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Home » B'Har

B’har: Sabbatical – An Expression of Faith

Submitted by on May 14, 2006 – 4:14 amNo Comment | 2,629 views


Would you enjoy taking a full sabbatical every seven years? You could relax, travel, study and spend quality time with your family.Would you enjoy it if your entire country took a sabbatical every seven years?

Farmers in Israel are required by Jewish law to keep shemitah, thus letting their fields lie fallow for a full year, once every seven years. Why is this Sabbatical ordered? (1)

The Soil

The early philosophers saw shemitah as an opportunity to rest and refresh the soil. (2) However, this theory alone is insufficient because the soil requires more frequent rests than once in seven years to be fully refreshed. (3)

A Year of Shabbat

Others saw shemitah as an annual Shabbat. We rest on Shabbat to demonstrate that G-d created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh. We similarly let the field lie fallow on the seventh year to demonstrate that G-d rested on the seventh day. (4)

Later commentators rejected this theory, arguing that if shemitah was intended to instill an awareness of G-d as the creator, its purpose was defeated by the long interval between the rest periods. The weekly Shabbat already serves this purpose and to much greater effect. What does the shemitah contribute that Shabbat does not accomplish?

In response, some have argued that shemitah enables the field to make up for lost Shabbatot. It is true that we rest on Shabbat, but even as we rest, our fields continue to work. We plant on Friday and the seeds germinate on Shabbat. (5) During shemitah our fields make up for the lost Shabbatot and festivals of the previous six years.

There are 52 Shabbatot in a solar calendar year. (6) The total number over six years is 312. Seven festival days per year raise the total to 352, which is the precise number of days in the shemitah, a lunar calendar year. (7)sabbatical - an expression of faith innerstream

Observing shemitah for three hundred and fifty-two days, a full lunar calendar year, enables the field to ‘balance its accounts’ and catch up with its owner in observing the full allotment of Shabbatot over the past six years. (8) (9)

Faith in G-d

This argument notwithstanding, a new theory was later proposed. The laws of shemitah were only binding upon our ancestors after they settled in Israel. When we toil and labor over crops that we grow, or other forms of income that we generate, we can grow proud of our achievements and take personal credit for them. (10)

We are liable to forget that G-d’s blessing is the sole reason for our success. We are liable to forget that G-d gave us our land and our seed, that he made the rain fall, the sun shine and the crops grow. Shemitah reinforces our faith in G-d’s providence over our affairs.

We work the land for six consecutive years although conventional wisdom dictates that this is unhealthy for the soil. (3) Then we rest in the shemitah year despite natural misgivings about providing for our families.

This kind of behavior is a formula for disaster. Farmers who undertake this kind of work ethic should prepare for bankruptcy. Yet for Jews in Israel it produces tremendous results. In fact, the soil retains its strength and actually provides a larger crop in the sixth year to provide for the shemitah year. (11) This reinforces our faith that the land belongs to G-d, that our success flows directly from his blessing and that we must be grateful to him for everything we have. (12)


It is easy to share with others when we can afford to share, when we have a steady income and when we know how we will pay for tomorrow’s expenses. It is much more difficult to be charitable when we are unsure of what tomorrow holds. Landowners had no income during shemitah, yet they would routinely abandon to the public all crops that grew spontaneously during shemitah. In this way shemitah enhanced Jewish unity. (13)

Outside of Israel this phenomenon is evidenced in charitable contributions. Conventional wisdom dictates that the more we give, the less we retain. From G-d’s perspective, however, the more we give, the more he blesses us. This is especially true when we give more than we can afford to give.


The belief that the world belongs to G-d and that our success depends on him is a liberating notion. It enables us to release the burdens that we carry. We still toil, but we breath easier. We still labor, but we sleep easier. We know that G-d guides our footsteps and that everything happens for a good reason. We learn to see G-d’s hand in everything we do and his presence in everything we see.

This leads us to the final reason for shemitah proposed by biblical commentators. The Talmud informs us that in the Holy Temple the Levites sang G-d’s praises every day. On Shabbat, the seventh day, they sang about the day of eternal rest, the messianic age.

The Talmud teaches that our world will last for six millennia. The first two were devoted to creation. The second two were devoted to Torah. The last two are devoted to Moshiach.  (14) Indeed, the Talmud tells us that in the seventh millennium, the world as we know it will cease to exist. It will become a world of freedom and of G-dliness. (15)

Shemitah, the seventh year, like Shabbat, the seventh day, represents the messianic age. Our faith in G-d is strengthened during shemitah, just as it will be in the messianic age. Our unity is strengthened during shemitah. just as Moshiach will usher in an age of peace. The sixth year is a year of plenty just as Moshiach will usher in an age of prosperity.

The messianic age is most notably known for freedom. Indeed, the shemitah is a year of emancipation. All slaves are liberated and all debts are cleared. In the merit of our observance of the Sabbatical – an expression of faith may we soon merit the freedom of the Messianic age. (16)


  1. Leviticus 25: 1-7.
  2. Maimonides (Maimonides, R. Moshe ben Maimon, Egypt, 1135-1204), Guide to the Perplexed, Section III, ch. 27. Sefer Hachinuch  (The anonymous author, who identifies himself only as “a Levite from Barcelona,” was a student of the Rashba, Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, in the thirteenth century)  ch. 84. See also Kli Yakar  (R. Ephraim Shlomo of Luntshitz, 1550-1619) on Leviticus 25:2.
  3. The Talmud often speaks of a two work year/one rest year formula. Today we refresh the soil through the use of fertilizers and crop rotation, but even today letting the filed lie fallow remains a viable solution to keeping the land productive.
  4. Abarbanel on Leviticus 25:2 (Don Yitzchak Abarbanel- Spain-1437-1508). Abarbanel offers an additional insight. Every year of the seven-year cycle is symbolic of a decade. The average lifespan (in the fifteenth century) was seventy years. Resting on the seventh year symbolizes that we must rest from heavy labor towards the end of our life and devote our remaining time to study and religious devotion. Of course one must also utilize this time to guide the younger generation through the errors of youth.
  5. One can argue that fruits from the sixth year continue to grow for the first few months of the shemitah year. Yet it must be remembered that the land of Israel was blessed in that its fruits ripened quickly.
  6. Though Jews follow the lunar calendar, a system of leap years was instituted to balance the two calendars. This means that over a larger number of years the number of weekends in the lunar and solar calendar years will be equal.
  7. The holidays are one day of Rosh Hashanah, the first day of Sukkot, the eighth day of Sukkot, the first day of Passover, the eighth day of Passover and the day of Shavuot. This number ignores the additional festival days that are added in the diaspora.
  8. There is no need to make up for the fifty-nine rest days of the seventh year since the field lies fallow for the entire year. In this sense, Shabbat and festival days of the shemitah serve dual purposes. They make up for lost days and they also provide for themselves.
  9. Tiferet Yonatan on Leviticus 25:2,  R. Yonasan Eibescutz, Prague,1690-1764).
  10. This theory was developed by the later commentators, but the idea itself can be found in a number of eleventh and thirteenth century sources such as R. Bacheye (R. Bachya ben Asher, Saragossa, Spain, 1255-1340) on Leviticus 25:2 and Sefer Hachinuch.
  11. Leviticus 25: 21-22. The sixth year crop actually provides for three years, the sixth, seventh and eighth. We store for the first few months of the eighth year until the new crops are harvested.
  12. Kli Yakar on Leviticus 25:2. Kli Yakar further explains that this may be why the Torah specifies that the laws of shemitah were given to Moses at Mount Sinai. Shemitah enhances our faith in G-d and his providence over our affairs. This faith is the foundation of Torah, which explains why the Torah specifies that the laws of shemitah were offered at Sinai. See Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzchaki, Troyes France, 1040-1105) and Nachmanidies ( R. Moshe Ben Nachman, Spain 1194-1270) on Leviticus 25:1.
  13. Ksav Sofer (R. Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer, Pressburg, 1815-1879) on Leviticus 25:2. Ksav Sofer makes a similar argument (see footnote #12) but he directs it to Jewish unity. The Torah was given to the Jews only after they were truly united. (See Mechilta and Rashi on Exodus 19: 2).This is because there are many commandments that can only be fulfilled by a certain segment of the Jewish population, for example, commandments that relate to Kohanim and commandments that relate to homeowners. When we are truly united, the commandment performed by one is attributed to all. In this sense, Jewish unity is a prerequisite to Sinai, which explains why the Torah specifies that the laws of shemitah were offered at Sinai.
  14. Bab. Talmud, Avodah Zarah, 9a.
  15. Bab. Talmud, Rosh Hashanah, 31a.
  16. Nachmanidies on Leviticus 25:2.

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