Shemittah and Yovel, Shabbat and Holidays

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Giving a Gift Generously

When the Torah lays out the requirement to refrain from working the land of Israel every seventh (shemittah) year and to leave its produce free for all to take, it phrases the obligation as ki tavo’u el ha-aretz, when you arrive in the Land, asher ani noten, that I am giving you, ve-shaveta ha-aretz, the Land shall have a Shabbat, shabbat la-Shem, a Shabbat for Gd. Meshech Hochmah thinks each phrase teaches about Gd’s and our relationship to Israel.

He starts with the Talmudic idea a seller does not want to sell, does so only under pressure, does so be-ayin ra’ah, with a negative outlook. If the buyer succeeds, the seller will feel shown up. Gd’s telling the Jews to refrain from plowing and planting during shemittah might smack of wanting them to fail, as if Gd were the “seller,” the Jews the “buyers.”

To counter the impression, the Torah stresses Gd is giving the Jewish people the Land, and gift-givers want the recipient to succeed (they give be-ayin yafah, with a positive outlook). Gd’s telling us to take the seventh year off, then, must have another goal.

Sanctity Implies Sabbatical

The Torah uses the word ve-shavetah on purpose, to indicate the Land’s shemittah is similar to weekly Shabbat. Yershulami Pesahim said items of kedushah will have a Shabbat (like the Jewish people and the Land). It attests to our belief that Gd’s Providence extends to these, guiding them directly and miraculously.

That would have justified the practice already, but the Torah adds Shabbat la-Shem, a Sabbath to Gd, to imply there is more, other ramifications and values in the Land desisting, a “more” only Gd knows. Meshech Hochmah does not elaborate, I think his point being only that we not think we know all of what Shabbat is about, for Land or people.

To Whom the Land Belongs

We can also read the verses to tell us shemittah affects even land donated to the Temple because kadam hefkero le-nidro, the Torah’s declaring the Land ownerless during the seventh year, happens ki tavo’u el ha-aretz, when Jews arrive in Israel, where any donation to the Temple happened later.

Meshech Hochmah compares it to a Jew who bought another Jew’s field, then donated it. The donation can only last until yovel, when it was slated to go back to the original owner, because the buyer has no rights beyond then. Here, too, the Torah told us there would be a shemittah every seven years, embedding that condition in our ownership. Should a Jew donate his/her own land to the Temple, shemittah still would apply, because Gd only gave the Land to the Jews without rights over shemittah [this is as opposed to saying the Jews own the Land fully, with a religious obligation to let it lie fallow every seventh year. Meshech Hochmah is saying it never belonged to them for that year].

As opposed to orlah, for his counterexample, where an owner who donates a tree does exempt that tree from orlah, because the donation to the Temple preceded the obligation.

Shemittah, Part of the Rhythm of the World

Meshech Hochmah says Shabbat La-Shem draws another similarity between shemittah and Shabbat, that both come on their own, without human input. Holidays depend on the day of the month, and new months are determined (when Judaism functions as it is supposed to) by the testimony of witnesses and decision of a court, Shabbat is every seventh day, since Creation, and shemittah is every seventh year since the conquest of the Land.

The parallel to holidays in these terms is yovel, the Jubilee every fifty years. Despite similarities to shemittahyovel takes effect only if the Sanhedrin blows shofar, Jews release their avadmim kena’anim, indentured servants who had their ears pierced to stay in servitude longer, and return ancestral lands to their original owners.  Without all three, yovel does not happen (as Rambam ruled in Laws of Shemittah and Yovel chapter 10).

The human role in yovel makes it more parallel to remembering Egypt, Meshech Hochmah says, thus I think implying shemittah and yovel together function like Shabbat and holidays, Shabbat a reminder of how Gd created the world, with the idea of weekly rest built in, and the holidays times the Jewish people make a point of commemorating Gd’s mixing into history to free us from Egypt. [The Torah also refers to Shabbat as being in memory of the Exodus, but Meshech Hochmah does not address that.]

So, too, shemittah is part of the “natural” world, embedded since Creation, where yovel, like holidays, reminds us of Gd’s involvement in history.

Buyers Be Generous

Verse 25;23 closes the yovel discussion with a reminder not to sell the land permanently, for it is all Gd’s, for we are strangers and settlers. Meshech Hochmah links the two halves, based on a note by Rashi, that this is a rule for the purchaser (I might have thought it an obligation of the community). Come yovel, the purchaser must return the land rather than hold on to it.

In that view, when verse 24 speaks of allowing ge’ulah in all the Land, it could easily mean other rules of redemption, such as that sdei ahuzah, ancestral fields, can always be repurchased by paying proportionately to how many years remain until yovel, or with houses in a walled city accepting a buyback from the owner within a year, and so on. Refusal violates Gd’s saying the Land shall not be sold la-tzemitut, permanently, and explains why the Torah uses that same word, la-tzemitut, to describe what happens if the original owner of a walled-city house does not buy it back within a year. There, the buyer does have the right to keep it forever.

The end of the verse deepens the religious ramifications, because Gd warns us not to treat the Land as our own, says we are strangers and settlers there. To Meshech Hochmah, it alludes to the idea the Land will also be surrendered by hekdesh, the Temple coffers, during shemittah. Just as Gd returns land donated during the past fifty years, so should we. Because we are settlers with Gd.

Dreaming of the Meaning of Shemirah, Observing Shabbat

The very last verse of the parsha, 26;2, reminds us to observe Shabbat, using the root shmr, to guard. Meshech Hochmah thinks it means shemittah, the topic of the preceding sections. Shemirah often indicates a protective boundary/ fence, for shemittah the idea of desisting from certain actions a month before the new year starts, although only in the time of the Temple.

He raises a second option, without explaining why. For Shabbat in its weekly version, shmr refers to violations punishable by death. Two people who produce a prohibited act together will never incur such a punishment, the Gemara inferred from Vayikra 4;27 speaking of ba-asotah, when she (the one soul) shall do it.

Here, the verse says tishmeru in the plural, to tell us two people should not perform such actions, regardless of the lack of a punishment. It is not “just” rabbinic to avoid shnayim she-asa’uha, two who act together, he is saying, it is indicated by the plural in our verse.

The Torah only punished Shabbat violation when a single person did it, but it objected to it being done, for whatever reason, including the building the Temple (the other idea in this verse).

In parenthesis, he writes, davar zeh ba-halom, this matter was in a dream. Because Meshech Hochmah dreamed of how we put together Shabbat observance, weekly and every seven years, how it differed from holiday observance, periodically and every fifty years, and when the Torah punished only people who acted on their own, but wanted certain actions not to be done on certain days, at all, punishment or not.

About Gidon Rothstein

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