Parashat Behar-Bechukotai: Give it a Break

Julian Sinclair

Rabbi Yedidya (Julian) Sinclair studied at Yeshivat Hamivtar in 1987, 1989 and 1992-3. His book on Rav Kook’s great work on shmita, “Shabbat Ha’aretz”, will be published by Koren Press in September 2021.  

   In the first of this week’s parshiyot, Behar, the Torah lays out elements of an ideal economic order. Central to this vision is the shmita, or sabbatical year.

When you enter into the land that I assign you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field, and six years you may prune your vineyard, and gather in the yield; but in the seventh year, the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines. It shall be a year of complete rest for the land, but you may eat whatever the land will produce during its Sabbath—you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, and your cattle and the beasts on your land may eat all its yield. (Lev. 25:2–7)

The Torah commands us to cease agricultural work in the seventh year. Just as people enjoy Sabbath one day out of seven, so, too, should the land have its Sabbath, one year out of seven. This is our duty of stewardship to the earth. We should not treat it as merely a resource to be endlessly exploited for our benefit; the land must also rest. During the land’s Sabbath, we do not plant or cultivate it, and we eat only what grows by itself. Thus, we show that we are not the land’s ultimate masters. In this year, land is a place where humans, animals, and the earth itself meet on equal terms; there are no owners or exploiters but only fellow creatures.

The vision of Behar is complemented by passages in Parshat Mishpatim, where shmita is a periodic economic levelling, when fields are made ownerless and all who which to can enter and eat. Parshat Re’eh adds that shmita year is a time of universal debt forgiveness. Taken altogether, the Torah’s template for shmita is very radical; it legislates a septennial time-out in Jewish economic life, a year of spiritual renewal, a holiday for the land, a yearlong cease-fire in the economic struggle of all against all, and a periodic abolition of many of the rights of private property.

So it is not surprising that the history of these commandments has been marked by conflict between their exacting requirements and the demands of economic reality. The remission of debts (shmitat kesafim), though technically binding inside and outside Israel, became largely moot from the first century bce. Hillel the Elder saw that people were doing exactly what the Torah had warned them not to do: they were withholding loans in the run-up to the shmita year. The poor suffered most from people’s reluctance to lend them money, an unintended consequence of a law that was meant to help them. So Hillel instituted the famous prozbul enactment, which handed over the responsibility for outstanding debts to the courts, which, as a public authority, were allowed to collect debts. Thus, observance of shmitat kesafim may be avoided.

In modern times, the famous heter mekhira controversy has been the main modern arena for this clash between the demands of shmita and the exigencies of economic life. With the advent of the shmita of 1888–89, it was clear to many of the recent pioneering immigrants to Eretz Yisrael, that observing the sabbatical year as commanded in the Bible would be economically ruinous and would likely lead to the extinction of the nascent agricultural settlements. For a solution, the neophyte farmers appealed to European rabbis, including Rabbi Shmuel Mohliver, who ruled that they might continue to the work the land in the sabbatical year, provided that the land was sold to non-Jews for the duration of the shmita. This leniency was patterned after the permission to sell ḥametz, leavened food, to non-Jews during Passover in order to avoid serious financial loss. In 1909, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s close identification with the pioneers led him to strongly endorse the heter mekhira. His great work, “Shabbat Ha’aretz,” placed the heter on a firm halakhic footing and ensured that this would be the main way in which shmita would be observed – or not observed – in Israel up to our time.

Yet for Rav Kook, this solution was always meant to be temporary and provisional. He longed for the day when the Jewish life in Israel would be firmly established enough for shmita to be observed in its fullness. Rav Kook prefaced Shabbat Ha’aretz with a lyrical introduction in which he paints a social-spiritual vision of the ideal shmita:

“What Sabbath does for the individual, shmita does for the nation as a whole. The Jewish people, in whom the godly, creative force is planted eternally and distinctively, has a special need to periodically reveal the divine light within itself with full intensity. Our mundane lives, with their toil, anxiety, anger, and competition do not entirely suffocate this creative force. On the shmita, our pure, inner spirit may be revealed as it truly is. The forcefulness that is inevitably part of our regular, public lives lessens our moral refinement. There is always a tension between the ideal of listening to the voice inside us that calls us to be kind, truthful, and merciful, and the conflict, compulsion, and pressure to be unyielding that surround buying, selling, and acquiring things… Stilling the tumult of social life from time to time in certain predictable ways is meant to move this nation, when it is well-ordered, to rise toward an encounter with the heights of its other, inner moral and spiritual life.”

Meaningful observance of shmita, in a way that would give expression to such a vision, is one of the great unmet spiritual challenges of the renewal of Jewish life in Israel. The questions about what this would even mean in a modern economy are endlessly complex. May the coming shmita year beginning this Rosh Hashanah bring us a little closer to understanding and responding to the challenge. 

Shabbat Shalom!


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