Parsha Ponders - The Septennial Shabbat
by Rabbi Rafi Wolfe
“Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: “When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land will rest a Shabbat for Hashem.” (Leviticus 25:2)
This Torah portion begins by introducing the mitzvah of the Shemittah year. The land of Israel is to lie fallow for an entire year, with no agricultural work done to it. The year is described as “a Shabbat for Hashem.” What does this mean? Rashi suggests that it means “for the sake of Hashem.” Regarding the Shabbat of the seventh day of the week, we also find the expression “Shabbat for Hashem.” (Exodus 20:10) There it clearly means for the sake of Hashem, so that is what it should mean here. The Ramban finds difficulty in this explanation since we know that the Festivals are also for the sake of Hashem. Yet, we do not find the phrase “Shabbat for Hashem” associated with any of them. Is there any other way to understand this phrase — “a Shabbat for Hashem”?
There is a fundamental principle behind the mitzvah of Shemittah, as well as for most mitzvahs that Hashem has commanded us. The purpose behind them is so that people should know that there is a Creator Who rules over them. Since Hashem gave over the Earth to mankind, a person over the course of their lifetime could really begin to think that the world is theirs. Mankind is the master over his domain — and no one else. He would completely forget Hashem. Therefore, Hashem surrounded mankind such that all of his actions and movements wikk be governed by laws and statutes, which remind and show us that Hashem is the Creator. Hashem gives mankind the strength to live, and everything comes from Him.
For example, someone with a field faces laws that relate to its plowing, planting and harvesting. They cannot plow with two different animals at once. They cannot plant two species together. They cannot harvest the entire field, but must leave over some of it for the poor. While harvesting, sheaves that fall out of their hand need to be left for the poor. After the field owners have finished in the field, if they realized they have forgotten any sheaves out there, they must to abandon those as well for the poor. After finishing all the work on the produce, they have to separate portions of the crop to give to the Kohanim and the Levi’im. When kneading the flour into dough, they have to further separate a portion of the dough for the Kohanim (called challah). As they sit to eat their bread, they must less Hashem both before and after eating.
This is the principle behind the mitzvah of Shemittah. The Torah commands it by referring to the Land of Israel as being the land which Hashem gave to us. The Land of Israel was given over as a complete gift to the Jewish People. A Jew could very easily slip into the mindset that they are ultimate masters over it. They will forget that Hashem is still in charge, controlling who deserves to live there and who does not.
That is why once every seven years there is a mitzvah to let the land lie fallow. There will be “a Shabbat for Hashem.” This mean that we will remember and see with all of the details of this mitzvah that the land belongs to Hashem. We are merely considered as hired workers for the land. When the time comes, we will be out of a job, and the land is to remain uncultivated. Hashem decided that there will be no more plowing and no more planting. He is in charge.
And this is also the idea behind the weekly Shabbat. It is called a Shabbat for Hashem. Meaning, mankind on Shabbat is completely dedicated to Hashem. Six days of the week we are permitted to work, and we might think that our strength is what produces results. Therefore, Hashem gave us the day of Shabbat. All productive, creative work is forbidden. Man’s physical strength is put on hold. It is a day of complete rest, complete dedication to Hashem.
This is the comparison between the weekly Shabbat and the Shabbat of Shemittah. Both serve as recognition that we are not in charge. Our weekly or yearly productivity is not producing our results. Everything comes from Hashem. We need to be reminded that there is a Creator Who rules over us. The land and everything in it are His. They are both a Shabbat to Hashem. During both of them, mankind is completely dedicated to Hashem.
This essay is based on Da'at Torah by Rav Yerucham Levovitz to Leviticus 25:2