INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA
Please pray for a refua sheleima
for Yisrael ben Rut and Reut bat Sima,
Alon Shevut youth injured in separate accidents over
Despite the advances of Western society in the areas of morality,
democracy and liberalism and the most affluent society that the world has ever
known, our generation increasingly finds itself plagued by new ills. The pristine streets of our capital
cities are marred by the homeless and starving, the sharp discords of affluence
and poverty side by side.
'Alienation' is a new buzzword to describe the feeling of personal detachment,
lack of direction and loss of community and family which are part and parcel of
modern living. Career frustration,
burn-out, pre-millennium anxiety.
These are but a few of the feelings that pervade the modern, sophisticated,
technological world that we inhabit, that we have created. Unfortunately, this disturbing urban
landscape is far from that which we desire in life.
Judaism has much to say about these problems, but few people would begin
with our parasha. This week's
parasha turns our attention to the institution of the sabbatical and jubilee
years. Behind the technical laws and
details lie a sophisticated system of social cohesion, moral teaching and
religious commitment and inspiration.
What on the surface would seem to be an ancient agricultural practice,
long extinct, might give us some well needed lessons for our fast-paced lives.
WHAT IS THE SABBATICAL YEAR?
The laws of the SEVENTH year include a number of aspects:
* A total ban on agricultural work
* Annulment of all loans
* The freeing of all Jewish slaves
In the JUBILEE year an extra regulation is added:
* All land is returned to its original
tribal owner (i.e., all land is on a fifty year lease)
The laws of the sabbatical and jubilee years are found in several
locations in the Torah. We shall
look at three such sources. We will
read through each reference highlighting its unique aspects and thereby
developing a comprehensive, holistic philosophy of the seventh year - the
[A methodological note: Whenever a particular law or event is described
in multiple passages in the Torah, it is always a valuable exercise to read each
source-text individually and to attempt to capture the unique nature of each
particular passage. One then has to
ask oneself why each aspect needed to be emphasized separately and why each
passage appears in the location that it appears.
In this way, we emphasize the varied dimensions of each passage in the
Torah rather than merging each topic into a single mold. If you wish to try this method for
yourself, then read each of the following passages, one at a time, patiently and
thoroughly (- if you can, read the passages in "the original" and note the wider
context of the surrounding verses) and jot down the central elements, the
emphasis of each passage.]
years shall you sow the land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh shall
you let it rest and lie fallow. Let
the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts
eat. You shall do the same to your
vineyards and olive groves (Exodus 23:10-11).
you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a Shabbat to the
Lord. Six years you may sow your
field and six years you may prune your vineyards and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land
shall have a Shabbat of complete rest, a Shabbat to the Lord: you shall not sow
your field nor prune your vineyard ... It shall be a year of complete rest for
the land. But you may eat whatever
the land during its Shabbat will produce ..." (Lev. 25:1-5).
the end of the seven year (period) you shall practice the Shemitta (Remission of
debts). This shall be the nature of
the Shemitta: every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow;
is a needy person among you ... you must open your hand and lend him sufficient
for his needs ... Beware lest you harbor the base thought, 'The seventh year,
the year of remission is approaching,' and you are mean to your needy kinsman
and give him nothing. He will cry
out to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt. Give to him readily ...
fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you (as a slave), he shall serve you six
years and in the seventh year you shall set him free" (Deut. 15:1-12).
THE SOCIO-ECOLOGIC CONCERN
the nature of this passage? What
does it tell us about the sabbatical year?
The first thing that we can notice is the focus on the land. The land is to "rest and lie fallow." It would seem that there is some
ecological (or even religious?) concern that the land - the very earth itself,
fields and orchards - should take a break.
A chance for the land to replenish itself, to restore nutrients worn away
by the six years of farming.
second emphasis here is the human aspect, the socio-economic dimension. The Shemitta year is a time where the
"needy among your people" will have food.
The entire harvest is declared ownerless to the point that even the
"beasts of the field" are allowed to eat freely.
The verses which precede this law emphasize a sensitivity to the
disadvantaged and the desire for a fair treatment of the poor and helpless in
society - "You shall not subvert the rights of the poor in their disputes ...
you shall not oppress the stranger for you know the feelings of the stranger
having yourselves been strangers in the Land of Egypt."
The concepts that we have highlighted thus far are picked up in the Guide
to the Perplexed - Maimonides's philosophical masterpiece. There, he notes the benefits of
Shemitta in its communal and ecological context:
are designed to promote the well-being of all mankind as the Torah states: 'And
the needy of your people shall eat ...,' furthermore the earth will increase its
yield and improve its fertility through the Shemitta" (3:39).
a little thinking, we can gain a far deeper understanding of the social impact
that this special year might have.
How does Shemitta become an 'equalizer' between rich and poor? At the elementary level, we can say
that the poor are provided for during this year.
They have a ready food supply.
They can walk into any field and collect the grain, the fruit. This year, they can live as kings. But there is a deeper dimension which
relates to the intricate workings of class society. The very dependency of the poor on
the rich means that the poor carry certain feelings of vulnerability and
inadequacy. They lack confidence and
question themselves. They know that
they are the lower class with limited means, a limited future. The rich, on the other hand, live in
an atmosphere of self-confidence and with a knowledge that their future is
secured and stable.
Shemitta year has the power to adjust this situation somewhat. This year, both rich and poor go out
to collect the grain together.
Yesterday, the poor farmhand was a simple employee in this field, a laborer. Today he has full permission to enter
and take the food for himself. Today
the poor can enter the field with their heads high. As for the rich, maybe this year
presents them with certain feelings of insecurity that they have never faced:
"Will there be enough food to provide for the entire years needs? Do we have to admit the commoners
into our farms, our estates?"
Shemitta is indeed, a very powerful equalizer.
goes further still. How many times
have you met a person and asked "What do you do?"
We all ask that question. We
define our friends and acquaintances by their job, by their career. But there is so much more to a
person. Maybe this Shemitta year
will be the first year that employer and employee, rich and poor will meet as
equals. The first time that they
will see each other as people. In
the Shemitta year, the simple clerk and the Chairman of the bank will meet in
the orchard as they both collect their food and they will talk to each other for
the first time in their lives. This
is a year of equality which can bind an entire society together with bonds of
mutual respect and togetherness.
A YEAR OF GOD
source is the opening passage of our parasha.
At first glance, the reader should notice the NAME used to describe the
year. In our first text from Exodus,
it was called 'the seventh year' or simply 'Shemitta.' Here it is described by the title
"the Shabbat." To be even more
precise, the seventh year is denoted as "Shabbat La-Shem - a Shabbat to the
Lord." In fact the word "Shabbat"
appears, in one form or another, seven times in the opening paragraph of the
name, we realize that our second text perceives Shemitta beyond the realm of the
social - between man and man - but as reaching higher, to God Himself. Shemitta belongs to the realm of the
religious, the connection between man and God.
But how does Shemitta act as a pointer to God, a mode of contact between
us and him?
our duty to fix firmly in our minds that the universe was created by God, as it
is stated (Ex. 19:11): 'For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth,' and on
the seventh on which he created nothing, He declared rest for Himself. Now, in order to eliminate the
philosophy of the eternity of the world ... a view which destroys the
foundations of Torah, we are instructed to measure time - day, by day, year by
year - counting six and resting on the seventh.
In this way, the principle of creation will never leave our consciousness
... That is why God commanded us not
just to refrain from all agricultural labor but also to renounce our ownership
of the produce of the land during this year.
It reminds man that it is not by virtue of its own independent power the
earth which yields its fruits year by year, but because there is a God who is
master over it and over its owner ...
objective of these laws is to foster man's trait of generosity ... and another
objective - to cultivate and strengthen man's faith and reliance on God, for he
who can relinquish ownership over his land and the land of his fathers, every
seven years, and accustom his entire family to it, will never become obsessed by
desire for possession, nor suffer from lack of reliance on God" (Sefer
Ha-chinukh mitzva #84).
to the Sefer Ha-chinukh, Shemitta teaches us about God and strengthens our ties
with Him. It is a tool to entrench
the image of a God-creator in our minds, thus giving direction and meaning to
the course of human events. It also
draws us to Him in that we have to rely on faith alone to give us the sense of
security necessary to survive the year intact.
Indeed, it would have to be a very dedicated person who could hold back
from engaging in providing the elementary needs of his family, the bread on the
sabbatical year mirrors the (weekly) Shabbat: The 6/7 rhythm, leading to an
intensified awareness of God as creator.
A period of rest from manual labor.
A Shabbat which is designed to facilitate greater connection with the
divine, an opportunity for the spirit to take the leading role. This is a year of "Shabbat."
add one further point. What did the
nation do all year if they were not working?
The traditional view has it that the entire nation would turn to Torah
study and engage themselves in spiritual matters.
This was a year of Jewish education, testified to by 'The assembly' - the
mass education rally - to occur on the festival of Sukkot each Shemitta year, as
described in Deuteronomy (31:10-13).
It was a time for the spiritual strains in society to overtake the more "normal"
pace of life. Let us not be narrow
about this. Imagine an entire nation
turning not only to Torah study, theology, philosophy, but also focusing on
solving social problems, a public discussion about the values of the nation, the
age; an opportunity to stop and think, to examine and plan, and dream. Just think what type of a nation that
third and final source-text, we leave the world of agriculture behind. We find ourselves in a post-agrarian
society, talking of loans and money, not of fields and cattle. In this text, we return to a concern
for the underclass in society. This
text talks about three main issues;
annulment of all loans in the Shemitta year.
command to give charity to the poor by extending a loan.
freeing of Jewish slaves in the Shemitta year.
passage is about a periodic redressing of inequalities within society that have
accumulated over the years. The
person so poor that he had to sell himself as a slave, who has served his master
for six years, now gets another chance to succeed as an independent citizen. The person who has loans piling up
against him in the bank has them annulled and he too is given a fresh start. And these laws are coupled with the
command to financially assist the needy.
The Torah takes care for the individual whose only hope for security and
stability is a loan which might assist him in developing independent means of
earning money. It instructs those in
society who have the means at their disposal to put that person on their feet,
to let him try to achieve financial stability.
redressing of inequalities of wealth is taken a stage further in the Jubilee
year. In the fiftieth year, all land
reverts back to its tribal owner.
Land which (especially in an agrarian society) is so central in defining who has
and who has not, is legally returned to its owner. Since all Jews have a family
inheritance somewhere in the land of Israel (on entry to the land, every family
received their due allotment) the every citizen should return to being a
landowner on their ancestral estate.
Effectively, all real estate is on a fifty-year lease and at the Jubilee there
is a periodic opportunity to redress certain imbalances on a national scale.
institution of Shemitta sound too much like Socialism? Sharing wealth, ignoring loans,
property shared equally. Maybe! It would seem that the Torah has a
system here which contains elements of Capitalism and Socialism. For six years, we work on the basis
of the free market, with all the competition and ambition that push any modern
economy. People buy and sell, they
build companies and employ workers; and - they make money! But, we know only too well the
downsides of Capitalism; the extreme poverty, the enormous gap between rich and
poor which have their resultant ills in substandard education, crime and social
problems for the disadvantaged - the 'unsuccessful' in society. How do we ensure that society will
not develop such extremes - the homeless and the Fortune 500 list? How do we devise a system of
opportunity for the poor so that they will be able to break out of the rut, so
that an "underclass" will not develop as a permanent feature of society? Maybe Capitalism tempered with
Socialism (a 6:1 ratio) is not a bad idea?
Maybe it is precisely this balance of elements that will ensure a healthy
society where ALL citizens might flourish.
Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook put it in the following way:
mechanism that Shabbat performs for the individual on a weekly basis is put into
effect for the entire nation in Shemitta.
This nation - in which the divine spirit of creativity is planted,
prominently and eternally - has a special need of expressing the revelation of
its own divine light from time to time in its fullest intensity without being
suppressed by the worry and the pace, the passions and competition of everyday
life ... That aggressiveness, which
is essential to the workings of institutions in the public arena, causes a
diminishing of moral sensitivities.
The ongoing tension and conflict between the idealistic call to care, kindness
and truth, pity and compassion on the one hand, and ruthlessness, coercion, and
the pressures of quest for material success - inevitable and essential in daily
life - on the other hand, causes a distancing of the divine light from the
collective mindset of the nation, a distancing which has the power to lurk with
poisonous effect even in the moral world of each individual. Now the periodic suspension of the
"rat-race" - the societal order - can bring a phenomenal boost to the nation,
when society is morally and spiritually ordered ... raising and perfecting the
social order" (Introduction to Shabbat Ha-aretz).
recap at this point, collating all our observations and insights, we emerge with
a powerful picture of the institution of Shemitta. In this year we get a chance to
breath, to think, as individuals and as a nation.
It is a time for the poor to raise their heads and plan a better future. It is a year of equality for all. It is a year of togetherness and
kindness. It is also a year where
the spiritual comes to the fore and one is encouraged to develop one's spiritual
world. Remember; this is not the
Torah's image of the ideal life.
This is a "sabbatical." An
opportunity for a different year, a balance to the competition and power
politics that pervade the world that humans inhabit. Shemitta is a symbol of faith in man
and society - that we might be able to change, to address our social ills and
conflicts; that society might work at improving itself.
has become of this noble concept today?
Unfortunately, today this utopian image of Shemitta is nothing but a
mirage. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein
has spoken of "The tragedy of Shemitta" in that today Shemitta has retained
certain laws but has totally lost its spiritual-social vision.
always seemed too difficult to observe.
Ezra records that Shemitta was not observed during the first temple
period (see II Chronicles 36:19-21).
At the end of the second temple period, the great sage Hillel saw that in the
lead up to Shemitta, people were refusing to lend money for fear that the loan
would be cancelled. He used a rule
that if the loan contract had been given to the court for collection, the loan
would not be cancelled. Hillel
instituted the "Pruzbul," a document which transfers authority for the loan to
the courts. Now, the Shemitta year
would not annul the loan because the court would reinstate it. Effectively, Hillel circumvented the
Torah law of loan annulment. Why did
he do this? Hillel was faced with a
dilemma. On the one hand, the loans
were to be annulled. But on the
other, this was a measure to protect the poor. Now,
the poor were being hurt by the very law which was to protect them; no-one would
lend them money in the lead-up to the Shemitta.
With a heavy heart, Hillel instituted the Pruzbul, ensuring the welfare
of the poor but effectively eliminating one of the powerful tools which would
activate the communal conscience of Shemitta.
century when the pre-State Yishuv was in its early years, the religious farmers
were faced with a tremendous dilemma.
They were fighting for every inch of land and barely able to support
their families. What should they do
about Shemitta? Should they refrain
from agriculture during Shemitta, thus effectively abandoning their kibbutzim
and settlements? This would be a
major setback for the Zionist cause and was unthinkable. Or should they disregard Shemitta? That, too, was out of the question. Rav Kook followed Hillel's lead and
developed a halakhic solution that would allow the farmers to continue working
the land but circumvent the ban on agricultural labor. (The mechanism here was to sell the
land to a Gentile for a year - sort of like selling chametz on Pesach - and Jews
are permitted to work the land of a Gentile during Shemitta.)
we have eliminated the loan issue and we do not put a halt to agricultural
labor. In any event, today's
high-tech world is so removed from the land and the rhythm of life which
agriculture nurtures that Shemitta would have little impact for most. Shemitta has become a passing
thought, a kashrut issue at the most - we check the packaging to ensure that it
is "kosher for shemitta."
of the lofty vision? The national
Sabbatical, the notion of an equal human face of society, the elimination of the
underclass, the time to think and grow - where is all of that? That is the tragedy of Shemitta
today. The vision is distant and
faded. It is but a memory.
shall we do? Do we give up? Maybe let us say that if we cannot
experience Shemitta today, then let us at the very least share an awareness of
its great dream, its scope and power, and let us attempt to uphold the values of
Shemitta every day, every year. Let
us be more aware of our obligation to our fellow workers, our employees, society
at large. Let us treat them in all
their human dignity, learning from their strengths, assisting with their
weaknesses. Let us devote time to
the spirit, to ourselves and the things in life that count. The Shemitta teaches us that we don't
need to be controlled by the rat-race.
We are not rats; we are human and Shemitta tells us that sometimes work
can be put on hold.