Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Behar-Behukotai 5762/ May 4, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Behar-Behukotai 5762/ May 4, 2002

Renewal in the Sabbath Year

Dr. Yaakov Charlap
Department of Talmud

Parashat Behar (Leviticus 25:2-5) sets forth the commandment of shemittah:

When you enter the land that I assign you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord... it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.

The punishment for failure to observe the commandments of shemittah appears later, in Parashat Behukotai (Lev. 26:32-35):

I will make the land desolate, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled by it. And you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheath the sword against you. Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin. Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years. Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it.

Avot de-Rabbi Nathan (Version A, Ch. 38) remarks as follows:

How do we know that exile comes to the world ... because of the sabbath of the land? For it is said, "then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years" (v. 34). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: Since you have not given the land its rest, it shall rest itself of you. As are the number of months that you do not give the land its rest, so it shall take its rest itself. Therefore it is written, "then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years. Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it."

The problematic nature of this commandment was observed long ago, by Rabbi Isaac Nafha, a second generation amora living in the land of Israel, as cited in Midrash Tanhuma (Parashat Vayikra, par. 1):

"Bless the Lord, O His angels, mighty creatures who do His bidding, ever obedient to His bidding" (Ps. 103:20)... R. Isaac Nafha said this refers to those who abide by the laws of shemittah. Why were they called mighty creatures? Because when they saw their fields abandoned, their trees untended, their fences breached, and their fruits being eaten, they repressed their evil inclination [to work the land and keep its produce] and said nothing; and our rabbis taught us that the mighty are those who repress their evil inclination.

The rationale for the sabbatical year, as presented in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 39a, in the name of Rabbi Abbahu, is well known:

A disciple came and said [to Rabbi Abbahu], what is the rationale behind the commandment of the sabbatical year? He answered, ... the Holy One, blessed be He, told the Israelites to sow six years, but rest on the seventh so that they shall know that the land belongs to the Lord; but they did not do so, but sinned and were exiled.

According to this text, the rationale behind the commandment of shemittah is to bring home the message that human beings are not the owners of the land in their possession; rather, the Holy One, blessed be He, is Lord of the land. In line with this explanation, we can understand why exile is the punishment for violating this law. Since the people failed to acknowledge the Lord's ownership of the land, the Holy One, blessed be He, proved his lordship over the land by removing the people from it, punishing them measure for measure.

Numerous other explanations of this commandment have been given over the generations. Here we shall present a number of interpretations that focus on the sabbatical year as a source of renewal in several respects.

Shem me-Shemuel by R. Samuel of Sokhachov offers an original explanation based on a remark by the author of Or ha-Hayyim on Genesis 2:3. When G-d was creating the world, "The Lord did not create a force in the world with the strength to endure for more than six days, as the verse says, 'in six days the Lord made heaven and earth' (Ex. 20:11). The forces of creation must be renewed every Sabbath."[1] Shem me-Shemuel carries this notion over to Leviticus 25:2: "When you enter the land that I assign ('ani noten) to you," the verb is in the present tense, meaning that the land of Israel is given to the people of Israel every seven years, since in the seventh year it reverts to the Lord. When the shemittah year is observed, the land is again assigned to Israel. As he put it:

It must be said that assigning the land of Israel to Israel is like Creation in general; i.e., the land was given them only for seven years, to work it; and then He gives it again, for another seven years, to be worked and cared for. Therefore on the seventh year the land reverts to Him who gave it, and all who eat of its fruits partake from [His] lofty table... Therefore the words of preface, "When you enter the land that I assign you," are in the present, rather than saying "gave," "shall give," ... to indicate that the act of giving you the land is continuous, not once for all time. (Loc. sit., Behar, 1913).

In other words, the connection between the people and the land is not static, but dynamic, demanding renewal. The sabbatical year provides the opportunity to renew the bond between the people and their land. The additional implication of the comparison to Genesis is that the Lord renews the strength of the land in the sabbatical year.

Maimonides brings up the notion of renewal in relationship to the land in Guide for the Perplexed, where he stresses the land's need for rest. In his opinion, letting a field lie fallow for a year improves the quality and quantity of its yield in subsequent years. Thus Maimonides combines the agricultural advantage for the land with the benefit derived by the owner of the field (Guide, Part III, par. 39).

Rabbi Isaac Arama (Akedat Yitzhak) and Don Isaac Abarbanel challenge this explanation of Maimonides. In their opinion, the severe consequences for failing to observe the commandment to let one's field rest is not consonant with this interpretation. If the commandment were concerned with the well-being of the owner of the field, then by failing to observe the commandment the owner would be causing himself harm and would lose his field, so why would the Torah view this violation with such severity? As Rabbi Isaac Arama explained (Akedat Yitzhah, Vayikra, Parashat Behar Sinai, sect. 69):

Wonderful insight and revelation is provided by the fact that the Torah was so strict regarding this commandment. The Sages said that exile comes to the world because of [violation of] the sabbath of the land (Avot, ch. 5). One wonders why such a thing should happen for this sin. If resting the land is for the purpose of agriculture, as is the practice of farmers to leave land fallow for several years in order to restore its strength and improve its yield, then it would suffice that, knowing the secret of tilling the soil, if they obey [all is well and good], and if not, then poor yields would be their punishment; so why need they be exiled from the land in punishment for this sin?

Abarbanel raises another difficulty inherent in Maimonides' explanation, based on a different verse in Parashat Behar (Lev. 25:21): "I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years." If yield is improved as a result of letting the land lie fallow, how could this blessing come in the sixth year, before the land has had its rest? How would the land be able to give three years worth of crops? Hence he concludes that shemittah has to do with spiritual matters, not agricultural advantages. Maimonides' argument is also rejected by Rabbi Moses Alsheikh (in Alsheikh al ha-Torah, loc. sit.), on the grounds that giving this commandment at Mount Sinai and couching it in the terms of the land "having its sabbath" indicates that the commandment conveys a spiritual message and is not a matter of material advantage. In his opinion, even though Maimonides' explanation has validity to it, the land of Israel itself does not need rest:

For the land of Israel is not like other lands, its strength being drained. Hence it is called a "land of milk and honey," for it flows with richness and is naturally good from G-d's blessing... Therefore, henceforth say that G-d commanded and ordained that we give it a sabbath not because of depletion of its strength. (loc. sit.)

In short, Maimonides' explanation of the commandment to let the land rest has been rejected by these commentators, be it because of problems raised by other remarks in the Torah pertaining to this commandment, or be it because of logical difficulties.

Alsheikh also raises another aspect of renewal of the land -renewal in the sense of added divine inspiration (see his commentary on Lev. 25 in Derekh ha-Shani). He claims that during this year the land of Israel receives additional sanctity from the Holy One, blessed be He. (Those versed in mysticism, note his comment regarding the connection between the sanctification of land and the joy and rest of the Holy One, blessed be He):

If you ask what indicates the sanctity inspiring the land in that year ... the experience of a sabbath of total rest that it is to have is imprinted on it. And that sabbath is a sabbath of the Lord (shabbat lashem), insofar as the experience it will have is from the blessed Lord, for also He has a part in the matter -it is a sort of primal sabbath of creation, in the same way that every person has an added spirituality from the Lord. And the Lord on high, as well, has joy and rest, as is well known to those versed in mysticism.

Furthermore, it is the divine inspiration of this year that causes the high yield of the seventh year, and therefore the produce of the seventh year is hefker, belonging to everyone, since it is not due to the toil of the owner of the field. On the other hand, whoever does not abstain from agricultural work on the seventh year prevents the divine inspiration and blessing from descending on the land; hence the particular severity with which the Sages viewed the prohibition against farming in the seventh year.

The idea of renewing the human spirit and overcoming materialistic desires is discussed in Rabbi Isaac Arama's book, Akedat Yitzhak, where he writes about the duality of human beings, in that they are composed of matter and spirit. On one hand, a person has physical needs essential to living, and on the other, he has a soul that is inclined towards and in need of spiritual accomplishments. Rabbi Arama views giving the land of Israel to the people of Israel and choosing the land of Israel as His land as a commandment instructing us in a way of life: in order to attain the spiritual, man needs material possessions and economic independence; for without these things a person cannot devote himself to spiritual matters, since he would have to spend all his time struggling for a livelihood. But in order that a person not descend to the level of purely physical pursuits, the Torah gave us the commandment of the sabbatical year, ordering us to cease tilling the soil and to leave the produce of our fields for all to take, so as to instruct us that man's principle purpose is to attain spiritual accomplishment, material concerns being but a vehicle to help attain our true destiny.

In truth it is but to address our souls, open our ears, and stir our hearts, providing great and numerous signs, opening blind eyes that are sunk deep in thoughts of our desires ... that we should work the soil ... for in the cycle of seven years of working, the seventh being a sabbath year, He stirs our hearts and sounds in our ears that we were not sent here to be slaves, sold to the soil, but for quite a different and lofty purpose ... as has been rightly explained in saying, "When you enter the land that I assign you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years ... But in the seventh year." The point is that entering the land was not for the purpose of becoming slaves to it, working the soil to derive benefit from it... To establish and reinforce this essential point, a great sign was written and given them that they work the land six years and then let it rest, that they may know that a person does not attain greatness from the strength of the soil, but that their work is something from which one rests for the sake of the Lord. (loc. sit.)[2]

A person who observes this commandment and internalizes the message it conveys could be expected to act in an upright and moral way during the six years that he is engaged in material pursuits and commerce with others:

Since honesty and all good traits in restraining desires and curtailing covetousness of worldly possessions follow from this, it is said in close juxtaposition, "When you sell property to your neighbor, ... you shall not wrong one another," to indicate that this derives from the previous moral lesson. For of their own accord, by their honesty and kindness of heart, they will not wish to do wrong or take advantage, so that when they sell or purchase property they will take care not to take advantage, buyer and seller alike, and will take from one another only what is fare exchange. (loc. sit., p. 148).[3]

This wary attitude towards worldliness and material pursuits also finds expression in Rabbi Isaac Arama's commentary on Genesis (Akedat Yitzhak, Sect. 11, 103b), with respect to Abel's offering being accepted and Cain's offering rejected. Many interpretations have been set forth, in the midrash and by biblical exegetes, explaining the reason why one offering was accepted and the other not. Rabbi Isaac Arama explained that tilling the soil symbolizes sinking into the pursuit of material possessions, whereas shepherding symbolizes spirituality. The offerings that Cain and Abel brought each represented their view that what they engage in is the ideal. Abel's offering was accepted and Cain's not in order to teach us that acquiring material possessions is not the ultimate purpose of mankind.

This basic idea is further elaborated by Abarbanel in his comments on the sin of the generation of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11). Abarbanel explains that the divine ideal is for human beings to make do with the natural things created by the Lord in order to sustain them, and to apply most of their time and energy to spiritual matters, as symbolized by the shepherd who herds his sheep following nature. But Adam, Cain, and the generation of the Tower of Babel did not remain true to this calling and were attracted by the materialism of civilization, which consumes all one's time, leaving nothing free for spiritual endeavors. Thus they also lead to a quest for glory, to jealousy, theft and bloodshed. When the Torah was given to the people of Israel, this type of life was not forbidden, since the human race had already become deeply imbued in it and weaning them from it would be very difficult. Therefore we were commanded that even while leading this sort of life we should follow the straight and narrow path of behaving morally.

Apparently the life of a farmer did not seem ideal to these commentators,[4] since it was likely to lead to materialism and acquisitions. In view of this, the commandment of shemittah was viewed as a vehicle for improving the world, refining and renewing the spirit. The commandment of shemittah, in which we were enjoined to cease tilling the soil, leaving it for the needy, was a corrective measure teaching us to aspire not to material possessions, but to spiritual possessions, as our ideal.


[1] Cf. also Or ha-Hayyim on Ex. 20:11, s.v. "od yirtzeh," as well as Onkelos and Nahmanides on this verse in Exodus.
[2] Abarbanel (Nahalat Avot, 5.11) expresses reservation about Rabbi Arama's approach, viewing it only as a secondary intention behind the commandment of shemittah: "Therefore, one of the rabbis of our times thought this [commandment] from G-d to be for awakening our souls, ... and while this idea is fine in itself, ... there is no doubt that the Torah did not have this in mind as the purpose of the commandment of shemittah, for the divine commandments have their own intrinsic purpose and any extension of them to matters of human behavior ... is a secondary purpose... If this alone were the purpose of the commandment of shemittah -and it is also the purpose of the commandment of the Sabbath -why did the tanna go on to say specifically that exile comes because of violation of the commandment of shemittah, yet he did not mention violation of the Sabbath or the Jubilee year?"
[3] See Rabbi Jonathan Eibshutz, Urim ve-Tummim, Hoshen Mishpat 67a, who also views this commandment as a way of instilling the value of making do with a minimum of material possessions. We quote: "How great is this commandment and the idea behind it, that the Israelite know that our days are like a passing shadow over the land, transient like our ancestors, ... and that the earth is the Lord's and all that it holds [see Ps. 24], and know that it does not lead to human perfection to occupy oneself acquiring possessions and amassing material things -- one knows not who will get them; for they shall see that the sabbath of the land is a sabbath of the Lord, and that every person has an equal hold on the land on which the Lord always keeps His eye [see Deut. 11:12]."
[4] The attitude of midrash halakhah towards tilling the soil is reflected in the following quotes from the Talmud and the Midrash: Yevamot 63a: "R. Eleazar said: There is no occupation more lowly than that of farming"; Sanhedrin 58b: "Resh Lakish said: Why does Scripture say, 'He who tills his land shall have food in plenty' (Prov. 12:11)? If a person makes himself like a slave, he will have food in plenty; and if not, he shall not have food in plenty." These sources show a negative attitude towards farming, but other sources show a positive attitude. For example, Sifra (Behar, ch. 5): "How do we know that a person is not entitled to sell his field, put down his wallet and purchase an animal, tools, and a house, unless he has become impoverished? Because it says, 'If your kinsman is in straits and has to sell...' Another example can be taken from Yevamot 63a: "Rabbi Eleazar said: Any person who has no land holding is not a person... Rabbi Eleazar also said: It is destined that all craftsmen will be installed on the soil." Genesis Rabbah (ch. 39) reads: "Rabbi Levi said: When Abraham was traveling in Aram Naharayim and Aram Nahor, and saw the people there eating and drinking and behaving wantonly, he said, 'Would that I not be a part of this land,' but when he arrived at the Ladder of Tyre and saw the people weeding at weeding time, and hoeing at hoeing time, he said, 'Would that I have a portion in this land.' So the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, 'To your offspring shall I give this land.'" For further reading, see Hillel Zeitlin, Sifran shel Yehidim, Jerusalem 1980, p. 217-223.