I am reluctant to assign meanings and purposes to specific mitzvot. The entire endeavor, known in Hebrew as "ta'amei ha-mitzvot" or "rationalization of mitzvot" is highly speculative and reasons that one generation may find compelling, leave another generation cold. In the meantime, the mitzvah endures. Instead, I have found that a life of Torah and mitzvot, taken as a whole, is coherent, enriching, ethically beautiful, and something worth promoting. The mitzvot do not make "sense" to me in isolation, they do in aggregate.
That being said, there are a number of rationales that have been oferred over the generations for the mitzvah of shemittah and its restrictions on agriculture during the seventh year (these explanations are described and analyzed in Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Rimon's English book "Shemita" on pages 18 - 33).
Maimonides (Guide III:39) offers two explanations for shemittah: Promoting the well being of the poor (who can take ownerless produce during the seventh year), and enhancing the productivity of the land after it has lied fallow for a year.
The anonymous Medieval author of Sefer HaHinukh (#84) oferred four purposes for the mitzvah of shemitah. The first is to train the farmer in the atribute of yielding and relinquishing and thereby refining his character. The second is to highlight that one's prosperity and sustenance actually come from God and are not the result of our own human efforts. The third benefit of shemittah is that it increases ones trust in God (since one is not farming to secure food during the shemitah year). The final explanaiton he offers is that shemitah, like Shabbat, is a reminder that God created the Earth in six days and rested on the seventh. The 19th century scholar Rabbi Kalischer said that the benefit of shemitah was to allow farmers time away from their fields so that they could study Torah.
More recently, the contemporary Israeli musician, Kobi Oz, in his song "Zalman" links shemittah to Shabbat observance, dwelling in a sukkah, and a husband and wife's periodic separation through observance of niddah restrictions. All of these mitzvot, Oz explains, teach an individual that his possessions, social status, and relationships cannot define who he is on an existential level. [See here for a recording of the song with an English translation: http://tinyurl.com/6ugy9th].
The comparison between shemittah and Shabbat, rooted in the language of the Torah, is instructive on a practical level as well. No one can deny that stepping out from economic or academic life for twenty five hours each week has real costs. Yet, anyone who has observed Shabbat as a regular feature of his or her religious life, knows Shabbat to be a joy and delight. Shemitah observance has undeniable economic costs which are cause for real concern (concerns which the Torah validates in Leviticus 25:20). In modern times, none of the responses to practically accommodate shemittah in the context of modern Israeli agriculture (which must produce high quantities of fruits and vegetables each year to satisfy international export markets) are particularly successful. The contemporary Israeli yeshiva head, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein has famously commented on the gap between the conceptual vision of shemittah and the current reality: "What remains today of this spectacular vision? Virtually nothing." Given the important place shemittah is given in the Torah, and given the profoundly positive outcomes Jewish scholars have understood shemittah to cause, we can all look forward to a time when shemittah observance, like Shabbat observance, will be abundantly and obviously "worth" its economic costs.
The Jewish tradition teaches that the earth does not belong to us; it is ours to use only as caretakers and as tenants. Though it may not seem it, this is an ethical statement. To argue that we are merely borrowing the land means that we need to share it. For this reason, the Torah requires farmers to ensure all produce they leave behind during the harvest becomes the property of the poor.
Similarly, no produce grown in the land of Israel may be eaten until portions are set-aside for priests, Levites, and the poor. The Torah further enjoins that every fifty years, residents of the land of Israel must relinquish their property and return to their ancestral portion, thus codifying the right everyone has to a share of the land.
And the Sabbath compels us each week to acknowledge that our rights to utilize the earth’s resources are – and ought to be – limited.
The shemittah, the Sabbath of the land, is another expression of this ethical imperative to recognize the limitations of our use for the land. The shemittah year forces us to let go of the illusion of our ownership.
Moreover, the shemittah year reminds us that the earth is not a machine that exists exclusively for our own benefit. The earth has value and needs aside from its utility for humans, like the need to regenerate and rest. This is also an ethical assertion, for it forces us to remember that we are meant to be stewards and guardians of the earth, not just users of its resources.
And, finally, rest for the land is only one component of shemittah. Equally important is the remission of debts that must take place during the shemittah year. If one lends money during years one through six and is not repaid by year seven, s/he must forgive the debt. The Torah invites us to give without being concerned about whether our generosity will be repaid.
Without question, shemittah causes hardships to farmers and creditors, at least in the short term. The expectation of the Torah is that the benefits will outweigh those hardships. For example, in the long run, people will benefit from respecting the earth’s natural cycle of rest and rebirth, for doing so diminishes the possibility that the earth will be depleted beyond value due to overuse. And forgiving debts discourages perpetual poverty. Lastly, the moral education involved in the practice of shemittah, cultivating among a people the sense that they are mere tenants of the earth, has ongoing benefit.
Throughout history, there have been mechanisms put in place to mitigate the negative impacts of shemittah, including the pruzbol, which enables debts to be collected, and the allowance for sale of the land to non-Jews so that it can continue to be productive. But retaining shemittah on the books, even with loopholes, compels readers of the Torah to learn the values shemittah teaches.
The reason for shemittah is made clear in the Torah. "God spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, telling him to speak to the Israelites and say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest period, a sabbath to God. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a sabbath of sabbaths for the land. It is God's sabbath during which you may not plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards. Do not harvest crops that grow on their own and do not gather the grapes on your unpruned vines, since it is a year of rest for the land. [What grows while] the land is resting may be eaten by you, by your male and female slaves, and by the employees and resident hands who live with you. All the crops shall be eaten by the domestic and wild animals that are in your land." (Leviticus 25:1-7) "And if ye shall say: 'What shall we eat the seventh year? behold, we may not sow, nor gather in our increase'; then I will command My blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth produce for the three years. And ye shall sow the eighth year, and eat of the produce, the old store; until the ninth year, until her produce come in, ye shall eat the old store." (Leviticus 25:20-22).
As the Torah explains, the reason is to give the land a rest; just as people, animals, etc. are given the seventh day as a rest so too is the land given the seventh year as a rest. The Torah’s solution to the hardships lies in the faith is that G-d will provide. The rabbis in the land of Israel in modern times addressed this problem by noting that the prohibition only applies to land owned by Jews (‘your land”) in the Land of Israel. To address the economic problems faced by farmers and consumers, they permitted Israeli Jewish farmers to temporarily sell their land to non-Jews in the shemittah year (the last one was 2007-2008) and use the crops. It is no surprise that this solution, which reminds me of selling one’s chometz to a gentile during Pesach, is controversial with some of the ultra-Orthodox not permitting such sale and lease-back.
Shemittah is one of the mitzvot that can only be observed in the land of Israel. In the last cycle, I remember hearing of a proposal that would allow the rest of us in the Diaspora to get in on the action. An entrepreneur in Israel proposed to lease a very small plot of land (a few square inches if I recall correctly) to Jews outside the Holy Land during the shemittah year and promise to do nothing at all with it as mandated by the Torah.
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