Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedPR photo

The purpose of the Shmitta year is to remind us, by way of not working the fields, that Hashem is the Creator of heaven and earth. This is the intention of our Sages statement:

“The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: Sow your seed six years but omit the seventh, that you may know that the earth is mine” (Sanhedrin 39a).

Our Sages said: “The Holy One, blessed be He created many things in the world, and He chose one of them. He created seven days, and chose Shabbat … He created years, and chose one of them, as it is written: ‘The land itself must observe a Sabbath rest before the Lord every seventh year (Leviticus 25:2)… He created lands, and He chose one of them – the Land of Israel … He created nations, and chose one of them – these are Israel…”

The things that God chose for Himself are things meant to reveal the neshama (soul) and essence. Shabbat is the neshama of the entire week, Shmitta year is the neshama of the seven year cycle, the Land of Israel is the neshama of all lands, and Am Yisrael (the Jewish Nation) is the neshama of all nations.

Thus, cessation of agricultural work is intended to reveal the inner neshama. During the six days of the week, man works hard and his neshama is hidden, but by means of Shabbat, his neshama receives expression, and he is able to take pleasure in God through the study of Torah and Shabbat meals, and consequently, come to understand the value and blessing of his work during the six weekdays.

Rabbi Kook ztz”l explains that the effect Shabbat has on each and every individual, the Shmitta year has for Clal Yisrael (all of Israel). By resting from the toil and stress, the Jewish nation becomes strengthened in their emuna (faith) in Hashem, and is able to invest more time in Torah study. By declaring the fruits of the trees hefker (ownerless) and waiving financial debts, the Jewish people are able to relax from the tension and competition accompanying trade and business, and highlight the character traits of kindness and compassion between man and his fellow neighbor.

Thus, for an entire year, Israel’s collective neshama returns to illuminate and enlighten the Nation of Israel, they are reminded of all the positive aspirations, yearn for a world perfected through kindness and truth, love between neighbors’ increases, and societal life gradually improves. As a result, blessing is drawn to the other six years of labor (based on the introduction to Rabbi Kook’s “Shabbat Ha’aretz”).

Torah Study in the Shmitta Year

Naturally, the revelation of the neshama on Shabbat and in the Shmitta year is achieved through increased Torah study with joy and happiness, as our Sages said:

“Shabbat and Festivals were given to us for the sole purpose of engaging in Torah study” (Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 15: 3).

We can also learn this from the wondrous description of our Sages in the Zohar (Kabbalah) regarding events occurring in the Upper Worlds during the Shmitta year:

“Come and see, in every Smitta year a proclamation goes forth from the Garden of Eden, saying: Assemble, all men and women and all people of faith, and go up from the lower Garden of Eden to the higher Garden of Eden; then they all remove their malbushim chitzonim (exterior garments), men and women, together with all the children and youths, and are elevated and enter the yeshiva shel rakia (study hall of the firmament); there, they take delight in the happiness of their elevated status, and joy abounds, words of Torah are spoken, new and old, and they are all exceptionally joyous” (Zohar, Volume 3, 171:2, with translation and interpretation).

The Change in the Percentage of People Engaged in Agriculture

As humanity advances scientifically and technologically, work can be performed by fewer people. In the distant past, over ninety percent of people had to work in agriculture in order to provide for their basic needs. Today, with the help of machines and other technical advances, only about two percent of Israel’s population is engaged in agriculture, and today, fewer farmers can grow much more fruit than many farmers grew previously. Nowadays, the rest of the population are free to pursue jobs enhancing man’s welfare in other areas, such as higher-quality food and clothing production, construction of more spacious and comfortable housing; the manufacturing of furniture and devices that improve the standard of living; creating efficient and convenient systems of transportation, including roads, cars, trains and planes; the building of a comprehensive and efficient financial system; the creation of art and music, and the development of recreational enterprises. This created a situation in which the Shmitta year currently concerns only two percent of the population engaged in agriculture.

Cessation of Work in All Professions

Seemingly, it would be appropriate for the concept of refraining from work in the Shmitta year to be expressed in all professions. Just as not working the fields is intended to remind farmers that the land belongs to Hashem so they can strengthen themselves in emunah and Torah and thereby receive blessing in the remaining six years of work, likewise, it would be appropriate for workers in other professions to cease work in the Shmitta year, also affording them the opportunity to remember and recognize that the earth and everything in it, belongs to Hashem, thus strengthening themselves in emunah and Torah, and as a result, receive blessing in their other six years of labor.

It therefore seems, in my humble opinion, that the Sanhedrin, may it be established soon in our days, will determine a cessation in all professions, according to the principle foundation explained in the Torah.

Similar to the Decree of Ma’aser Kesafim

Similarly, we learned that our Sages decreed that giving ma’aser kesafim (giving a tenth of one’s income to charity) is ‘ayin bein’o’nit‘ (the standard measure of fulfilling the mitzvah), while giving chomesh (a fifth of one’s income) is ‘ayin ya’feh’– (with a good [generous] eye), for when the vast majority of Jews made their living from agriculture, the Torah commanded us in the framework of giving terumot and ma’asrot (tithes) to give between ten to twenty percent of our produce to the Kohanim (priests), Levites, (who engaged in education and teaching of halakha) and the poor. In a similar way, ten to twenty percent of animals were also dedicated (bechorot, zeroa, lechayayim and keiva [first-born, foreleg, cheeks and stomach].

Since many people began earning a living from trade and other jobs, our Sages determined the giving of ma’aser kesafim from any profit, adding that a good measure was to give chomesh (this is in accordance with the majority of poskim (Jewish law arbiters) who are of the opinion that ma’aser kesafim is of rabbinic status, as explained by Taz, Y.D. 331:32. However, some poskim are of the opinion that the obligation has the status of minhag (custom), while others say it is of Biblical status).

A Proposed Amendment for Sabbatical in Other Professions

Just as in regards to the cessation of work in the fields the Torah forbade types of work designed to grow more fruit, such as sowing, pruning and plowing, so too the cessation of work in other professions should include work designed to improve the business, and “grow fruits” from it. And just as the fruits of the Shmitta year are imbued with kedusha (sanctity), so too, it is possible to say that business profits yielded on their own accord, can be enjoyed by any individual, provided they are used in the best possible manner – not for trade, or wasteful purposes.

Also, just as in the fields one is permitted to do types of work designed to prevent damage that will last for years to come, likewise, in other professions – all work designed to prevent long-term damage will be allowed. And if it is necessary to continue production in order to maintain the share of the market, then all profits will go towards public welfare.

When Should Shmitta in Non-Agricultural Professions Be Held

It would be appropriate for the shmitta in non-agricultural professions to be held in the seventh, sanctified year, in which there is an obligation to cease work in the fields, so that the atmosphere of peace and tranquility can spread to all, and everyone will be able to study Torah together.

However, in professions necessitating continuous work such as teaching, medicine and transportation, it would be proper that each year, one out of every seven workers in the industry will have a sabbatical, in which he can relax and gain strength from Torah learning, in preparation for the next six years. Already today, this is the custom in the teaching profession; inspired by the commandments of the Torah, the educational system instituted that every teacher is entitled to a sabbatical, when they are able to rest from their work and continue studying, so as to deepen and broaden their thoughts and knowledge.

Education towards Values ​​and Savings

The mitzvah of Shmitta teaches one to be a free person, and release himself from enslavement to the yetzer of greed that subjugates him to work himself to the bone all his life in order to make more money so he can buy himself as many things as possible. The education of Shmitta provides a person with a real blessing, because although it is important for a person to work diligently, it is also important for him to realize that his happiness is not dependent on luxuries, but rather by living a life of values.

Preparation for the Shmitta year teaches individuals to save, and as a result, one can then stop working, and strengthen himself in emunah and Torah. Consequently, he will also be able to set aside time for Torah study during his six years of labor, rejoice in his portion, not be tempted to spend his money on luxuries, and as a result, be blessed and enriched.

The Revealing of the Soul and Contentment in the Shmitta Year

Just as the Sabbath day reveals the soul of the entire week by way of Torah study and taking pleasure in the goodness of God through our meals and relaxation, and as a result, blessing and inspiration to serve God is drawn into the weekdays, in a similar fashion, refraining from work in the Shmitta year is intended to reveal the soul of the other six years of work.

In the Shmitta year a person rests from his toil, and delights in the blessings of God through the crops he saved in previous years, and in consequence of the relaxation and freedom, parents can spend more time together and add love and joy in their relationship, enhance their interaction with family and friends, give expression to their souls by means of setting plenty of time for Torah study, both personal study and attending classes – each person in the area close to his heart. At the same time, someone who takes interest in the sciences and humanities can broaden his knowledge in these fields, and thus, expand his understanding of the Torah.

The Blessing in the Sacred Cessation of Work

As a result of all this, one can rationally understand how abundant blessing can extend from Shmitta to the other six years of labor. Relaxation from back-breaking work frees the individual from the pressures accumulated in his body and soul. Torah study illuminates one’s soul, the strengthening of ties with family and friends enrich the body, and thus, one is able to return to work with renewed vigor.

Continued Professional Education

Furthermore, a significant part of each person’s Torah study in the Shmitta year should be in the field related to his profession, so as to elevate the importance of his work. Likewise, it would be worthwhile that in the Shmitta year, each person attend a continuing education program in his profession: farmers should hear from researchers about their investigations and new developments in agriculture; engineers about studies and new developments in their field; businessmen and financiers should hear courses on the economy. The academic researchers would also benefit from this, because most likely, when meeting with people who work in the field, they will hear new ideas and directions that they had not previously thought of.

And who knows, the research and new developments which grow out of these Shmitta-year meetings alone, might prove to be more profitable than any profits that could have been earned by working in the Shmitta year.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.