In this week’s Parsha of Behar, the Jewish people are commanded about the laws of Shemitta – the Sabbatical year. It is a difficult mitzva, yet people are enthusiastic about it and pour their hearts and souls out for it.
The Torah instructs the Jewish people that they work the Land of Israel for six years and the seventh year is a year of Shabbos for the land – working it is not permitted. The Torah prohibits planting, pruning and harvesting during the Shemitta year. The Rabbis prohibited any working of the land – e.g. fertilizing – so people would not violate the Torah prohibition. However, work that is to prevent a loss - e.g. watering – is permitted, but not as frequently as usual. One can also trim plants or grass that is too long or in the way.
Since the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, most opinions hold that Shemitta is a Rabbinical commandment because the Torah obligation is dependent upon the majority of Jews living in the Land of Israel – a position that we are close to fulfilling.
The laws of Shemitta don’t apply to plants that are grown indoors. Consequently, in Israel various techniques of mass growing in specially made greenhouses have become popular. The laws of shemitta only apply in halachic Israel. Thus, it isn’t necessarily applicable to all parts of modern-day Israel. Eilat, for example, isn’t part of halachic Israel and therefore one may plant, grow and harvest produce there during shemitta.
This Mitzva of not working the Land of Israel during the 7th year raises a natural worry among the people. The 6th year produce will feed the people during the 7th year – the Shemitta year. However, from where will they get food for year eight – planting and working the ground was not permitted in year seven?
The Torah makes note of this human tendency. “And if you will say, ‘what shall we eat in the 7th year, behold we cannot plant nor can we gather our grain’?” G-d promises the people that if they follow the laws of Shemitta, He will provide grain for them for three years – years 6-8. However, it is a strange question. The people will have enough grain for year seven – that is the crop of the 6th year! The question should be, “what will eat during year eight because there was no year seven crop.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l explains that the Torah is teaching us that one should not lack faith in G-d. When one has a full refrigerator, one does not ask “where will I get food for dinner?”. When one has a plentiful 6th year crop, one does not ask, “where will I get food for year seven?”. Similarly, one should not ask, “where will my food come from for year eight?”. G-d, Who provides for year seven, will also provide for year eight. Questioning from where one’s food will come after the Shemitta is displaying a lack of faith in G-d. How did you get your food in year seven? Even though you worked for it, ultimately, it is the decision of G-d as to how much will be on your table. So, what will be on your table in year eight is also G-d’s decision. Since G-d says not to work during the Shemitta year, that is obviously the course to follow – as difficult as it might be. But, the Torah promises that it will reap reward.
When Jews began resettling the land in significant numbers in the 19th century, the population was on the verge of starving. Due to the dire situation, many prominent rabbinic leaders endorsed what is known as heter mechirah - which permits the sale of Jewish-owned land to non-Jews for the duration of the Shemitta year. According to many opinions, produce grown on land owned by a non-Jew does not have Shemitta holiness. While this system bypasses many of the hardships posed by Shemitta, executing a valid land sale to a non-Jew for a year is no simple matter from a halachic standpoint. Many rabbinic authorities feel that the heter mechirah should only be used if there are no other options.
The mitzva of Shemitta is difficult and trying – especially for farmers - those whose source of living is from the land. Yet, the mitzva of Shemitta can provide faith and inspiration in a world where both can be seriously lacking. The mitzva of Shemitta not only helps the Land of Israel, it also helps the people of Israel.