Every seventh year, the Torah tells us in Parshat Behar, is the Shmita (sabbatical year). During this year, the land in Israel must remain fallow – working the ground is forbidden (Leviticus 25:1–7).
In contemporary times, the Chief Rabbinate in Israel sells the land to a gentile, which allows Jews to continue sowing and planting.
The sale is debated. After all, isn’t it a legal fiction, a process that circumvents Torah law? A conceptual analysis of Shmita sheds some light on this question.
It can be suggested that for six years, we are creators on the land. In the process, we could forget our creaturehood and that what we have stems from a higher source. On the seventh year, the Torah tells us, step back from working the land to boldly declare: This world is God‑centered, not human-centered.
The Torah speaks of Shmita as Shabbat la’Shem (a Sabbath for the Lord), for in that year, the centrality of God is reaffirmed (Leviticus 25:2).
Shmita also teaches an important environmental lesson. For six years, we work on nature. During Shmita, however, we are mandated to be in rhythm with nature, to let it be. Even the land needs rest.
Thus, the Torah speaks of Shmita as Shabbat la’aretz (a Sabbath for the land), a year when we are at peace with nature (Leviticus 25:4).
A final approach: For six years, we harness our energies to be creative in the outer world. During the seventh year, we recharge, we refocus from our environment to ourselves. We contemplate the deeper questions of meaning and purpose – we experience a true sabbatical year.
And so the Torah speaks of Shmita as Shabbat lachem (a Sabbath for the human being), when we reevaluate our goals and ponder the deeper questions of life (Leviticus 25:6).
While the sale of land during Shmita is religio‑legally valid, we ought to never forget its internal message: setting aside time to contemplate the centrality of God, to behold the beauty of the land, and to search for our personal and national reason for being.
Rabbi Avi Weiss is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Bronx, N.Y., and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools. He is a co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship and longtime Jewish activist for Israel and human rights.
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Friday, May 7, 2021
Iyar 25, 5781
Light Candles at 7:41 pm
Saturday, May 8
Iyar 26, 5781
Torah Reading: Behar-Bechukotai: Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19 – 17:14
Shabbat ends 8:45 pm