This week’s parashah contains the verses which are the primary sources for the laws of shemittah/the sabbatical year that farmers in Eretz Yisrael must observe. R’ Moshe Zvi Neriyah z”l (1913-1995; founder of the Bnei Akiva youth movement and network of yeshivot) writes: “It is no easy task for a farmer to take a vacation for an entire year. Nevertheless, this ‘freedom’ is not for nothing. After toiling on the earth for six straight years, a person is liable to blend in with the earth, which, after all, is whence he came before a soul was breathed into him. The purpose of the shemittah is to give the soul a chance to flourish.”
R’ Neriyah adds that many earlier commentaries have advanced other reasons for the shemittah, all of them valid. He cites the following, among others:
R’ Zvi Hirsch Kalischer z”l (Germany; 19th century) writes that shemittah ensures that every person will have time for Torah study. He also writes that shemittah lessens the gap between rich and poor, since it means that, for one year at least, anyone can enter any field to gather the crops.
Rambam z”l (Egypt; 12th century) writes that the shemittah is an expression of G-d’s mercy upon the poor.
The anonymous 13th century work Sefer Ha’chinuch writes that the purpose of shemittah is to teach the wealthy the trait of vatranut. [In general, this trait refers to not standing up for one’s honor, money or other tangible or intangible possessions even when one is in the right. Here it refers to giving up the fruits of one’s labor.] In addition, the Sefer Ha’chinuch states, the shemittah reminds us that we are not the true masters of the Land; rather, G-d is its Master. (Ner La’maor)
Rashi z”l writes: This means a rest in honor of Hashem in the same sense as these words are used in the case of the weekly Shabbat (Shmot 20:10) where “Shabbat La’Hashem” cannot mean “a day for G-d to rest.”
R’ Eliezer Lipman Lichtenstein z”l (1848-1896; Nowy Dwor, Poland) asks: Why are no other specials days, not the yamim tovim and not even Yom Kippur, called “Shabbat La’Hashem”? He explains:
On Shabbat, we are commanded to rest, and to cause our animals and belongings to rest as well. If such a thing were possible, we should cause our land to rest and our crops not to grow on Shabbat. However, Hashem made certain laws of nature, and He does not want them to be violated regularly. Therefore, our crops do continue growing on Shabbat. In exchange, we let our land rest for His honor every seventh year–one seventh of the time, as if it had rested one day each week. (Shem Olam)
R’ Mordechai Saba z”l (1440-1408) observes that only the Sabbatical years are “for you.” During the other years, man farms his land for his own selfish reasons. This is an activity which has no permanence. In contrast, when one opens his fields to the poor in the Sabbatical year, he performs a mitzvah whose reward sustains him forever. (Tzror Ha’mor)
Why is the word “year” mentioned twice? R’ Yechezkel Shraga Lifschutz-Halberstam z”l (the Stropkover Rebbe) explains:
During the 49 days of the Omer, we are supposed to be preparing ourselves to receive the Torah on Shavuot, the 50th day. But what if Shavuot comes and we realize that we have not prepared at all? It is written in certain works that one should not become depressed, for, on Shavuot itself, one can make-up all of the spiritual gains that he should have accomplished during the Omer.
The same thing, says the Stropkover Rebbe, is true of the Yovel / Jubilee year, which has additional holiness compared to other years. The repetition of the word “year” in our verse teaches that one can attain in one year everything that he should have achieved in the preceding 50 years. This is similar to that which Rambam writes: “Even the repentance of one who does not repent until he is on his death bed is accepted.” [Ed. note: Rambam does write, however, that such repentance is not as meaningful as repentance that occurs in one’s youth, when one’s drives are stronger.]
Why is it that one can repent in his old age after a lifetime of sinning? Why is it that one can accomplish in a short time (in the 50th year or on Shavuot) what one should have spent a long time accomplishing? Our verse tells us the answer: Such a person is merely returning to his ancestral heritage. In reality, no Jew ever lets go of that heritage completely, whether he realizes it or not. (Divrei Yechezkel Shraga Vol. III)
R’ Mordechai of Lechovitch z”l (1742-1810) asked in the name of R’ Zusha of Hanipoli z”l (1718-1800): Why is the verse, “If you will say. . .” necessary? Why didn’t the Torah skip straight to the promise, “I will command My blessing”?
R’ Zusha explained: Emunah/faith and bitachon/trust are the pipelines through which Hashem sends His blessings to man. If a person demonstrates that his emunah and bitachon are weak–for example, by asking, “What will we eat?–he closes the pipelines. It is specifically then that Hashem needs to “command His blessing” to reopen the closed pipelines; otherwise, His blessings would have been flowing non-stop already. (Quoted in Torat Avot–Slonim)
R’ Yosef Engel z”l (1859-1919; rabbi of Krakow, Poland) quotes R’ Meir ben Baruch z”l (Maharam Rothenburg; died 19 Iyar 5053/1293), who writes: “Even when gentiles occupy Eretz Yisrael, they do not obtain legal title to it, for halachah does not recognize ownership of real estate based on possession alone (“Karka aina nigzelet”). Eretz Yisrael is always deemed to be in the legal possession of the Jewish People; indeed, it bears their name. [The reason for this is that] even when the Jewish People reside in the Land, they cannot transfer ownership of it, for ‘the Land and everything in it is Hashem’s’ [Tehilim 24:1].”
R’ Engel explains: In reality, Eretz Yisrael belongs to Hashem. When the Jewish People enjoy the bounty of the Land, they are not eating their own produce; rather, they are eating at the King’s table, so-to-speak. Since the Land does not belong to the Jewish People, it also cannot belong to any nation that captured it from the Jewish People. (Gilyonei Ha’shas: Bava Batra 44b)
In Parashat Mishpatim (Shmot 21:2), we read, “If you buy a Jewish slave, he shall work for six years; and in the seventh he shall go free, for no charge.” R’ David Zvi Hoffman z”l (1843-1921; Dean of the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary) explains why the Torah established two different dates when a Jewish slave goes free–either after six years of work or at the Yovel, whichever comes first.
On the one hand, having a maximum term, not more than six years, benefits the slaves in general. If they were required to work until the next Yovel, they could be enslaved for as long as 49 years.
On the other hand, having a common date for all Jewish slaves to go free, whether they have served six years or not, instills in us that the Jewish People really has no master except Hashem. For this reason, even a Jewish slave who refused to go free when his six year term was over goes free at the Yovel. (Peirush Al Sefer Vayikra)