It comes once in seven years, this year is one of them, and it is mentioned in our sedra; the obvious choice to speak about this week is Shmittah. We’ll open with two questions. Firstly, Shmittah is called a ‘Shabbes’ (25;2) - apart from the idea of resting [land ‘rests’ from being worked on Shabbes and Shmittah], what do the two have in common? The pasuk tells us that the resting of shmittah should be a ‘Shabbes L’HaShem’ (25;2), about which Rashi comments that the resting of Shmittah is to be ‘leshem HaShem,’ ie with the correct intentions to service of HaShem, (le’shem Shamayim) as is the case with Shabbes. Ideally, all mitzvos are to be done for these correct intentions, so why is there a special focus on this le’shem Shamayim here? In order to get a relatively full answer to our two questions, we must first discuss the Shmittah year.
Chazal reveal (either the Sforno or the Chizkuni) something rather interesting about the concept of the Shmittah year. Shmittah is an opportunity to put away the physical pursuits for a year and focus oneself primarily on spiritual pursuits - predominantly the learning of Torah. We cannot all necessarily devote every entire year to the learning of Torah throughout our lifetimes, for we need to make a living to support ourselves and our families. But Shmittah is the year in which HaShem allows us to take a break from work and delve into the study of Torah - and the finances are on His account. Chazal continue that if one uses this Shmittah to devote himself to the study of Torah, this not only reflects on that year, but it reflects on the past six years too. It shows that ideally this person wants to be involved predominantly with spiritual pursuits, just that he must support his family and so works for six years. But now that he shows his true intentions /goals in the Shmittah year, he gets reward for that year’s study of Torah, gets reward for six years of studying Torah; for he has shown us that that is what he would like to be doing. This idea is similar in concept to the idea of machshava ke’maaseh - that if one plans to do a mitzvah and genuinely wants to do it, but circumstances prevent him from carrying out the mitzvah, he gets the reward as if he actually did the mitzvah. [For the main part of the mitzvah is the thought, not the action.] Likewise with Shmittah, the person’s devoting himself to a year of Torah shows that the previous years were ‘exceptional circumstances’ and he really wanted to learn Torah and focus on spiritual pursuits mostly, and so he gets the reward as if he did learn Torah during those six years too. The exception (year) proves the rule (six years).
And the same goes for the test of one’s bitachon on Shmittah. In keeping one’s field virtually ‘unworked,’ one risks a lack of food - one relies on HaShem’s promise that He will provide enough food for the Shmittah year and the next year. This is not just an amazing show of bitachon for that single Shmittah year, but it bears witness to the fact that one has the bitachon that HaShem provides the food every year; the exception proves the rule. Perhaps this is why Shmittah is the seventh year and not the eighth year. Let me explain. The Maharal points out that the number seven represents the natural world; there are seven days in the week and seven colours of the spectrum. Eight, therefore, represents that which is above/transcends nature; the bris milah, which provides the supernatural bond with HaShem, is on the eighth day. If Shmittah is this year to focus on spiritual pursuits in delving into the study of Torah and building/proving one’s bitachon, shouldn’t the Shmittah be the eighth year according to the rules of the Maharal? Perhaps the answer is based on the above idea: since Shmittah is not merely the exception to itself, but rather it proves one’s intentions and character throughout the previous six years, it is placed as the seventh year, and as such works in conjunction with the set of seven, as opposed the being the eighth and thus outside/disconnected from the set of seven. In other words, Shmittah as a part within the set of seven years shows that it reflects on the other years within that set, and that is perhaps why it is the seventh and not the eighth year.
And the same idea is said about Shabbes. The psikta rabbasi says that Shabbes serves a dual function. For people who work all week, Shabbes is to be devoted to learning Torah. But for people who learn Torah all week, Shabbes is used as a day to rest. Why should this be; either Shabbes is to learn Torah or to rest - how can it work differently for different groups of people? Using the above idea regarding Shmittah, the answer is that Shabbes too is the seventh and is used to prove one’s intentions of the previous six days. Consequently, those who spent most of their time working need to devote extra time to learning Torah on Shabbes to prove that the study of Torah was their true intention/goal throughout the week. Whilst those who spent most of their week learning Torah are free to rest more on Shabbes, for they have already proved their intentions of learning Torah that week. And so we see nowadays that people spend more time learning Torah on Shabbes than on an average weekday; whether via attending a shiur, learning in pairs, etc. And I have even heard the same idea regarding the third meal within Shabbes itself. In a short winter Shabbes, one can often be rather full from lunch, yet people still have a third meal. This shows that they are only having a third meal because HaShem told them to do so; and it thus proves that their intentions for the other meals were probably also le’shem Shamayim. The common thread is that the exception can prove the rule.
We see a similar expression of this idea in the two wars of parshas Beshalach. The Ibn Ezra asks that Beshalach opens with HaShem miraculously drowning the Egyptians in the sea, whilst at the end of the sedra, we are the ones who have to take up arms and fight Amalek. Why the discrepancy? For this first ‘war’ against the Egyptians sets the pattern for the next war(s); just like the first war was fought by HaShem, so too did HaShem cause the success in the war against Amalek; even though we physically stood up and fought. Now we can return to our two questions; why is Shmittah also called Shabbes? And why is there a specific mention of holy intentions here more than other mitzvos? In response to the first question, Shmittah is also called a Shabbes, for both share the concepts of being the seventh part in a cycle and which prove the intentions for the previous six. And it is nice to note that Yom Kippur is called ‘Shabbes Shabbason’ (the Shabbes of Shabbeses), for it is then that we express our ultimate intentions for the year and for life in general in promising to be sin-free and faithful to HaShem. And this is also why there is a specific focus on pristine intentions le’shem Shamayim on the Shmittah year [and on Shabbes], for these intentions are not only for that year [or day], but are to reflect on the intentions of an entire six years [or days].
We’ll end with a story. In 1957, the Jewish Agency decided to plant orchards in kibbutz Moshav Kommemiut, which the Moshav accepted if they would keep Shmittah. At the end of the Shmittah of 1959, a Ministry of Agriculture representative told the Moshav’s Rav [Rav Mendelsohn] that their orchard had flourished more than all the orchards which had been worked during the Shmittah year (‘Shabbes Stories’ p150). And a similar story is told about a farmer who kept shmittah during the 1950s and miraculously saw that the locust infestations of those times not disturb his field [and there were crops in the field.] Now that’s a real Sabbatical!
Have a great Shabbes,

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