Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Behar
To dedicate this lesson

Shmita - Rest for the Man or for the Land?

Is it the land lying fallow that is the central theme, or are the Jews who do not work it during the shmita year the focus?


Rabbi Yonatan Kirsch

Cheshvan 7 5782
For many years during the exile the land of Israel was awfully neglected. The residents were not very successful in the growing of crops and produce. Mark Twain describes, during a trip to Palestine in 1867, an empty and deserted land. It was not until the Jewish nation returned that the land responded by bearing its fruit.

This, incidentally, was also the case with the beautiful land of Gush Katif. The locals in Gaza were not successful in growing much until the Jewish farmers came along and turned that area into an agricultural paradise.

This phenomenon has much to do with this week's parsha and the mitzvah of shmita.

Is it rest for the man or for the land?

On the one hand, the Torah describes how the Jewish farmer must rest on the year of shmita and not work the land. On the other hand, there is a phrase that keeps repeating itself, "shabbat ha'aretz"- the shabbat of the land. This seems to indicate that there is another aspect to the commandment of shmita. Not only does the Jew need to halt his working of the land, but the land itself must rest!

Now, you may think that this is a strange theoretical issue, but the truth is that the poskim discussed this a great deal (see 'Leor Halacha', Rav Zevin: shmita). There is a major consequence of practical importance to this question, namely, would a non-Jew be allowed to work on Jewish land during the year of shmita? If the mitzvah that year is for the Jew to rest from working the land, then there should be no problem with non-Jews working it. However, if we claim that the land must rest (by being left alone) then by allowing non-Jews to work it we are in essence cancelling its "shvita" (rest).

This halackic discussion seems to be a philosophical one that leads to a deeper understanding of the mitzvah of shmita. This teaches us that something also happens to the land itself during the year of shmita. The crops that grow during this year could be looked at as 'holy'. This holiness or its kedushah does not only come about by the person's act of rest. Rather, Hashem's presence in the entire agricultural process is emphasized and brought to the forefront.

The prohibition of working the land during the year is not only so the farmer rests but also to enable the land to return to its essence and holiness. This brings blessing, not only to the seventh year, but to the entire cycle of the seven years.

The land responds and reacts to us

At the end of the parsha we see an interesting but frightenng warning. The galut (exile) comes as a consequence of the Nation of Israel not observing shmita: "And I will scatter you among the nations, and I will draw out the sword after you; and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste, Then shall the land be paid her sabbaths…even then shall the land rest, and repay her sabbaths". (Vayikra 26:33).

Rashi brings up that this is an accurate calculation - the 70 years of exile we suffered between the first and second Temple is punishment for the seventy years of Shmita that were violated. This shows us something amazing- the land responds to us! It isn't just a piece of real estate. There is harmony between the nation and the land.

The land wakes up in the Geula

The harsh details of the exile are described in this week's parsha of Bechukotai. However, 'chazal', our great rabbis, help us see the bright side: "And I will bring the land into desolation; and your enemies that dwell therein shall be astonished at it" (Vayikra, 26, 32).

Rashi explains that this is actually a good thing- our enemies will not be able to develop the land and produce anything. Essentially, Eretz Yisrael remains 'loyal' to the Nation of Israel. During the period of the geula the land wakes up and starts giving us its fruit. This is considered a sure sign of geula (Gemara Sanhedrin 98).

May we see the fulfillment of all prophecies along with the observance of all the mitzvot connected to the Land, including shmita.
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