are manifestly social commandments:

And the Shabbat [i.e., Shemitta] produce of the land shall be food for you – for you, and for your servant, and for your maid, and for your hired servant, and for your stranger who sojourns with you… (25:6)

These parashot also mention the freeing of servants, the returning of fields to the impoverished owners who were forced to sell them, the redemption of land, the prohibition of usury and interest, and the prohibition, “You shall not rule over him with rigor, but shall fear your God” (v. 43). Similarly, in Sefer Devarim, the commandment of Shemitta regarding the land is accompanied by a cancellation of debts –

At the end of every seven years you shall make a release (shemitta). And this is the manner of the release: every creditor who lends anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not exact it of his neighbor, or of his brother, because he has proclaimed a release to the Lord (Devarim 15:1-2)  

It is also conveyed in the context of the commandment of dispensing charity:

You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor, and to your needy in your land. (ibid. 11)

This is an important message in the Book of the Covenant.

Let us now trace another message that explains why these particular commandments became the “Book of the Covenant” that God forged with Bnei Yisrael at Sinai.

When we read the verses of the commandment of Shemitta, a difficult problem arises:

Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruit, but in the seventh year shall be a Shabbat Shabbaton for the land, a Shabbat for the Lord: you shall not sow your field, nor prune your vineyard. That which grows of its own accord of your harvest you shall not reap, nor shall you gather the grapes of your undressed vine, for it shall be a year of rest for the land. (25:3-5)

This year is defined by prohibitions – you shall “not,” and “not,” and “not.” For six years, you are active, doing something productive, and for one year there is complete passivity, with no positive content. This presents a problem. There are certainly many lofty principles that find expression in the commandments of Shemitta and Yovel: God’s Kingship; neighborly kindness and aid; the freeing of slaves and the return of fields to their original owners, recalling the Exodus from Egypt; the great sharing of the produce of the Shemitta fields by the entire nation, recalling the manna in the desert. All of this is well and good, but what is a person supposed to do for an entire year (and when the Shemitta is followed by a Yovel – two consecutive years), when he is forbidden from working in his field?

Let us keep in mind that we are speaking of a time when people would start their day at dawn; the discussions surrounding the exact time in the morning when Shema may first be recited refers to early hours that are mostly unknown to us. “When one is able to distinguish between blue and white” – this is the beginning of the work day. Similarly, the discussions as to the time when Shema may be recited at night speak of a person returning from his work in the field in the evening, ready to recite Shema and pray the evening service. Work in the field from morning to evening is important! It gives a person an outlet for his energy and effort; it provides him with a framework, hope, aspirations… Indeed, work is important. Yet, in the commandment of Shemitta, God commands that we desist from work for an entire year. What are we to do with all this free time?

The simple (and to my mind, simplistic) answer is that the year is to be devoted to Torah study. Unquestionably, this is a great vision, and one that we should aspire to. It is not for nothing that the Torah commands a “hak’hel” gathering at the end of the Shemitta year:

At the end of every seven years, in the time of the Shemitta year, during the festival of Sukkot, when all of Israel has come to appear before the Lord your God in the place which He shall choose, you shall read this Torah before all of Israel in their hearing. (Devarim 31:10-11)

During the six regular years, people come to the Temple until the festival of Sukkot, bearing the first fruits of their field. During the Shemitta year, when there is no work in the field, Bnei Yisrael come to the Temple bearing the fruits of their Torah study, which has occupied them throughout the year. The release from work in the field brings us back to the reality of the wilderness, where we received our food directly, in miraculous fashion, from God. This in turn recalls the words of the Mekhilta De-Rabbi Yishmael (Beshalach):

On this, R. Shimon ben Yochai would comment: The Torah was given to be engaged in by those who ate the manna. What was this reality? A person would sit and study, not knowing where his food and drink would come from, nor where he would acquire clothes to cover himself. Thus, the Torah was given to be engaged in only by those who ate the manna.

The Torah promises concerning the Shemitta year:

And if you shall say, “What shall we eat in the seventh year? Behold, we shall not sow, nor gather in our increase” – then I will command My blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth fruit for three years. (Vayikra 25:20-21)

The same idea is embodied in the double quantity of manna that would fall in the wilderness on Friday, so as to last for Shabbat as well.

This is truly a great and impressive vision, and we must not give it up. With all my criticism against many aspects of the conduct of Charedi society, I remember well the one time that I met with R. Shakh, alone, when both of us were still young (I was about 20, he was not yet 80…). I entered his room quite late at night, and saw him at a desk groaning under the weight of books. He was sitting and writing his chiddushim on the Rambam. This made a powerful impression on me. We must not give up on this vision – of an entire society spending one year out of every seven devoted entirely to the study of God’s Torah.

Nevertheless, it may be that such a command, addressed to the entire nation for an entire year, may be intended mainly for the End of Days. What is the reality of a seventh year with no agricultural work?

In Sefer Nechemia, we find a description of something that resembles the Shemitta and Yovel that we have been discussing:

And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brethren. For there were those who said, “We, our sons, and our daughters, are many; therefore, let us get corn, that we may eat and live.” And some said, “We have mortgaged our lands, our vineyards, and our houses, that we might buy corn, because of the dearth.” There were also those who said, “We have borrowed money for the king’s tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards. Yet now our flesh is as good as the flesh of our brethren, our children as good as their children, and behold – we press our sons and our daughters into slavery, and some of our daughters are pressed into slavery already, nor is it in our power to redeem them, for other men have our lands and vineyards.” (5:1-5)

Nechemia hears all this and is deeply shocked, and he rebukes those who are oppressing their brethren:

“We have, according to our ability, redeemed our Jewish brethren who were sold to the nations, yet you will nevertheless sell your brethren, that they be sold to us?!” (ibid. 8)

Nechemia then commands the people that they release their servants and cancel the debts of the poor and destitute.

Was this necessarily a Shemitta or Yovel year? It is not at all certain that during this period the Shemitta and Yovel years were observed. (The gemara in Massekhet Gittin debates the question at length, and the scope of our present discussion does not allow for us to elaborate.) However, the question of a Shemitta or Yovel year is not necessarily the point. We have already mentioned in the past how the Yom Kippur service as set down in the Torah was not necessarily observed on the 10th of Tishrei. Rather, it was a “Yom Kippur” in the sense that we refer to the day in the wake of the Yom Kippur War – a day when we are in need of Divine compassion. There are situations in the life of a nation when the Kohen Gadol must enter the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim and make atonement for Am Yisrael and plead for mercy. In Parashat Acharei Mot, the Torah sets down the proper procedure for such supplication (as R. Yoel Bin Nun has elaborated in his article on the Eighth Day and Yom Kippur). Thus, in our instance as well, Nechemia takes in the situation in his time and decides that although there may be no explicit command, it is necessary to declare a release of the servants.

Is Nechemia’s gesture simply a matter of kindness, of “You shall love your neighbor as yourself – this is a great principle in the Torah”? Is this campaign a matter of charity?

Chapter 5 of Sefer Nechemia sits squarely within the framework of the sefer as a whole, as part of the description of the building of the wall of Jerusalem. Nechemia gets the people to work intensively for fifty-two days to build the wall that will protect the city from the enemies of Yehuda and Israel:

And it came to pass from that time onwards that half of my servants did the work, and the other half held the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the coats of mail, and the rulers were behind all the house of Yehuda… So we labored in the work, and half of them held the spears from the rising of the morning until the stars appeared. Likewise, at the same time I said to the people, “Let everyone with his servant lodge within Jerusalem, so that in the night they may be a guard to us, and labor in the day.” (ibid. 4:10-17)

For a period of fifty-two days, no one could work his fields and bring food home, and the people were thus forced to take loans, hoping that even after the sowing season they would be able to coax something from the ground to feed their families. If they had no success, they were forced to sell their property and their children or to owe the king.

Here, Nechemia steps in and cries out: This cannot be! It cannot be that good Jews who mobilized for the national good and the public benefit have to pay a price that should be paid by the nation as a whole! We have to cancel their debt! It is unimaginable that someone who helped build the wall of Jerusalem and stood guard, protecting it from the nation’s enemies, must lose all he has as a result.

This incident would appear to cast new light on our parasha. One year out of every seven, the nation is released from work in the fields so as to be mobilized for the King’s labor. A country cannot operate in a situation in which every man sits under his own vine and under his own fig tree, caring only for his own sustenance by engaging in long hours of work. For one year out of every seven, the Torah commands that we desist from work in the field and be prepared to take on national goals and national projects, whether in the realm of education, welfare, construction, or road safety.

This is the difference between the “social justice” demanded by the Torah and the social justice sought by modern society. Contemporary Israeli society conducts discourse about rights: “The state owes me such-and-such.” The Torah speaks in terms of obligations: You owe the state such and such, and it is certainly unthinkable that as a result you should suffer, and therefore servants must be freed and fields returned to their owners. A Jewish state can be democratic, but it cannot be liberal. It cannot be based only on individual rights without speaking of obligations. It must speak, first and foremost, about the general good, and via that to seek also the good of individuals.

Walking through Central Park in New York one Shabbat evening, I was shocked to note the unimaginable number of homeless people. It was appalling. If we continue privatizing everything that exists and rely solely on the goodwill of individuals, we may find ourselves in a similar situation in Israel. When every individual is responsible only for himself, there are those who will swim, while others will sink.

The commandments of Shemitta and Yovel were given at Mount Sinai because they entail commitment to the nation as a whole and a national framework of mutual responsibility. And it is there that the entire nation answers, “We shall do and we shall hear” – “as a single person with a single heart.”


(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat, Parashat Behar 5772 [2012].)