Understanding shmita A CONCEPTUAL APPROACH - Shira Hecht-Koller, J.D.

The following collection of sources was prepared to accompany a class that was part of the series Understanding Shmita, presented by Hazon and 929 English.

What are the conceptual underpinnings of shmita?

What are the different dimensions of shmita?

Are they in tension with one another?

How do different depictions of shmita in the Torah reflect its dualities?

What are the societal obligations incumbent upon us as a result of shmita?

How does shmita reflect the different dimensions of what it means to be human?

Was shmita ever actually observed?

How does shmita symbolize a disconnect between Israel and diasporic communities?

What does shmita teach us about different possible economic models?

How does shmita push-back against concepts such as ambition, drive, personal autonomy?

What are personal takeaways that can be extracted from the laws of shmita?

the central text

leviticus/vayikra 25


i. symbolic v. practical

shabbat as model

Sifra Behar 1:1

“Just as it says about the Shabbat of creation ‘a sabbath to the Lord,’ so does it say about the seventh year ‘a sabbath to the Lord’” (Sifra, Behar 1:1).

שבת לה' -- כשם שנאמר בשבת בראשית שבת לה כך נאמר בשביעית שבת לה

Symbolic aspects of shmita: Testimony

Sefer ha-Chinukh (84)

משרשי המצוה, לקבע בלבנו ולציר ציור חזק במחשבתנו ענין חדוש העולם כי (שמות כ יא) ששת ימים עשה יי את השמים ואת הארץ וביום השביעי שלא ברא דבר, הכתיב מנוחה על עצמו. ולמען הסיר ולעקר ולשרש מרעיוננו דבר הקדמות אשר יאמינו הכופרים בתורה ובו יהרסו כל פנותיה ויפרצו חומותיה, באה חובה עלינו להוציא כל זמננו יום יום ושנה שנה על דבר זה למנות שש שנים ולשבת בשביעית, ובכן לא תפרד לעולם הענין מבין עינינו תמיד, והוא כענין שאנו מונין ימי השבוע בששת ימי עבודה והשביעי יום מנוחה.

ולכן צוה ברוך הוא להפקיר כל מה שתוציא הארץ בשנה זו מלבד השביתה בה כדי שיזכר האדם כי הארץ שמוציאה אליו הפרות בכל שנה ושנה לא בכחה וסגלתה תוציא אותם, כי יש אדון עליה ועל אדוניה, וכשהוא חפץ מצוה עליו להפקירם. ועוד יש תועלת, נמצא בדבר לקנות בזה מדת הותרנות, כי אין נדיב כנותן מבלי תקוה אל הגמול. ועוד יש תועלת אחר [ת], נמצא בזה שיוסיף האדם בטחון בשם יתברך, כי כל המוצא עם לבבו לתת ולהפקיר לעולם כל גדולי קרקעותיו ונחלת אבותיו הגדלים בכל שנה אחת ומלמד בכך הוא וכל המשפחה כל ימיו, לא תחזק בו לעולם מדת הכילות הרבה ולא מעוט הבטחון

It is from the roots of this commandment to affix in our hearts and make a strong impression in our minds [about] the matter of the world having been created. As (Exodus 20, 11) "in six days did God make the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day" - in which He did not create anything - He imposed rest on Himself. And in order to remove and uproot and eradicate from our thoughts the idea of the eternity [of the world] - which the deniers of the Torah believe in, through which they destroy all its principles and break through its walls - did the requirement come upon us to expend all our time, day by day and year by year, for this matter, by counting six years and resting on the seventh so that this matter will never depart from between our eyes for all time. And this is similar to the manner in which we count the days of the week [by dividing them] into six days of work and the seventh is a day of rest.

Therefore, He, blessed be He, did command to render ownerless all that the land produces in this year - in addition to resting during it (i.e. during the year) - so that a person will remember that the land which produces fruits for him every year does not produce them by its [own] might and virtue. For there is a Master over it and over its master - and when He wishes, He commands him (i.e. the master of the land) to render them (i.e. the fruit) ownerless. And there is another benefit in this matter - to acquire the trait of letting go (i.e. of one's possessions), for there is no one more generous than he who gives without hope for recompense. And there is another benefit - the outcome of this is that a person will add to his trust in God, may He be blessed, since anyone who finds it in his heart to give and abandon to the world all of the produce of his lands and his ancestral inheritance for an entire year - and educates himself and his family through this for all of his days - will never have the trait of stinginess overcome him too much, nor will he have a deficient amount of trust.


"Derashat Torat Hashem Temima” (Kitvei ha-Ramban, vol. 1, p. 169).

“The jubilee year is testimony to the Creation, the continued existence and renewal of the world, which are the fruits of faith.”

"Derashat Torat Hashem Temima” (Kitvei ha-Ramban, vol. 1, p. 169).

shmita as symbol for personal values

  • Renounce ownership and possesion
  • Yielding and Waiver
  • Detachment
  • Liberation from chains of connection to the material
  • Dependence, trust, vulnerability

practical aspects of shmita: societal perfection

what is the focus in exodus as compared to leviticus?

exodus 23: 10-11

וְשֵׁ֥שׁ שָׁנִ֖ים תִּזְרַ֣ע אֶת־אַרְצֶ֑ךָ וְאָסַפְתָּ֖ אֶת־תְּבוּאָתָֽהּ׃

Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield;

וְהַשְּׁבִיעִ֞ת תִּשְׁמְטֶ֣נָּה וּנְטַשְׁתָּ֗הּ וְאָֽכְלוּ֙ אֶבְיֹנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ וְיִתְרָ֕ם תֹּאכַ֖ל חַיַּ֣ת הַשָּׂדֶ֑ה כֵּֽן־תַּעֲשֶׂ֥ה לְכַרְמְךָ֖ לְזֵיתֶֽךָ׃

but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves.

how do we perfect society?

Maimonides - Guide to the Perplexed

Moreh Nevukhim (III:39) [paragraph 4]

אמנם כל ה'מצוות' אשר ספרנום ב"הלכות שמיטה ויובל" מהם - לחמלה על בני אדם והרחבה לבני אדם כולם - כמו שאמר "ואכלו אביוני עמך ויתרם תאכל חית השדה וגו'" ושתוסיף הארץ תבואתה ותתחזק בעמדה שמוטה

As to all the precepts enumerated in the laws concerning the year of release and the jubilee (Hilkot shemittah ve-yohel) they are to imply sympathy with our fellow-men, and promote the well-being of mankind; for in reference to these Precepts it is stated in the Law, "That the poor of thy people may eat" (Exod. 23:11); and besides, the land will also increase its produce and improve when it remains fallow for some time.


ii. Human Freedom v. Yoke of Heaven

Majesty v. Covenantal Surrender

adam i v. adam ii

Tension within the individual:

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 1965), 23:

“Adam the first is aggressive, bold, and victory-minded…He engaged in creative work, trying to imitate his Maker. The most characteristic representative of Adam the first is the mathematical scientist, who whisks us away from the array of tangible things, from color and sound, from heat, touch and smell which are the only phenomena accessible to our senses, into a formal relational world of thought constructs, the product of his “arbitrary postulating” and spontaneous positing and deducing…

…Adam the second does not apply the functional method invented by Adam the first. He does not create a world of his own. Instead, he wants to understand the living, “given” world into which he has been cast. Therefore, he does not mathematize phenomena or conceptualize things. He encounters the universe in all its colorfulness, splendor, and grandeur, and studies it with the naivete, awe and admiration of the child who seeks the unusual and wonderful in every ordinary thing and event. While Adam the first is dynamic and creative, transforming sense data into thought constructs, Adam the second is receptive and beholds the world in its original dimensions. He looks for the image of God not in the mathematical formula or the natural relational law, but in every beam of light, in every bud and blossom, in the morning breeze and the stillness of a starlit evening.”

conceptual iii

iii. individualism v. collectivism

Behar: Evolution Or Revolution?

R. Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l for 929.org.il

Parshat Behar is just a single chapter, but it transformed the social structure of ancient Israel and provided a unique solution to the seemingly unsolvable conflict between two fundamental ideals: freedom and equality. Much of human history has illustrated the fact that you can have freedom without equality (capitalism/laissez-faire economics), or equality without freedom (communism, socialism), but not both. The powerful insight of the Torah is that you can have both, but not at the same time. Therefore, time itself has to become part of the solution, in the form of the seventh year and, after seven sabbatical cycles, the Jubilee year. These function as periodic corrections to the inequalities caused by the free market that allow some to become rich while others suffer the loss of land, home, and even freedom. Through the periodic liberation of slaves, release of debts, and restoration of ancestral lands, the Torah provides an inspiring alternative to individualism on the one hand, collectivism on the other.

conceptual iv

iv. utopian dream v. reality

Jeremiah 34: 13-14

כֹּֽה־אָמַ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אָנֹכִ֗י כָּרַ֤תִּֽי בְרִית֙ אֶת־אֲב֣וֹתֵיכֶ֔ם בְּי֨וֹם הוֹצִאִ֤י אוֹתָם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם מִבֵּ֥ית עֲבָדִ֖ים לֵאמֹֽר׃

Thus said the LORD, the God of Israel: I made a covenant with your fathers when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage, saying:

מִקֵּ֣ץ שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֡ים תְּֽשַׁלְּח֡וּ אִישׁ֩ אֶת־אָחִ֨יו הָעִבְרִ֜י אֲשֶֽׁר־יִמָּכֵ֣ר לְךָ֗ וַעֲבָֽדְךָ֙ שֵׁ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֔ים וְשִׁלַּחְתּ֥וֹ חָפְשִׁ֖י מֵֽעִמָּ֑ךְ וְלֹֽא־שָׁמְע֤וּ אֲבֽוֹתֵיכֶם֙ אֵלַ֔י וְלֹ֥א הִטּ֖וּ אֶת־אָזְנָֽם׃

“In the seventh year each of you must let go any fellow Hebrew who may be sold to you; when he has served you six years, you must set him free.” But your fathers would not obey Me or give ear.

Mishna Avot, 5:11

גָּלוּת בָּאָה לָעוֹלָם עַל עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה, וְעַל גִלּוּי עֲרָיוֹת, וְעַל שְׁפִיכוּת דָּמִים, וְעַל הַשְׁמָטַת הָאָרֶץ.

Exile comes to the world for idolatry, for sexual sins and for bloodshed, and for [transgressing the commandment of] the [year of the] release of the land

Vayikra Rabbah 1

"Generally the performance of a mitzvah lasts a day [Shabbat] or a week [Pesah or Sukkot] or even a month [mourning]. But one that stretches out for a whole year? And this particular individual goes out and sees his field and vineyard abandoned and barren yet still pays his taxes obediently! Can you imagine any greater hero (i.e., "mighty creature," as in the verse)?

Re-pace, Redeem, Re-dream: The Shemitah Ideal

Misha Clabiner for 929.org.il

Leviticus 25:4 - "But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard."

Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15 spell out the logistics of the utopian dream of the shemitah (Sabbatical) and the yovel (Jubilee) years.

The ideal of letting farmland lay fallow and for indebted residents to be released from their financial obligations is an ideal that is inspirational and is even relevant in this day and age, if not more so. Deforestation, over-fishing, mono-cropping agricultural operations, these are but three examples of the relentless pursuit of producing more and more right now at the expense of future generations having anything left for themselves.

No time is given for the forests, oceans, or farmland to recuperate or regenerate.

As of June 2018, according to Forbes Magazine, the national student debt is $1.5 Trillion and impacts 44 million current and former American students. With interest rates for advanced degrees (6-7%) that surpass averages for car and home loan interest rates (around 3-4%) - the question remains why are we squeezing our greatest resources (young minds and the natural world) to the utmost degree?

The Torah asked that question as well, but then suggested an actual answer.

The Torah dreams of a brighter future as a result of a sacrifice now, rather than having a glittery present on the backs of the sacrifices of future generation.

Of course, like any dream for a better future, emendations will surely have to be made. In Mishnah Gittin 4:3 it says "Hillel instituted the 'pruzbul' [a court-issued exemption from the shemitah (Sabbatical) year cancellation of a personal loan] due to Tikkun HaOlam."

Hillel noticed that people stopped giving loans before the Shemitah year and so he created an amendment to the laws of the Torah. Loans would no longer be erased so that people would feel comfortable lending again.The dream of letting the land rest has had amendments added to it as well.

The Torah's utopian dream was confronted with tangible reality. Even though changes were made that neutralized some of the more radical aspects of the vision, the effort to think of a better world was not for nothing. Attempting to make the world a better place is more meaningful than hopelessly striving for perfection - since perfection will always remain beyond our reach.

May we in our days have the Torah-like boldness to dream of ideas like the Jubilee and Sabbatical years to our debt and ecological problems. For if we cannot even dream of a more just and sustainable world, then perhaps that is an even greater crisis than the debt problem itself.

Misha Clebaner, is in his final year of rabbinical school at Hebrew College in Boston. He is currently serving as the rabbinic figure of Temple B’nai Israel in Revere, MA.

conceptual v

V. Powering Along v Slowing Down in Order to Move Forward

how can we make it a reality?

Presentation created by Shira Hecht-Koller, Director of Education for 929 English

(c) Shira Hecht-Koller for 929 English, 2021


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