This Week's Torah Portion: A Year-Long Shabbat? (Part 31)

We’re publishing a weekly series of articles covering each week’s Torah portion as a rabbi (such as the author) might do via a talk in a synagogue. The series is tailored so it may also be read by non-Jews who may be interested in how Jews read and interpret Scripture. Click here for the first article in the series.

Dëvar Torah — Parashath BëHar (Leviticus XXV, 1 — XXVI, 2)

Below, the first three verses of our parasha:

And Ha-Shem spoke to Moshe on Mt. Sinai to say, Speak to the sons of Israel and you will say to them, When you will come to the land which I am giving you, the land will rest, a sabbath for Ha-Shem. Six years shall you sow your fields … and in the seventh year the land will have a sabbath of rest, a sabbath for Ha-Shem (shabbath shabbathon yihyeh la’aretz shabbath laShem). 

The midrash in Torath Kohanim asks a straightforward question: Why is this commandment to allow the land to lie fallow every seventh year (called shëmitta in Hebrew) specifically mentioned in connection with Mt. Sinai? Were not all of the commandments stated from Sinai?

The midrash answers its own question:

Just as all the general principles and details of shëmitta were said from Sinai, so were the general principles and details of all of the commandments said from Sinai.

As Rabbi Baruch haLévi Epstein points out in his Torah Tëmima, this statement accords perfectly with what we find in the Torah. In parashath Mishpatim (Exodus XXIII, 10-12), which follows the description of the revelation on Sinai, we find a general statement of the seven-year sabbatical cycle (shëmitta). In our parasha we find a more detailed presentation explicitly attributed to the revelation at Mt. Sinai.

Rashi cites this midrash, and seems to be bothered by another point. This commandment could in no way have been carried out during Israel’s forty-year sojourn in the desert. The shëmitta would seem to be a prime candidate to have been mentioned among those re-emphasized in Deuteronomy. There, Moshe gives a long farewell address on the plains of Moav on the eve of Israel’s invasion of Canaan. Yet we find no mention of the shëmitta there.

Why not?

 For Rashi, this was precisely the point: just such a commandment was singled out for this sort of treatment to demonstrate that, just as such a precept whose practical observance would not begin until after the conquest of Canaan was given from Sinai, so too were all the others. The speech of Deuteronomy is a re-statement and re-emphasis, not, G-d forbid, a second revelation.

 Very well, but the fact remains that many other commandments which are dependent upon Israel’s establishment in the Holy Land could have been spotlighted to make the same point. Why shëmitta in particular?

The 16th century Italian sage Rabbi ‘Ovadya Sforno offers one approach. As Israel broke camp and left the environs of Mt. Sinai, Moshe truly believed that they were headed straight for the promised land, as is evident from what he said to his father-in-law:

We are traveling to the place of which Ha-Shem has said, I shall give it to you (Numbers X, 29).

Moshe was thus unaware that they would be stalled in the desert for decades because of the incident of the spies. Therefore, he thought this precept had considerable immediacy, especially in light of the warning (in next week’s parasha) that failure to observe the shëmitta would constitute grounds for being exiled from the land (cf. XXVI, 35, Rashi ad loc.)

Still, this is not the only place in the Torah with such a warning. For example, at the end of Acharei Moth we are admonished about imitating certain practices of the Egyptians and the Canaanites, so that “the land not vomit you out, as it has the nation that was before you” (XVIII, 28).

So our question remains: What has shëmitta, specifically, to do with Mt. Sinai?

 Note the emphasis which our parasha’s introductory passage places on the phrase Shabbath la-Shem, repeating it twice in the space of four verses. Rashi felt compelled to comment on it, and wrote:

For Ha-Shem’s sake, as it is said concerning the Sabbath of Creation.

Some consideration of the matter reveals that this comparison is itself worthy of comment. After all, the concept of shëvuth, of enforced rest, is not confined to the weekly day of rest and the sabbatical cycle. There are also the holidays, which the Torah calls “convocations of sanctity” in which “you will not do any labors” (cf. Numbers XXVIII, 18ff.)

On the other hand, we can understand the necessity of an admonition concerning the sabbath and holidays. As “days off,” they involve personal enjoyment, feasting, and song, and one can well understand that, amidst the gaiety, one may need to be reminded that the celebration is for Ha-Shem’s sake, and not simply an excuse for a party.

However, the shëmitta involves real hardship for the farmers of the Holy Land, putting their livelihoods on hold every seventh year. What a stress on the family budget! Why should the Torah need to warn us that this enforced rest, no less than sabbath or holiday, has to be “for Ha-Shem’s sake”? Why else would anyone attempt it?

The reality is that many of us, without thinking deeply about the matter, are tempted to seek “naturalistic” explanations for such institutions as the sabbath and shëmitta — as though the Torah were a union contract mandating vacation days for the work force, or an agricultural handbook recommending crop rotation.

We must not be surprised that proper adherence to Torah practice has side benefits. The Torah itself enjoins us: “va-chai bahem,“ “and live through (the commandments)” (Leviticus XVIII, 5).

A thriving, vibrant life is the natural concomitant to our fulfilling our duties under the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. The concomitant, but not the main point.

The main point is that our day-to-day lives should constitute a consistent sanctification of G-d’s name, such that every sabbath is observed in such a way that it attests to the Creator’s existence and beneficence toward all. This holds whether it is a sabbath occurring every seven days or one every seven years.

 The 19th century sage Rabbi Moshe Sofer (known by the title of his works as the Chatham Sofér) reminds us that we can turn the question on its head: through observance of these commandments specifically, we are afforded an opportunity to demonstrate that our Torah is indeed of Heavenly origin. We learn a bit later in the parasha of the consequence of our obedience:

[T]he land will yield its fruit and you will eat to repletion, and you will dwell securely upon it (XXV, 19).

Indeed, the Torah invites a test:

And if you say, What shall we eat in the seventh year? Behold, we shall not sow or reap out produce! And I shall command My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will generate the produce for the three years (ibid., 20-21).

That is, the yield will suffice not only for the sixth year, but also for the seventh and eighth until the new plantings mature.

Consider the implication. Not only the faithful who obey without question but even the doubters will see a bumper crop in the sixth year, “… in such a way that the eye will be satisfied by what it sees, and you will see that the quantity will suffice.”

What fool would ever make such promises on his own account? Were this not a promise made by the Creator Himself, it would take but one shëmitta to demonstrate the “prophet’s” bankruptcy!

Thank G-d, in our age we are once again able to see Jewish farmers working the land and observing the Torah, and the anecdotes of improbably favorable weather and unusual yields multiply before each shëmitta. However, those of us who live outside the land and/or are not involved directly with agricultur need not experience this testimony vicariously, for this is not the only commandment in which Ha-Shem invites such a test.

It is codified in halacha that one should not give more than 20% of one’s worth to tzëdaqa (a word which we’ll render, for this purpose, as “charity”), and that 10% is an “average” (beinoni) amount. Within these parameters, however, we are assured:

 … a person does not become impoverished by tzëdaqa, nor is harm caused by it.

To the contrary, failure to give the proper amount commensurate with one’s means is liable to result in a reduction of those means to a level commensurate with the tzëdaka (ShulchanAruch, Yoreh Dé‘a 247:2; Rambam, Hilchoth MattënothAniyyim X, 2, Kesef Mishneh ad loc.)

Established law that we will never have reason to regret donations to tzëdaqa? How dare the great codifiers go out on a limb like this, unless the guarantee truly comes from Above?

Is G-d not calling out: “Test Me! Try Me!”

Let us see: “Ta‘amu urë’u ki tov Ha-Shem” (“Taste and see that Ha-Shem is good,” Psalms XXXIV, 9); “Bëchanuni gam ra’u fo‘oli” (“Test Me, and also see My effectiveness”; ibid., XCV, 9).