This week’s Torah portion introduces us to the fascinating mitzvah (commandment), that of shmittah, the sabbatical year, which mandates that Jews in Israel cease working their fields for an entire year, every seventh year. This structure essentially mirrors the weekly Shabbat experience, expanding it to an entire year for farmers.
While they are not expected to avoid all labor, they are commanded to stop all field work. The law goes even further, expanding this precept so that any crops or fruits that grew by themselves are to be considered ownerless and a farmer needs to have his gates open for the entire year, allowing anyone to enter the field so they can take whatever they desire.
In its purest form, shmittah generates a great mix of society. It brings together the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in one place and on equal footing. The mingling of the community provides multiple dimensions of social benefit. First, the farmer who has 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 opportunities for those who may otherwise remain without jobs. Finally, there is a third goal suggested by medieval commentator Ibn Ezra (Deuteronomy 31:10-12), “The reason that we keep shmittah 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 with Torah.”
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan is the OU-JLIC educator and rabbi for Hillel at the University of California, Los Angeles.