Abarbanel on Shemita
The mitzvot to observe the Shemita, or Sabbatical year, every seven years, and the Yovel, the fiftieth year, are graphic demonstrations of the Jewish nation’s reliance on Divine Providence for its very existence. By refraining from agricultural activities every seven years and for two consecutive years in years 49 and 50, the nation demonstrates that G-d is the true owner of the Land and that all natural forces are totally subservient to His will. They also point clearly to the Divine origin of the Torah, as it is inconceivable that any man-made system would demand a complete cessation of agricultural activity for two consecutive years.
Abarbanel, in his lengthy discussion of Shemita and Yovel in Sefer Vayikra, Parshat Behar, reveals a deeper understanding of the mitzvot. On the simplest level, Shemita is a reminder of the nature of the creation itself — six days of activity followed by the seventh day of rest. Just as the word “Shabbat” refers to the last day of creation of the universe as a whole, the word “Shabbat” in reference to work of the Land reminds us of the original Divine creation.
On a deeper level, the mitzvah of Shemita points to man’s lifespan and the purpose of his existence. Man’s 70-year average lifespan is divided into three parts: 10 years of childhood, 50 years of labor and then, ideally, 10 years refraining from labor. Thus, the seventh decade of life corresponds to the seventh day of Creation and the seventh year of the agricultural cycle. The seventh decade of one’s life should be dedicated to spiritual pursuits, as this is the true goal of man’s existence. When the verse tells us that the Shemita year is a ‘Sabbath to G-d’, it is telling us that our souls should cling to our Creator and turn away from activities of the physical world. Since our purpose in life is to attain spiritual fulfillment, the verse goes states that ‘the Sabbath produce of the land shall be yours to eat’, meaning that you shall eat and be nourished by food for your soul. The verse then says that everything will be left as ownerless, to be enjoyed by everyone equally, including slaves and even animals. This is a further hint to the insignificance of material achievement, as after a man’s death everything is turned over to those who had no part in their accumulation. The fiftieth year of the cycle, the Yovel year, hints at the fiftieth year of a man’s labors in the material world. From this point on he should dedicate himself in his senior years to his spiritual needs. Just as the fiftieth year results in freedom for slaves and the return of ancestral lands to their original owners, so too should the soul return to its original source.
On the deepest level, the mitzvot of Shemita and Yovel point to the fundamental nature of the physical world itself and hint to its ultimate fate. The physical world is by definition impermanent; the only permanent feature in existence is G-d Himself. Even the celestial bodies are subject to eventual destruction, regardless of how stable they appear. (It should be noted that in the last decades, astronomers have confirmed Abarbanel’s insight. They have demonstrated that there are stages in the ‘lives’ of stars, ultimately culminating in their ‘deaths’). Besides Abarbanel, Ramban and others have indicated that when the Torah speaks of six days of Creation it is also referring to six millennia as well, at the end of which the world will no longer exist as we know it.
Although there are numerous interpretations of what will happen after the year 6,000, Abarbanel writes that the idea of Shabbat and Shemita, the cessation of physical activity, will apply to that seventh millennium as well. With proofs from numerous verses in Tanach, Abarbanel shows that just as the earth was preceded by a state of absolute nothingness, so too it will return to that state. This destruction will be in two stages. In the first stage the earth will continue to exist, but it will be a desolate wasteland. This is based on the gem ara in Sanhedrin (97a) where Rav Katina states, “For six thousand years will the world exist and for one thousand years it will be destroyed…” The gemara goes on to support Rav Katina’s opinion: “Just as the Sabbatical year causes cessation one year out of seven years, so too the world ceases one millennium out of seven millennia.”
The second stage will occur after seven cycles of seven millennia, parallel to the Yovel that takes place after seven cycles of seven years. At that time the total destruction of the physical universe will occur. Just as the physical universe was preceded by a state of absolute nothingness, so too will it return to the same state. As noted previously, this is another meaning of the verse, in reference to the Yovel year, “In this year of Yovel you will return each man to his ancestral heritage.” In effect, the Torah is telling us that the ancestral heritage of the entire universe was its absolute non-existence.
In conclusion, according to Abarbanel, we can understand the Mishna in Avot (5:11) which states, “Exile comes to the world for idolatry, immorality, bloodshed and for working the earth during the Sabbatical year.” The first three are understandable — they are often referred to as the three ‘cardinal sins’ that may never be transgressed under any circumstances. But why is observing the Sabbatical year more important even than Shabbat, for example? In essence, Abarbanel is telling us that Shemita and Yovel are communicating some of the most fundamental principles of Judaism: G-d is omnipotent; the Creator of the universe from absolute nothingness and will return it to absolute nothingness as well. G-d is the sustainer of all life, as we are assured of our sustenance even if we periodically refrain from all agricultural activities. Finally, the requirement to observe the agricultural cycle hints at the requirements of our own life cycle as well, since the ultimate goal is pursuit of spiritual growth after decades of involvement in the demands of the physical world.