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Philosophic Testimony: The Sabbatical and Jubilee Year

Many of our fellow coreligionists, with good intentions, think that the Torah contains not only knowledge of how to live our lives but knowledge of all areas of science as well. They find support for this opinion from the statement of ben-Bag Bag found in Pirkey Avot, “Delve in it (the Torah) and continue to delve in it for everything is in it.” Ask them and they will tell you with confidence that the principles of physics or of modern medicine are in the Torah. This mistake occurs out of a naïve admiration for the Torah. People want to think that since the Torah is “from heaven,” God revealed all knowledge in its pages.

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, informs us of a couple of mitzvoth that apply specifically to farmers. The Torah lays out specific laws for them. To paraphrase the Torah: for 6 years they can work the field, but in the 7th they cannot sow seeds or harvest its produce. Whatever grows on its own can be taken by anyone.  This 7th year is called the Shemita or Sabbatical year, since the field is left to rest from any human productive activity.  This process repeats for 7 cycles, so the 49th year is also a Shemita year. However to Shemita year 49, the Torah adds that the following year, the 50th year, is a Yovel or Jubilee year. Again, no planting or harvesting is permitted the entire 50th year. Any person can come and freely take the produce. Thus in both the 49th and 50th years, the land is left uncultivated.

Are these laws the conception of an agricultural Einstein? Even if they are, how would an agriculturally dependent society be so convinced of their veracity to accept them unequivocally? How could the leadership of the nation put at risk and jeopardize the nation’s welfare based on unproven science? To maintain such a premise is preposterous. Did God, through the Torah, reveal basic elements in the science of crop rotation? If this is true, do these laws of farming work in all lands or just Israel? Fields in other countries could function as control experiments to test the scientific hypothesis of the Torah? The answer, of course, to all these questions is a resounding, no! The Torah makes it clear that these mitzvot, Shemita and Yovel, only apply to the land of Israel and only when a majority of Jews live there as well.  Therefore, these laws are not principles in the science of soil management  and efficiency. What then is the purpose of these peculiar commands?

The Torah, however, anticipates the most basic question that people will ask, “What will we eat in the 7th year? Behold we will not sow or gather in our crops!” The people were rational and knew from experience that the produce of any year will provide for that year; but what about the Shemita year or the year after Shemita? Since planting in the 7th year is prohibited, there will not be food immediately available the following year as well. Even after planting in the beginning of the 8th year, it will take some time before any produce is ready to harvest. So what will the people  eat for the year and a half after the end of the 6th year? Compound that problem when the Jubilee year rolls around.  No planting can take place during the 49th and 50th years. Then there will be two and a half years before new produce will appear.  It will be half way into the 1st year of the next Jubilee cycle before any new produce is ready to harvest.

The Torah therefore tells us the reason for the Sabbatical rest year. It is a “Sabbath for Hashem.” Rashi says this term means, “for God’s name, for God’s sake.” He means that when the people fulfill this mitzvah, God will be recognized. How? God, the Creator of the universe, did not create the universe in such a way that it subsequently runs on its own. The Torah’s idea is that the Creator is involved with and relates directly to His creation of mankind in general and the nation of Israel in specific. This fact is demonstrated by the mitzvot and cycles of Shemita and Yovel. By adhering to the mitzvot of Shemita and Yovel, the people of Israel attest to the philosophic principle above. This concept of “hashgachat Hashem,” God’s divine watchfulness, is manifest in specific ways. As a reward for the observance of a philosophic principle, God states, “I will ordain my blessing for you in the 6th year and it will yield a crop sufficient for the 3 year period. You will sow in the 8th year but you will eat from the old crop; until the 9th year, until the arrival of its crop, you will eat the old.”

This blessing is relegated exclusively to the land of Israel. Conversely, we are told later on in the Torah that we will lose possession of the land of Israel for not observing the laws pertaining to the Shemita and Jubilee years. That fact reinforces the idea that God’s divine providence extends to the people of Israel when they live properly in the land of Israel. Only in that way can all people come to realize the true concept of God, Creator of heaven and earth.  People around the world will hear about this unusual occurrence in a place called Israel and come to learn the true idea about God and His relationship to mankind.

There are of course other important lessons and benefits to the society that keeps these commands.  However, these commands hit us where we are most vulnerable, our food supply? The Torah challenges us.  Do we have the conviction to follow our mind and submit our very lives to an abstract concept that the Creator cares about man and relates directly to the nation of Israel? The bounty or scarcity of produce during the Shemita and Yovel years will attest to this most fundamental principle of Judaism. Ultimately our national welfare, security and existence as a people, rests solely on this idea. The bounty of Shmita and Yovel in the land of Israel is proof enough to refute the most stubborn and obstinate non-believer.

May it be Hashem’s will that we live to partake in the bounty of God’s goodness to the nation of Israel in the land of Israel. May God continue His protection of the nation of Israel, Jews and God-fearing people throughout the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan