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12.05.2020 18:03    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah shabbat  parashah behar  bewchoukotai  

“The land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord”


By: Yonah Bar-Maoz*

The seven[1] verses in Leviticus 25 that present the prohibition against tilling the soil on the seventh year are especially marked by the recurrence of the root sh-b-t, appearing seven times in various combinations. In these phrases, the seventh year is defined twice as a “sabbath of the Lord” (verses 2 and 4), and four times it is described as a sabbath of the land (in one phrase the root sh-b-t is doubled): “the land shall observe a sabbath,” “the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest (shabbat shabbaton),” “a year of complete rest (shabbaton) for the land,” and “the land during its sabbath” (verses 2, 4, 5, and 6). Additionally, even the right to till the soil during the six years, as opposed to the seventh, is presented in similar terms to the permission given to do work during the six days of the week, as opposed to the seventh day, as appears in the Ten Commandments.

In both instances, the seventh day or year is defined as a “sabbath of the Lord”: “Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard”; and for the seventh day, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your G‑d: you shall not do any work” (Ex. 20:8-9).[2]

In Leviticus the seventh year is presented quite differently from the way it was presented the first time, in Exodus: “Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it go (tishmetenah) and abandon it (u-netashtah).[3] Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves” (Ex. 23:10-11).

Any farmer would be shocked by the directive in Exodus because of the semantic field of the key words chosen to present the command: “let it go” and “abandon it,”[4] which are quite negative, especially in the context of agriculture, as in the following examples: “Your hand must let go (ve-shamatetah) the inheritance I have given you; I will make you a slave to your enemies in a land you have never known” (Jer. 17:4); “I will cast off (ve-natashti) the remnant of My own people and deliver them into the hands of their enemies” (II Kings 21:14); “I have abandoned My House, I have deserted (natashti) My possession, I have given over My dearly beloved into the hands of her enemies” (Jer. 12:7).

Since the root sh-m-t is also associated with monetary obligations,[5] the pair of words tishmetennah u-netashtah could describe, figuratively, the condition of farmers in the land of Israel during the Ottoman period, as Shlomo Ilan sums up in his study:

The burden of debts owed by the farmer posed a grave economic problem…When the weight of debts grew beyond bearing, farmers would take refuge in distant villages. Some despaired of tilling the soil and became nomads, in order to rid themselves of the burden of debts, while their abandoned fields became unclaimed property and reverted to the state.[6]

In other words, this pair of words denotes a situation unfavorable to the tiller of the soil. The clear connection evident in Leviticus between the commandment of the seventh year and the seventh day, and the emphasis which is put on the root sh-b-t indicate that the sabbath provides the foundation for understanding and coming to terms with the commandment of shemitah.[7] For the obligation to cease tilling the soil in the seventh year is very taxing, as summarized by Rabbi Zeev Witman:[8]

The sabbatical year is one of the most difficult commandments required of the Jews. It seems there is no other commandment that calls for such a high level of devotion and faith from the entire community, in a regular manner every seven years. In the past, when the options of importing food from outside of Israel were few, when the possibility of preserving food was also more limited than today, when the entire nation lived off of the produce of the land—the commandment of shemitah placed demands that made its observance impossible without the highest level of faith.[9]

To this we must add that when the Israelites were first commanded regarding shemitah there was nothing in their past, neither in the period of the patriarchs nor in Egypt, to prepare them to accept this commandment.[10] When the patriarchs lived in the land of Canaan they were primarily shepherds and were not dependent on agriculture for their livelihood.[11] If they engaged in agriculture in Egypt, most likely they never had to abandon a field due to lack of fertility, because the rise of the Nile each year enriched the soil with the silt it carried, making Egypt the symbol of a fertile land: “like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt” (Gen. 13:10).

The commandment of the Sabbath itself is not economically logical, nor is its societal benefit sufficiently clear.[12] Hence, the question to be asked is how a commandment to desist from tilling the soil could be conceivable when coupled with the commandment of the Sabbath? The answer, it seems, lies in the historical experience of the Israelites in the wilderness. When, at Mount Sinai, the Israelites were commanded regarding the Sabbath, its special character was already evident to them. For several weeks, manna had been descending daily, six days a week, but on the seventh day the heavens were suddenly shut, after having given an extra amount on the sixth day. Yet another change took place in the order of things on earth, and the manna which on the six days spawned maggots if kept until the next morning, remained as it was, unaffected in quality, on the Sabbath. These exceptional events were clear proof of two things: the Sabbath is unlike the other days of the week, even though its special nature is not generally evident; and, additionally, observing the Sabbath does not entail any economic damage, contrary to what human reason might say.[13]

On this basis we can say that if the seventh year is like the seventh day, then it must also have a unique quality that is not readily apparent, and in the seventh year no economic damage will be caused by ceasing to till the soil. Indeed, the economic security hinted at by paralleling the seventh year with the seventh day is explicitly mentioned in this week’s reading; like the manna which was supplied in double amount on the sixth day, so too, the crops of the sixth year would be blessedly abundant:

And should you ask, “What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?” I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years. (Lev. 25:20-21)

Now we can understand why both the seventh day and the seventh year are called a “Sabbath of the Lord,” for on them heaven and earth depart somewhat from the laws of nature established in the six days of Creation in order to bear witness to the will of the Creator who established these laws. From this we see that just as the Lord rested from His work on the seventh day, but did not stop the world from continuing to function—the sky giving its dew and rain, the heavenly bodies moving in their orbits and the earth continuing to give forth all that is needed to sustain life—so, in like manner, heavenly beneficence would continue to be bestowed on those who rested from their work and in this manner proclaimed that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth.

The year of shemitah, however, has a unique quality, because in that year the land itself must make this proclamation; therefore it says “the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord,” and human beings must let go their hold on the land, as it says in Exodus, so that the land can fulfill its obligation undisturbed. If human beings do not behave as required, the land will demand it of them, hence the punishment of exile that hovers over them, the length of the punishment being meted out in accordance with the length of time the land was not permitted to observe its duty (Lev. 26:34-35; II Chron. 36:21). Thus the seventh year is rightfully called a “sabbath of the land.”

Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner[14] sums up the connection between the sabbath and shemitah in an interesting way:

“The land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord.” The matter of the shemitah is a sign to Israel that the earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds, and as it says in the Zohar (Gen. 3), that there are large letters and tiny letters—the tiny letters are the Sabbath, for the Sabbath is a sign to Israel that the Holy One, blessed be His name, is the prime mover, and from the actions of human beings nothing can be wrought. And the large letters are the shemitah, because every seven years there must be an entire year in which it is seen that the earth belongs to the Lord, and no human being has the power to act, only the Lord alone.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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