SHEMITTA AND SOCIAL JUSTICE

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHA

 

*********************************************************

This shiur is dedicated in memory of
Dr. William Major, z"l.

*********************************************************

 

 Parashat Re'eh

 

SHEMITTA AND SOCIAL JUSTICE

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley

 

 

A.           INTRODUCTION

 

In Sefer Devarim, Moshe’s major address to the Jewish people before their entry into the Land of Israel comprises the bulk of the book.  Beginning in Chapter 5 and continuing through Chapter 26, this speech spans six parashiyyot; it contains the Torah’s philosophical underpinnings and lists almost a third of the commandments.  Our parasha, Parashat Re'eh, begins the second half of this seminal speech.  From Chapter 4 until Chapter 11, Moshe outlines the Torah’s theological and philosophical foundations – belief in the revelation at Sinai, the unity of God, reward and punishment, and the specific challenges that will confront the Jewish people upon entering the land.  In Chapter 12, Moshe begins delineating the commandments that the Jewish people have to follow. 

 

It is difficult to find an overriding explanation for the order in which Moshe addresses the various commandments in the book.  The topics are ritual and social, legal and military, the laws of the holidays and the laws of purity; they intertwine and appear in almost random order.  We can infer from this a deliberate attempt to reinforce the message that the Torah does not give priority to one form of commandment over other.  Both ritual and social laws, the commandments "bein adam la-Makom" (between man and God) and "bein adam le-chavero" (between man and his fellow) stand equal before God. 

 

 

B.           THE SHEMITTA OF SEFER DEVARIM

 

No commandment in our parasha exemplifies the Torah’s commitment to social justice more than the commandment of shemitta.  In Chapter 15, the Torah introduces the commandment of shemittat kesafim – the cancellation of all debts at the end of the seventh year.  The Torah explicitly mentions the purpose of the mitzva – "That there shall be no needy among you" (v. 4).  Previously, the Torah had discussed the laws of the seventh year from the agricultural perspective and the requirement to refrain from any working of the land (Shemot 23:10-11, Vayikra 25:1-7).  In Devarim, Moshe concentrates on the financial implications of shemitta observance (15:1-3):

 

At the end of seven years you shall make a release (shemitta).  And this is the manner of the release: every creditor who has lent to his fellow shall release it; he shall not demand it of his fellow or of his brother, because he has declared a release to God.  You may demand it of a foreigner, but that which is between you and your brother you shall release.

 

At first glance, the specific law of the seventh year mentioned here, the releasing of all debts, does not appear to be a continuation of the previous discussions of the laws of shemitta, which dealt with refraining from agricultural labor.  However, we shall soon see that this law is a logical necessity due to the observance of shemitta; one is intrinsically linked to the other.  Several literary connections support this contention.  First of all, both laws apply during the seventh year of the cycle.  Moreover, the Torah uses the same root, "sh-m-t" (release) in Devarim and Shemot ("And the seventh, you shall release it (tishmetenna) and let it lie fallow, that the poor of your nation may eat," 23:11); furthermore, both Devarim and Vayikra mention the declaration that this is done "TO GOD": in our parasha we read, "a shemitta to God" (15:2); while in Vayikra 25:2, 4, the seventh year is twice called "shabbat TO GOD." 

 

Most important among the connections, however, is the explicit declaration in our parasha that the purpose of the commandment is out of concern for the welfare and well-being of the poor (15:7, 9):

 

If there should be among you a poor person from among your brethren… you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother…  Guard yourself lest you have an uncharitable thought in your heart, saying: "The seventh year, the shemitta year, approaches" – such that your eye is evil towards your poor brother.

 

If the above contentions are correct, then we must explain the most glaring difference between the two sets of laws.  The prohibition against working the land applies at the beginning of the seventh year, whereas the laws that require the cancellation of debts only come in force at the end.  Why is this so?  Rav Elchanan Samet suggests that the reason for the difference is that the Torah is addressing an agricultural nation.  When farmers take loans, they are not capable of repaying them at the beginning of the agricultural year.  Only at the end, when he reaps his harvest and gathers his crops, will the farmer be able to repay the loan.  However, the Jewish farmer, who refrains from working the land during the seventh year, reaping no commercial harvest, obviously has no means by which he can repay his loans.  Writes Rav Samet:

 

Therefore, the commandment of shemittat kesafim, the cancellation of debts at the CONCLUSION of the seventh year, is the inevitable consequence of the laws of letting the land lie fallow throughout the entire seventh year.  The problem with repaying debts is a problem that actually relates to the eighth year, since the borrowing farmer has no harvest from which to be able to repay the loan.  At the beginning of the seventh year no such problem exists, since the harvest of the sixth year is still available to the farmer, and he can use that for repaying a debt.  During the course of the seventh year itself, it seems, the poor and the wealthy are nourished alike from the produce that grew in everyone's fields, as these are declared hefker, ownerless, as the verse teaches, "That the poor of your nation may eat…"

Thus we can understand the date for shemittat kesafim: it occurs at the transition from the seventh year to the eighth.  We can also understand the dependence of shemittat kesafim on the shemitta of the land, even though the latter is an obligation on the individual that is not, in itself, dependent on the land.  When the shemitta of the land is not observed, there is no need for this protection for a borrowing farmer, as during the seventh year he will be sowing and reaping as usual, and he will therefore be able to repay his debts.

 

The medieval Ashkenazic commentator, Rabbeinu Yosef, the Bekhor Shor, finds an explicit expression of the connection between the two shemittot; the rationale for shemittat kesafim is given as follows: "He shall not demand it of his fellow or of his brother, FOR HE HAS DECLARED A SHEMITTA TO GOD."  Who declares that it is "A SHEMITTA TO GOD"?  Most of the commentators suggest that this phrase, a grammatical construct (to be understood as: it has become "a shemitta to God") is either euphemistic or refers to the court, which is given the responsibilities for declaring the new moons (see the commentaries of the Rashbam and Chizkuni, ad loc.).  Unique among the commentators, the Bekhor Shor explains that the subject refers to a specific person.  He suggests that the person is the same subject as that mentioned of the previous verse, the debtor's fellow and brother:

 

"For he" – HIS BROTHER – "has declared a shemitta" – of his FIELDS – for the sake of heaven, and THEREFORE HE HAS NO MEANS TO REPAY THE DEBT!

 

In other words, the creditor cannot demand repayment because THE DEBTOR, the farmer, has declared shemitta (by refraining from working the land).  Accordingly, the Bekhor Shor interprets the continuation of the text:

 

"You may demand it of a foreigner" – for a non-Jew sows and reaps and gathers (as usual) AND IS ABLE TO REPAY.  But your brother did not plough or sow or reap, so how can he repay?

 

 

C.           YOU SHALL NOT HARDEN YOUR HEART

 

The Torah is very aware of human nature, and the challenges that one must overcome to observe the mitzvot.  In our chapter, the Torah directly addresses the psychological rationalizations that a person confronts when faced with the requirement to cancel all debts owed him every seventh year:

 

(7) If there be among you a needy man, one of your brethren, within any of your gates, in your land, which Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy brother; (8) but you shall surely open your hand to him, and shall surely lend him, sufficient for his need, in that which he wants. (9) Guard yourself lest you have an uncharitable thought in your heart, saying: "The seventh year, the shemitta year, approaches" – such that your eye is evil towards your poor brother, and you give him nothing; he may cry to God against you, and there will be a sin in you. (10) You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; because it is for this matter that Lord your God will bless you in all your work, and in all that you put your hand to. (11) For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore, I command you, saying: "You shall surely open your hand to your poor and needy brother, in your land."

 

What causes these base thoughts to arise?  What leads a person to justify his failure to act kindly towards his brother?  According to the traditional understanding of the verses, the reason the rich person does not wish to lend money to the poor is because he knows that since the shemitta year cancels all debts, it is unlikely that he will get his money back.  However, the commentators do not limit themselves to this understanding, and many suggest that the verse refers not only to the act of granting loans, but even of giving gifts to the poor, as the verse concludes, "such that your eye is evil towards your poor brother, and you give him nothing."  Accordingly, the Abarbanel interprets the verses as referring to the giving of ma’aser ani, the pauper's tithe, in the sixth year.  The rich person may claim: why should I give ma’aser ani to the poor now?  In one more year, everything will become ownerless and the poor will be able to take whatever they want for themselves!  That should compensate for whatever I do not give them now. 

 

Along similar lines, Rav Moshe Sofer (19th-century Hungary) interprets the verses as referring to any form of charity.  Since within a year, everything will become ownerless, and the poor will be able to take whatever they want, any donation now would serve no purpose, rationalizes the rich person.

 

            Rav Tzevi Yehuda Mecklenburg (19th-century Germany) provides a similar interpretation, but he maintains that the text’s original meaning as referring to a loan.  In his book Ha-ktav Ve-hakkabbala, he suggests that our verses refer to a poor person who comes to ask for a loan and is refused by a rich person, who says to him: why bother taking a loan?  In a little while, it will be the shemitta year, when everything is ownerless, and you will be able to take whatever you desire freely.  

 

The Torah teaches us that this is also forbidden, and Rav Mecklenburg suggests a novel reason: preserving the dignity of the poor:  not everyone feels comfortable taking items for free.  Some prefer to work harder in order to repay their loans, as opposed to relying on the shemitta year to take legally from others.

 

            That the debtor also has a moral responsibility to repay the loan, despite its cancellation by the laws of shemittat kesafim, is the theme of a novel interpretation by Rav Eli'ezer of Metz, the Yere'im, a student of Rabbeinu Tam.  He writes as follows:

 

It appears to me that shemitta does not mean a forgiving [of loans].  Rather, the Holy One commands that one "let lie" – i.e., to leave it alone, not to demand it, UNTIL HE RETURNS IT OF HIS OWN ACCORD, as it is written, "let it lie" and "he shall not demand it."  For whenever the Torah uses the word shemitta, it means to leave alone, not to relinquish altogether.  As it is written [regarding the land], "And the seventh, you shall release it and let it lie fallow" – meaning, you shall leave it alone.

Thus a loan always has the condition that the debtor not keep [the creditor] waiting forever for repayment from his storehouse.  If he does so, then he is termed an "evil debtor," as in the verse, "The evil debtor does not pay back" (Tehillim 37:21).

 

According to the above view, the postponement of the repayment of the loan begins at the end of the seventh year, as set down in the Halakha, and it continues UNTIL THE DEBTOR REPAYS THE DEBT OF HIS OWN ACCORD.  How does this occur?  Legally, the debtor must repay his loan the moment he has available assets (money, produce, etc.).  After the end of the seventh year, however, the creditor cannot force him, since the loan has passed the critical moment, from which time the creditor is forbidden to collect.  Morally, however, if the debtor fails to return the loan when it is possible for him to do so, he is a sinner and is termed an "evil debtor."  A debtor who has the means to repay and fails to do so is generally unable hide this fact.  Therefore, the moral imperative that he not show ingratitude — and thereby be counted in the category of "the evil debtor" — creates social pressure, which in turn leads to a reasonable chance of having the loan repaid.  Even though Halakha cannot force him to repay the debt, a person who wishes to maintain his good name before God and his fellow man will undertake to fulfill his moral obligations, and those who loaned the money will see it returned in the end.