Parashat Behar presents the laws of shemitah, the sabbatical year. The Israelites are allowed to plant and sow, prune and gather for six years. Then, on the seventh year, the land is to be given a sabbath of complete rest. No cultivation can take place, but people are allowed to consume whatever happens to grow on its own. The Torah explains that when the laws of shemitah are followed, the sixth year will produce such abundant crops that there will be plenty of food to go around for the next two years.
Another aspect of shemitah required indentured servants to be set free during the seventh year. There were elements of the shemitah system in effect during years one through six as well. Landowners had to give ma’aser oni, 10% of their crops to the poor every 3rd and 6th year. They had to allow the poor to come on to their fields to harvest the corners and gleanings every year.
Maimonides identifies two separate mitzvot, commandments, pertaining to shemitah (Hilchot Shemitah v’Yovel 1:1, 4:24). 1. It is a positive commandment to suspend work on the land and cultivation of trees. 2. It is a positive commandment to release all agricultural produce. In other words, farmers are not allowed to put up barriers around their fields, vineyards, and orchards. Their property must be open to the public. Furthermore, Maimonides adds, farmers are not allowed to gather in excess produce into their homes. Small quantities can be brought in. But for the most part, everyone is supposed to have equal access to the produce that happens to grow during the shemitah year.
In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides suggests two reasons for the shemitah requirements. The first is that these laws promote sympathy for our fellow human beings. The second is that by letting the land lie fallow on the seventh year, it will result in greater overall production.
Regarding the second reason, Maimonides is wrong. Farmers have practiced crop rotation since ancient times. Without going into specifics, simply letting land remain uncultivated once every seven years is not crop rotation. Many other commentators specifically repudiate Maimonides for suggesting this.
Most agree with Maimonides, however, regarding his first explanation. Sixteenth century Italian Rabbi Abraham Porto writes, for example:
This law was given in order that we may show sympathy for our fellow men who have neither land nor vineyards, and that they may be happy in the Shemitah year, as the rich are happy every year. (Minchah Belulah)
Another commentator explains that
the suspension of work in every seventh year causes us to realize that our mission on earth is not to be slaves to the soil but a much higher and nobler one. Work should only serve the purpose of providing food and other needs, while our task is to attain to the supreme end… (Akedat Yitzchak)
Think about what it would be like to be an Israelite landowner in a society that observes Shemitah. I have to stop all work on the land. I cannot even allow my non-Israelite workers to do anything. I have to take down any fences or barriers around my fields. As for produce that happens to grow naturally, I am not allowed to harvest it. Instead, it remains in the ground, on the tree, or on the vine.
When I need food, I can go out to my field. But I will be joining everyone else from my community when I do so. The poor, the strangers, the property-less Levites. All of us have equal access to the lands that I once thought of us as mine.
For one year, all social and economic differences are set aside. The wealthy stand side by side with their servants, the poor, and the strangers among them. Just think about the impact on social interactions if our society followed an institution like shemitah – to forego profit and renounce ownership.
Perhaps this is a utopian socialist ideal – but remember that it is only once every seven years. The Torah recognizes the inherent competitive nature of humanity. Rather than try to suppress it, it asks us instead to harness it.
We desperately need this ethic here in California, where we are living the opposite of the shemitah ideal.
There is an unprecedented housing crisis in our state. The cause of this housing crisis is not a secret: income inequality.
This week, the Mercury News reported the following statistics: Home ownership rates statewide are at the lowest level since the 1940’s. The median price of a home in Santa Clara County is $1,070,000. To qualify for a mortgage for such a home, a homebuyer would need an annual income of $219,870. Assuming the homebuyer made a down payment of 20%, the resulting payment on a 30-year fixed rate loan would be $5,500 per month.
So many people struggle to meet even their basic housing needs; the idea of taking off a year to pursue more spiritual matters is a pipe dream.
Our society is structured in such a way that people of different economic levels are separated from one another. There is not a whole lot of social interaction taking place between blue collar and white collar workers.
These kinds of inequalities are precisely what Shemitah addresses. The walls between us, quite literally, come down. The pursuit of wealth is put on hold. Rich and poor, executives and janitors, stand shoulder to shoulder as they pick food for themselves and their families. And everyone uses their time to pursue spiritual matters: the study of Torah, the development of relationships, the cultivation of compassion.
Rav Kook, the early religious Zionist in the early twentieth century, wrote a book about shemitah called Shabbat HaAretz. – the Sabbath of the Land. You can hear the idealism in his beautiful words as he imagines Jews living in harmony in with each other and the land.
It is a year of equality and rest, in which the soul reaches out towards divine justice, towards God Who sustains the living creatures with loving kindness. There is no private property and no punctilious privilege but the peace of God reigns over all in which there is the breath of life… Sanctity is not profaned by the exercise of private acquisitiveness over all this year’s produce, and the covetousness of wealth stirred up by commerce is forgotten.
Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra, pp. 509-522