Leap of faith: Celebrating Shabbat every seven days and every seven years

Rabbi Douglas Zelden

By Rabbi Doug Zelden, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2)

Possibly one of the hardest commandments in the Torah to observe and fathom can be found in this week’s Torah portion of Behar. The Torah commands us regarding the “Sabbatical Year” known as “Shmita.”

Every seven years a farmer is commanded to refrain from working his fields. Of course he was permitted to perform activities to upkeep his land, but any activity to improve the land such as plowing, planting, pruning and similar activities are forbidden. The land was to lay fallow for the entire seventh year.

In addition the farmer was not allowed to sell the produce of the seventh year. He was obligated to open his gates and allow any person to enter his fields and eat to their hearts desire free of charge.

At first glance this commandment seems to be quite illogical. Imagine in today’s world a farmer or a businessman would be told to put their entire business on hold for an entire year. They would not be permitted to do anything that could cause improvement to their farm or business. Who would agree to such conditions? It would spell financial ruin. Yet this is precisely what the Torah commands every farmer, every seven years.

What is the value of this commandment? Why is it so important and what is the reason behind it? There are many explanations given in the commentaries, Maimonides offers two. In his “Guide to the Perplexed” (3:39) he explains that one of the reasons is social.

By allowing the land to lay fallow and allowing the poor to enter and eat from the fields, the Torah was protecting the rights of the weak. Every seven years social justice would be imposed so that society would create a balance between the rich and the needy.

A second reason for the Shmita Sabbatical Year, he suggests, is that by allowing the land to rest on the seventh year, it allowed the land to replenish itself. The seventh year was a sort of healing that the land needed to go through after six years of being constantly worked. During that year necessary nutrients were returned to the land and in the subsequent years the land would once again produce to its maximum. In modern terms the land was recharging its batteries.

Seen in this way there is an interesting connection between the Sabbatical Year and the Sabbath. First of all they are both are called Shabbat. In addition Shabbat comes on the seventh day of the week, and the Sabbatical year comes every seventh year.

Finally in both cases we are told to work in the preceding days or years. In the case of Shabbat the Torah instructs us to work for six days and then rest on the seventh day, and regarding Shmita the Torah instructs us to work the land for six years and then allow it to rest on the seventh year. The connection is quite evident. Perhaps we can add that just like the seventh year is a way for the land to recharge its batteries, so too the Shabbat is a chance for us with our hectic lives to recharge our batteries.

Nevertheless regarding the second answer given by Maimonides, there is a very good question asked by another  commentary, the Abarbanel.  While discussing the laws of the Sabbatical Year, the Torah goes on to explain an amazing phenomenon that took place during the year that preceded the Sabbatical Year.

The Torah states the following, “Lest you say what shall we eat on the seventh year if we are neither allowed to plant or gather our produce. Then I will bring my blessing upon you on the sixth year, and the land will produce (on the sixth year) enough for three years. And you shall begin to sow on the eighth year yet you will still eat the fruits from the sixth year until the ninth year” (Vayikra 25:20-22). In other words the Torah promises those who keep the laws of Shmita, such an abundance of produce on the sixth year that the land will triple its output.

Based on these verses the Abarbanel asks the following question regarding Maimonides explanation. If the reason for the Sabbatical Year is because with time the land loses its ability to produce, and by resting on the seventh year it replenishes itself, then the blessing of the sixth year makes no sense. After all, asks the Abarbanel, according to Maimonides, during the sixth year the land should be at its weakest. If so how can it produce three times its capacity? Based on this question the Abarbanel offers a different solution to why the Torah commanded the Sabbatical Year.

Here is an answer to that question. The Torah explicitly states that if we keep the Sabbatical Year then G-d promises us the following, I will bring my blessing upon you on the sixth year.” The reward for keeping the Sabbatical Year is no less than G-d performing a miracle for us. It is true the land should be at its weakest, but for keeping the commandment Hashem will throw nature out the window and bring such a miracle to the land that it will defy its nature. Even the great rationalist Maimonides concedes that the blessings of the seventh year will miraculously suspend nature.

Perhaps this gets to the heart of the question. The Sabbatical Year is all about a leap of faith. The commandment to not work the fields is a test of faith to see how much we are willing to put our trust in G-d. We are asked to become ownerless in order to serve the real owner. On the seventh year we must acknowledge that everything belongs to G-d, and that He is the master.

This of course brings us back to the connection between the Sabbatical Year and Shabbat. On Shabbat we are given the opportunity to once a week recognize G-d as the master. By resting from all man made creations we are able to thank the true creator.

In the end both the Sabbatical Year and the Shabbat come to free us from “things.” Whether it is our land, our houses, our cell phones, or our cars, our computers, (to name just a few), we are so connected to “things.” They have tragically become the focal point of our lives.

We have convinced ourselves that without them we simply can’t live. We serve them more and more and as a result we serve G-d less and less. The Sabbatical Year and Shabbat are the Torah’s attempt to free us of “things” so that we can serve the only thing that in the end really matters, Hashem – Our G-d.

Rabbi Doug Zelden is rabbi of Congregation Or Menorah in Chicago, Chaplain for Home Bound Healthcare, and hosts the weekly TV show “Taped with Rabbi Doug” (www.tvrabbi.com).

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