The Radical Sabbath of the Land

Dear Friends,


Among the mitzvos which we are to specifically fulfill in the Land of Zion is the following land-related mitzvah regarding Shmittah – the Sabbatical Year:


“Six years shall you sow your land and gather in its produce. But in the seventh year, you shall let it go and abandon it, and the needy of your people shall eat, and the wildlife of the field shall eat what is left; so shall you do to your vineyard and your olive grove.” (Exodus 23:10,11)


Maimonides, in his classical work, “The Book of the Mitzvos,” discusses the above mitzvah, and he writes:


 “By this injunction, we are given a mandate to renounce as ownerless all produce of the land in the Shmittah Year, and to permit anybody to take what grows in our fields.” (Mitzvah 134)


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch discusses the above verse in his biblical commentary, and he writes:


“By observing the mitzvah of Shmittah, an entire nation proclaims before the world that its land belongs to God and that He is the land’s one, sole true Master. In the seventh year, the nation refrains from exercising its rights of ownership and humbly returns its land to the Master of all the earth. By doing so, the people acknowledge that they are strangers and sojourners on their own land, dwelling on it only by the grace of the Owner. Then the arrogance that causes people, secure in their own land, to become callous and harsh in dealing with those without property, melts away, yielding place to love and kindness toward the stranger and the poor. Even the wild animals, as God’s creatures, are considered endowed with rights on God’s earth, on which all are to dwell together.” (Commentary to Exodus 23:10,11)


A related mitzvah is the Divine mandate to desist from cultivating the land during the Shmittah Year. The source for this second mitzvah is found in the following verses where Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One, speaks to Moses about the Shabbos – Sabbath – for the land:


“Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I will give you, the land shall observe a Shabbos for Hashem. For six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyard; and you may gather in its crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Shabbos for Hashem; your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune.” (Leviticus 25:1-4)


Through this mitzvah, states the Talmud, Hashem is telling Israel: “Sow for six years and let go of the land in the seventh year in order that you know that the land is Mine” (Sanhedrin 39a).


It is written, “The land is Mine, for you are strangers and sojourners with Me” (Leviticus 25:23). With these words, say our sages, Hashem is conveying the following paradoxical message:


“When it is Mine, then it will be yours” (Sifra).


When we acknowledge that the land belongs to the Creator, then the Creator gives us the right to live in the land and to serve as its custodians. To serve as the custodians of the earth was the original Divine mandate given to humankind, as the Torah states that the human being was placed in the Garden of Eden “to serve it and protect it” (Genesis 2:15).


Today, a growing number of farmers in the Land of Israel are fervently fulfilling the sacred principles and laws of the Shmittah Year. Through their observance of this mitzvah which causes them to give up their control over the land, they are proclaiming, “To Hashem belongs the earth and its fullness, the inhabited land and those who dwell in it” (Psalm 24:1).


During the early days of the State of Israel, there was a beloved sage, Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, who was the founder and head of the Ponivez Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. Rabbi Kahaneman was aware of the difficulties facing those farmers who were striving to fully observe the Shmittah. On the eve of the Sabbatical Year, this sage traveled to Kibbutz Chafetz Chaim, a religious kibbutz affiliated with Poelei Agudath Israel which was keeping the Shmittah laws. He desired to strengthen the spirit of the farmers, and he spoke to them about the holiness of this “Shabbos for Hashem” – a holiness which permeates each plant and each “boimelah” (an affectionate Yiddish term for a tree). As the Shmittah year was about to begin, he suggested that every farmer go over and wish a tree, “Good Shabbos, boimelah!”  He himself then kissed the earth and wished it a “Good Shabbos”!


Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Comments:


1. This year is a Shmittah Year in the Land of Zion. During the previous Shmittah Year, for the first time in the history of the State of Israel, the grounds of the Knesset – Israel’s parliament – were managed according to the laws of Shmittah. The Jerusalem Municipality also observed the Shmittah laws in the city’s parks. Although some of the secular city council members were critical of this practice, council member Anat Hoffman from “Meretz,” a secular leftist party, endorsed the observance of the Shmittah Year. She praised the city’s efforts to observe the Shimittah laws as illustrating respect for both Judaism and the environment.


2. The story about Rabbi Kahaneman appears in the book “Builders” by Chanoch Teller. This book is distributed by Feldheim Publishers:  .


3. Many of the farmers who observe Shmittah find that the year of  “Shabbos for Hashem” gives them the opportunity to increase their Torah study; thus, special educational programs are organized for these farmers during the Shmittah Year.

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