The mitzvah of shemita requires every Jew (in the Land of Israel) to refrain from working the land during every 7th year. This was not just an enforced sabbatical to recharge the batteries or an agricultural method to maximise long-term output. Few mitzvahs make as significant a demand on the individual; each and every person was obligated to leave the land totally unattended to, and to nullify ownership of the crops which naturally grew during that time.

The ownerless crops were then free for anyone to come and take.

This would, in contemporary terms, be the equivalent of every shop keeper having to shut up shop every seven years and nullify ownership of all remaining stock which the public could then help themselves to.

The primary purpose of this mitzvah[1] was to instill, in a lasting and meaningful way, the realisation that G-d, as Creator and Sustainer of the world, is directly responsible for everything we receive in life.

Nature is the means by which G-d provides our food produce, but ultimately ‘nature’ is just a tool G-d uses, in the same way that a painting is the product of a painter and the paintbrush is just the tool the painter uses[2].

By temporarily withdrawing from the natural order of things and being totally reliant on G-d in a direct way for our survival, this realisation becomes gradually engrained into our psyche until it defines the way we naturally look at the world around us.

This mindset – a trust in G-d’s ability to provide for our needs regardless of how ‘natural’ or otherwise it may be to do so – is a central pillar of all Jewish thought and practice[3], and was incumbent upon everyone.

Despite the beauty of the concept behind the mitzvah, its observance would, as mentioned, have been extremely testing. Many mitzvos require some degree of self-sacrifice, whether it be refraining from work on a shabbos or spending hard-earned income on a lulav. But none entail such a significant degree of self-sacrifice for such an extended period of time. In fact the medrash[4] refers to those who carefully observe the laws of shmita as demonstrating ‘angel like’ qualities through their tremendous degree of strength of character. What emerges from the above is an interesting point; to develop the necessary mindset and awareness that the observance of shmita demanded, is a truly remarkable achievement requiring tremendous inner strength of character.

At the same time the Torah obligates every adult Jew, leader and laymen alike, to attain such a point of knowledge-based trust and faith in their Creator.

This all seems a bit of an unrealistic and therefore unfair expectation the Torah seems to be placing on us; how can a 12 or 13 year old be expected to grasp in a real and life-defining way truths that ageing philosophers have failed to reach after years of thought and analysis[5]? The answer to this apparent injustice lies in distinguishing between that which is complex and that which is hard.

To move a large pile of bricks from one end of a building site to the other is hard but it is not complex. Developing a relationship to certain foundational truths about reality is complex but it is not hard.

In other words one doesn’t need a PhD in metaphysics and epistemology to understand the concept that a world as complex as ours must have been purposefully designed by a being of supreme intelligence, or that every effect must have a preceding cause. These are concepts that even a child relates to in different settings.

To develop a meaningful relationship with these concepts is certainly not easy. This is largely because we allow our personal preferences to affect our ability to process information in an intellectually honest way. If one hates going to the dentist it is easy to decide one doesn’t have tooth decay.

Likewise it is often easier to live with the attitude that we are just highly developed monkeys living in a random and meaningless world, rather than to accept that we are G-dly beings striving for self-perfection where every decision we make is loaded with meaning and significance. This challenge is certainly a difficult one and the Torah recognises that. Many mitzvas, shmitah included, are specifically geared towards making the integration of these foundational truths a more manageable one. It is understandable that the medrash refers to those who achieve this level of integration as demonstrating ‘angel-like’ qualities. At the same time it is also fully understandable that this mitzvah is as appropriate for a normal teenager living in the 21st century as the world’s wisest philosophy professor. All comments and feedback welcome – This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. [1] See Sefer HaChinuch, #84 [2] An obvious question is why G-d chooses to interact with us through such intermediaries.

A painter obviously needs the paintbrush as he lacks the means to produce a painting without one. This cannot be said of an Infinite Being. The use of an intermediary in the case of G-d is a means to ensuring we have free will, which in turn is necessary for our life to truly be our own. [3] Shabbos, which is extremely similar to Shmitah in its structure i.e. a refraining from creative activity every seventh day, also serves to express and develop this concept. Shmitah is actually referred to as a ‘Shabbos’ of the land. [4] Vayikra Rabba 81.1 [5] More generally, one could ask how one can ever be obligated to belief anything at all. Surely one’s beliefs are not something one chooses to have, but are simply an uncontrollable product of our thoughts and experiences? (In reality most of us are intuitively uncomfortable with the implications of this – How many of us would suggest Hitler was simply being true to his beliefs and trying to create a better world? Yet at the same time we need to identify why we feel this is not a valid argument.)

For a fuller discussion of this topic see Kovetz Maamarim, R’ Elchanan Wasserman, ch.1.




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