Parashat BaHar – The two sides of Shemita

Rav Yossi Gamliel • 2019

Rav Yossi Gamliel about the two appearances of Shemitah in the Tora, and two aspects of holiness – the sides of affluence and abandoning.



Our Parasha seals Vayikra with several mitzvot - “These are the commandments that the LORD gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai” (Vayikra 27:34). As we know, this list starts off with Shemitah, and this is not its first appearance in the Torah. Let us try to examine one of the differences between the appearance of Shemitah in our Parasha and its appearance in Parashat Mishpatim (Shmot 23:11).

In our Parasha, the Torah presents Shemitah as a festive completion of the six-year cycle of work:

The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the LORD. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. 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. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.

(Vayikra 25:1-5)

The description of the six years of work, presenting a rich, layered picture of sowing and pruning, creates a sense of intense and blessed productive labor - at the end of which comes the harvest of grain. Later on, the seventh year also joins the blessed work sequence, complementing it by rest and Shabbat. Shemita appears at the peak of the labor cycle, concentrating mainly on stopping the toil and the labor: this sabbatical is defined by the prohibitions “you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard”. As a result, Shemita is a time of eating and abundance for human beings, but this abundance is abundant and plentiful also for the slaves and animals around the individual:

But you may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce—you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, and your cattle and the beasts in your land may eat all its yield.

(Vayikra 25:6-7)

This description, then, shapes “The Shabbos of the Land” as a time of rest from work, but one that continues its productive ethos .

A different description of Shemitah is found in Parashat Mishpatim:

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

(Shemot 23:10-11)

Here, too, Shemita follows a description of six years of labor and harvest (although a more confined and limited description than what is found in Parashat Behar). But the formulation of the nature of the seventh year offers a completely different appearance: abandonment, poverty, and animals that eat the scraps. The semantic field of this sabbatical is a field of destruction, desertion and desolation, and the recipients of Shemita are the poor and the animals. This description places the one who keeps the sabbatical as one who “sees his field abandoned, his trees abandoned, his fences breached, and sees his fruit trees eaten, he suppresses his drive (like one mighty in strength) and does not speak” (Tanchuma Vayikra, Siman 1).

These two different faces of Shemita are not completely separate. Both have the same root - a standstill. In the standstill there is a dimension of the end of the process, the end of labor and creativity expressed in the ability to enjoy the abundance, to be in the present tense after a man has worked and created his face into the future. But this very existence sustains the disassembled dimensions, the dimensions of the desertion and desolation inherent in the standstill itself. It seems that a small distance separates the pleasure and fullness of abundance from forsaking and neglect.

We may feel this in our own lives on Shabbat. Our Shabbat sets itself within the productive order of the days of action, as a festive and abundant end of one week and a full start of a second week. As the Zohar says, “all the blessings from above and below are dependent on the seventh day” (Zohar Yitro). But Sabbath also brings a halt and abandonment that challenges the productive order, as well as the weight of a stop and standstill that is sometimes unavoidable.

Rav Shagar put it very sharply when he wrote about Kiddush:

What do we mean by reciting Kiddush? I very much identify with the intention of the Zohar, who writes that “were finished” (ויכולו) is from the language of annihilation (כיליון). In holiness there is also such a side, a destructive side that destroys everything. Everything is finished, everything is annihilated, everything is gathered to its people. I can feel it when I sometimes go by an industrial area on Shabbat: The plant suddenly becomes quiet, cats poke through garbage cans, and there is a very strong feeling of holiness. Abandoning itself is part of the holiness of Shabbat

(Rav Shagar, שיעורים בגמרא: שמיטה, pg. 31)

The Shemita of Parashat Behar invites us, therefore, to know the aspects of holiness - the sides of affluence as well as its affinities to standstills and abandoning, which surprisingly also emanate from them a meaningful presence of holiness.

ישיבת שיח יצחק גבעת הדגן - אפרת, מיקוד: 90435