Just as the weekly Shabbat starkly reminds us who is the Creator and who is the Creature, shmita achieves a similar goal
Parashat Vayakhel, although primarily devoted to the fabrication of the Tabernacle and its vessels, begins (Exodus 35:1-3) with a brief reprise of the commandment to observe the sabbath, already discussed in the Ten Commandments. While the sabbath applies to Jews wherever on earth they may find themselves, there is a “special” sabbath that pertains only to the land of Israel, “Shabbat Ha-aretz” (the sabbath of the land) or shmita.
We see how the term “sabbath” is used interchangeably between the seventh day of the week, and the seventh year of the Sabbatical cycle, in Parashat BeHar (Leviticus 25:2-6) and particularly in the rebuke of Leviticus (ibid. 26:34-5):
Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years. Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it.
Although the “human” sabbath entails a more extensive list of prohibited activities than the sabbath of the land of Israel. Compare Maimonides’ descriptions of forbidden labors on Shabbat and shmita:
Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shabbat 7:1
… 1) plowing, 2) sowing, 3) reaping, 4) collecting sheaves, 5) threshing, 6) winnowing, 7) separating, 8) grinding, 9) sifting, 10) kneading, 11) baking, 12) shearing, 13) whitening, 14) beating, 15) dyeing, 16) spinning, etc. (to 49 labors).
And now his Hilchot Shmita 1:2
…1) sowing, 2) trimming, 3) harvesting (grain,) and 4) harvesting fruit – both from vineyards and from other trees…
For an agriculturally-based society, prohibiting all activities designed to enhance the earth’s productivity for approximately one year, constitutes a major sacrifice for Jewish land-owners and ultimately, consumers. However, such a sacrifice, albeit incredibly inconvenient, is required to illustrate that the land truly belongs to God, and as “landlord,” He can require us, the “lessees,” to observe whatever restrictions He chooses to impose.
This idea is reminiscent of the contents of the first insight by Rashi in his Biblical commentary:
Rabbi Isaac said: The Torah should have commenced with the verse (Exodus 12:2) “This month shall be unto you the first of the months” which is the first commandment given to Israel. What is the reason, then, that it commences with the account of the Creation? Because of the thought expressed in the text (Psalms 111:6) “He declared to His people the strength of His works.” All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whom He pleased…
Just as the weekly Shabbat starkly reminds us who is the Creator and who is the Creature, shmita achieves a similar theological goal.
Rabbi Jack Bieler was ordained at the Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in 1974. He has had a fifty+ year career in Jewish day school education and the synagogue Rabbinate. He blogs daily at https://yaakovbieler.wordpress.com