Each week, our resident Hillel Rabbis (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and Rabbi Alex Kress) will comment on the week's parsha.
This week’s Torah portion introduces us to a most fascinating commandment, that of Shmittah, the Sabbatical year. The mitzvah of Shmittah mandates that Jews in Israel cease and desist of all labor to fields for the entire seventh year. This structure essentially mirrors the weekly Shabbat experience, expanding it to an entire year for farmers. While they are not expected to avoid all labor, they are commanded to stop all field work during the Shmittah year.
Mosaic law goes one step further in expanding this precept. It establishes that not only must there be no work done to the field, even any crops or fruits that grew by themselves are to be considered ownerless. The ownerless status of the produce creates a situation whereby a farmer needs to have his gates open for the entire year to allow anyone to enter the field so he can take whatever he desires.
In its purest form, the expression of Shmittah generates a great mix of society. It brings together the "haves" and the "have-nots" in one place and on equal footing. The mingling of the broader community provides multiple dimensions of social benefit. First, the farmer who has large, successful field will meet those less fortunate and become more sensitive to their needs. Furthermore, the interaction between diverse communities of people can allow for new employment opportunities for those who may otherwise remain without jobs.
Finally, there is also a potential third goal which is found in the words of the great medieval commentator Ibn Ezra (Deut. 31:10-12):
“The reason that we keep Shmittah is so that people should not always be occupied in working the land for material purposes. When a person is relieved of the yoke of work, he should occupy himself in Torah.”
The Ibn Ezra is highlighting the great human need, and invaluable opportunity Shmittah offers, to incrementally nourish oneself by reengaging in spirituality and immersing deeply in intellectual pursuit.
Have an Optimal and nourishing Shabbat!