Elli Schwarcz – Shemita: Heavenly Blessings

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This week’s parashaBehar, contains the mitzvot of observing the shemitah/yovel cycle in Israel. Here’s a quick rundown of their basic concepts:

  • Every seventh year it is forbidden to work the fields.
  • Wild-growth produce of that year is ownerless; poor people may enter others’ fields and take it.
  • This seventh year, shevi’it, is also called shemitah-Hebrew for ‘release’, as the lands (as well as outstanding loans) are ‘released’, and ‘Shabbat’- as it is a year of rest for the land.
  • Hashem promises that when Israel keeps these laws, its produce will be given special blessing so that the produce of the sixth year is sufficient to last until the eighth year’s crops are ready.
  • After every seven of the seven-year cycles, a Yovel year is observed. The Bet Din (High Court) blows the shofar, then Jewish slaves go free and lands return to the possession of their original owners. Additionally, this year is observed like a shemita year.

What’s the reason behind these mitzvot? Many commentators explain that by leaving our lands untouched (and by having them revert to their original owners in the Yovel year), we are showing that the land is not truly ours but rather Hashem’s; we acknowlege that although we seem to own private property and plant it, sow it and harvest its crops, we are not in charge of it all, but rather caretakers benefiting from Hashem’s generosity. Our rabbis quote the Talmud as a source for this explanation:

God told Israel: ‘Plant for six years but leave it fallow in the seventh, so that you will be aware that the land is Mine.’
Rashi: And (so) your hearts will not become haughty with the gains of your lands, (causing) you to forget the yoke of His Kingship.
-Gemara Sanhedrin 39a

Additionally, as the great Ksav Sofer and others point out, when we follow this commandment we are showing great faith in Hashem- both through displaying our belief that He owns and controls the Land, and by trusting His promise that we will have enough to eat during the shemita year and its aftermath. These two elements give more meaning to one of the Torah’s expressions for the shemita year-
??????????? ????????????, ??????? ?????????? ??????? ???????–???????, ???????:  ??????? ??? ???????, ?????????? ??? ???????
And in the seventh year, there shall be a complete Shabbat for the Land– a Shabbat for Hashem’s sake.
-Behar, 25:4
– being that when we observe Shabbat every week we reinforce these same two ideas, as we show our belief that: 1. Hashem created and owns the world (and we commemorate the day He stopped creating); 2. He provides us with our livelihood, and so we don’t work when He doesn’t want us to.

This idea, that Hashem owns the world and that we must acknowledge this through serving and thanking Him, is expressed perfectly elsewhere in the Talmud. Our Rabbis find a hint to the law of blessing God before and after we eat, through an apparent contradiction in Tehilim:

It says, ???????, ??????? ???????????
The world and what fills it belong to Hashem
-Tehilim 24:1
but it also says,
??????????? ????????, ??????? ????????? ????? ???????-?????.
The Heavens are the Heavens of Hashem- and Earth, He gave to people. !
-Tehilim 115:16
(-The first verse tells us that Earth belongs to Hashem, but the second one teaches that He gave it to us; this is a contradiction.)
-It’s not a question: one verse refers to before one makes a blessing, and one refers to after the blessing.
Rashi: After the blessing it belongs to the people.
-Gemara Berachot 35a

-Nice. Although the obligation to make a blessing before eating is technically only a Rabbinic one, we learn here that the idea that one must show gratitude to Hashem, acknowledging that He owns everything, is timeless. We also see that when we accept that Hashem owns everything, we actually bring the world into our own domain.

It follows, then, that shemita works in the same way; abstaining from working the land, at the same time that it shows that Hashem is the real Owner, is actually what grants us the permission to take possession of it at all! It should come as no surprise, therefore, that failure to keep the shemita can be tragic. To quote the continuation of the earlier Gemara Sanhedrin, once the Jews stopped properly keeping the laws of shemita, there were direct consequences:

but they did not do so (they did not observe the shemita), but sinned- and were exiled from the Land.

-Since they did not actively recognize Hashem’s ownership of the Land, He no longer allowed them to use it.

We can find an incredible hint to this parallel between blessings and shemita:
the gematria (number value) of  ??????? ???????????- ‘the land and what fills it’- is the same as ??????????- ‘like shemita’!

-Just as the shemita shows our faith in God and our acceptance of His ownership, so do the blessings we make on the food He gives us.

It gets even more interesting. We mentioned earlier that Hashem promises that keeping shemita will not bring harm. Now take a look at the language of the relevant pesukim:
????? ????????, ???-??????? ?????????? ????????????:  ??? ??? ???????, ????? ??????? ???-?????????????
And if you will say, ‘What will I eat in the seventh year; we may not plant, nor will we harvest our crops!’
??????????? ???-?????????? ?????, ?????????? ????????????; ????????, ???-???????????, ?????????, ??????????.
-Then I will command My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth produce for three years.
-Behar, 25:20-21

-Amazing! Hashem’s promise that we would not suffer for our faith is expressed through…blessing. He blesses us, as we acknowledge His ownership, giving Him our own ‘blessings’. Not only that, but He ‘commands’ His blessing- and so this expression hints at the command we are given to ‘bless’ Him!

There’s a second explanation of the above Gemara regarding blessings.
Here’s the quotation again:
One verse refers to before the blessing, and one refers to after the blessing.
Rabbi Eli Mansour quotes the famous Rebbe of Kotzk, known in his time as both a tzaddik and the sharpest of men, with an alternative reading of the pasuk:
The Heavens are already made Heavenly by Hashem- but the land- the physical dimension- is given to people to make Heavenly.

-In other words, we know that our mission in this world is to take the physical and make it spiritual. We take food, relationships, land, speech, sleep, and every other part of our existence- and uplift them through keeping the Torah laws that apply to them. We don’t avoid the world around us; that’s not what God wants from us. He wants us to elevate it by following His path. And so we arrive at a new thought:
Before the blessing, the world is oursit’s still physicalAfter the blessing, the world is (more visibly) Hashem’s– we have made it more spiritual, more Heavenly.

And so we apply this thought to shemita as well. In the six years of regular living-before the ‘blessing’ of the seventh year, the world around is an ordinary place. But after having shown our trust in God through shemitah, after the year of ‘blessing’ it brings, the world around us has now become holy.

May we grow to recognize our world’s Owner-through blessing properly over food, supporting shemita observance in Israel and through our everyday following in Hashem’s path- and thereby make it a holier place. If we can do that, we will surely have brought blessing to ourselves, to our friends and families, and to the whole world.

Have a great Shabbat!
Elli Schwarcz

 

Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.

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