Parashat Tzav: Shmita As An Expression of Gratitude By Shoshana Michael Zucker

People who have the tools of production at their disposal should gratefully acknowledge their blessings, and invite others to partake of the bounty. 

Of the many sacrifices mandated in Parashat Tzav, one stands out: the thanksgiving offering (Leviticus 7:12-15), which must be consumed before the next morning. To eat the whole lamb at one sitting, it is necessary to invite guests. As Rabbi Shai Held teaches: “A core aspect of gratitude is the desire to respond, the urge to repay or pay forward the kindness we have been shown. Gratitude is the bridge between the realization of how much I have been given, and the commitment to be a giver myself.”

The Biblical and modern Hebrew word תודה, todah, which has a dual meaning of “acknowledge” and “thank,” embodies this idea. The word’s root,  י-ד-ה y-d-h, is derived from יד-yad hand and also means “to throw.” Just as the hand is a body part that can move away from the rest of the body, these words all signify acts that move outwards from the self. We express thanks by sharing. Moreover, in order to be grateful, we must first acknowledge that our achievements build on gifts we have received. 

Some of these lessons are also to be found in the practice of Shmita, although in a linguistically inverted way. By withdrawing their hands from their fields and orchards, the owners of agricultural properties acknowledge that the land is not solely theirs. Rather they, too, are tenants on God’s estate, as it is written, “for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Leviticus 25:23). 

Shmita is similar to the thanksgiving offering in another way: the sharing of produce with others. When the idea of Shmita is first introduced in Exodus 23, it is explicitly tied to ensuring that food is available to all who need it, “Let the needy among your people eat of it…” (verse 11).

Sacrifices, including the thanksgiving offering, are a distant memory. Widespread implementation of the Shmita laws in their literal sense is challenging in a modern economy. Yet the values they manifest have not lost their urgency. People who have the tools of economic production at their disposal should gratefully acknowledge their blessings, and invite others to partake of the bounty. 

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 Shoshana Michael Zucker is a translator and editor by profession, but would much rather be learning and teaching Torah. A graduate of Barnard College, she made aliyah in 1983 and now lives in Kfar Saba where she is an active member of the Masorti Congregation Hod veHadar.

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