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Hirsch At Your Table

Sh'mita: A Question of Ownership

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary
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שש שנים תזרע שדך ושש שנים תזמור כרמך ואספת את תבואתה. ובשנה השביעית שבת שבתון יהיה לארץ שבת לד’ שדך לא תזרע וכרמך לא תזמור: (Lv 25:3-4)
The שמיטה year comes after six years of planting, tending and harvesting the produce grown in Jewish-owned fields in the Land of Israel. During the seventh year, work ceases. It is forbidden to sow the fields or prune the vineyards. It is a שבת, a Sabbath, decreed by God.

The phrase שבת לד' emphasizes that the purpose of שמיטה is not agronomic; the aim is not to allow fields to lie fallow in order to rejuvenate the soil and produce better crops. The purpose of the שמיטה is to show that God is the true Owner of the land of Israel and that the human "owner" is merely a long-term tenant.

In this respect, this שבת of the land is similar to the weekly שבת commemorating the creation of the world, מעשה בראשית. The שבת of the land acknowledges man’s subservience to the ultimate Owner of the land. The שבת of creation acknowledges man’s subservience to the Creator of the world.

The word שמיטה is from the root ש-מ-ט "to release". Both land and debts are released in the seventh year. The word מעשה is from the root ע-ש-ה "to make." The word בראשית is from the root ר-א-ש "to begin to animate."


This conceptual similarity between the two "שבתות" is also reflected in the laws that characterize each of them. Both involve limitations on the performance of מלאכה/work. However, Halacha draws a fundamental difference between the two, based on the respective goals of each of the שבתות. The שבת of מעשה בראשית proclaims that the Master of the universe ceased using His formidable creative powers on that day. The שבת of שמיטה limits the agricultural activities of the "tenant" and establishes the true "owner" of the land.

The word מלאכה is from the root ל-א-ך "to work to complete a task and reach a goal."


The שבת of מעשה בראשית prohibits a wide range of activities, which fall into major categories/אבות of מלאכה as well as derivative activities/תולדות. For example: Planting/ זריעה, is a general category of activity that is forbidden. However, similar types of מלאכה are also prohibited as forms of planting. Watering a field, then, is considered a sub-category of planting and is therefore forbidden.

The word אבות is from the root א-ב-ה "to submit and confirm" to a major figure. The category of work is confirmed as major. The word תולדות is from the root י-ל-ד which means "to give birth." This sub-category is an extension of the major one. The word זריעה is from the root ז-ר-ע, "to cast from a distance" those seeds that will produce growth.


The שבת of שמיטה, however, is limited to those מלאכות that are specifically mentioned in this verse: Planting/זריעה, pruning/זמירה, reaping/קצירה and harvesting grapes/בצירה. In the case of ,שמיטה there are no additional derivative מלאכות, only those specifically listed.

The word זמירה is from root ז-מ-ר "to energize before emergence." The pruning of a vine allows for growth of grapes. The word קצירה is from the root ק-צ-ר "to shorten" by cutting. The word בצירה is from the root ב-צ-ר "to protect" by harvesting and storing.


Those activities that are forbidden during a שמיטה year serve to temporarily divorce the Jewish farmer from his "ownership" of the land and make the land available to everyone. Whatever grows is not for the benefit of the owners, but for anyone who wishes to harvest it.


Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
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