By Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Co-Director of the Jewish Leaning Initiative on Campus at UCLA
This week’s Torah portion, Behar, introduces us to a most fascinating commandment: Shemitah, the Sabbatical year. The mitzvah of Shemitah 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 those who plow land are not expected to avoid all labor, they are commanded to stop all field work during the Shemitah year.
Mosaic law goes one step further in expanding this precept. It establishes that not only must no work be done to the field, but 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 their gates open for the entire year to allow anyone to enter the field so they can take whatever they desire.
In its purest form, the expression of Shemitah generates a great blend of people in 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 a 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 Abraham Ibn Ezra (Deut. 31:10-12), “The reason that we keep Shemitah 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.” Ibn Ezra is highlighting a great human need and invaluable opportunity via Shemitah: to incrementally nourish oneself by reengaging in spirituality and immersing deeply in intellectual pursuit.
Have an optimal, and nourishing, Shabbat!
This article is part of Ha’Am’s Friday Taste of Torah column. Each week, a different UCLA community member will contribute some words of Jewish wisdom in preparation for Shabbat.