by Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
At Mount Sinai, we were given mitzvos – Divine mandates – which help us to realize that human beings are just the custodians and not the owners of the earth. These mitzvos are in the spirit of the very first Divine mandate in human history which serves as a prototype for all the Torah’s mitzvos. This original mandate began when the Compassionate and Just Creator led the human being into the Garden of Eden, as it is written:
Among the mitzvos which specifically remind us that the earth belongs to the Creator is the following land-related mitzvah:
“Six years shall you sow your land and gather in its produce. But in the seventh year, you shall let it go and abandon it, and the needy of your people shall eat, and the wildlife of the field shall eat what is left; so shall you do to your vineyard and your olive grove.” (Exodus 23:10,11)
Maimonides, in his classical work, “The Book of the Mitzvos,” discusses the above mitzvah, and he writes: “By this injunction, we are given a mandate to renounce as ownerless all produce of the land in the Sabbatical Year, and to permit anybody to take what grows in our fields” (Mitzvah 134). A related mitzvah, writes Maimonides, is the mandate to desist from cultivating the land during the seventh year (Mitzvah 135). The source for this second mitzvah is found in the following verses:
“Hashem spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I will give you, the land shall observe a Shabbos for Hashem For six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyard; and you may gather in its crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Shabbos for Hashem; your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune.” (Leviticus 25:1-4)
Through this mitzvah, states the Talmud, Hashem is telling Israel: “Sow for six years and let go of the land in the seventh year in order that you know that the land is Mine” (Sanhedrin 39a).
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the mitzvah of the Sabbatical Year is the great act by which an entire nation proclaims Hashem as the true Owner and Master of the land. Through this act, the nation proclaims that it is a nation of strangers and sojourners on its own soil, dwelling upon it only through the permission of Hashem. This awareness does away with the arrogance of those who pride themselves for standing on their own soil, and who tend to become unsympathetic and harsh in dealing with those who are poor and without property. Rabbi Hirsch adds that the recognition that we are only strangers and sojourners on the land leads to a more loving and giving attitude towards others. He writes: “It engenders that frame of mind which lovingly includes the stranger, the poor, and also the animals, as creatures of Hashem who have the right to live in a land which belongs to Hashem, which all are to share in common.” (Commentary to Exodus 23:10,11)
During the early days of the State of Israel, the secular establishment was hostile to the whole idea of “Shmittah” – the Sabbatical Year. They felt that the observance of Shmittah would conflict with their goal of creating a modern and prosperous state in the Middle East. It therefore took exceptional courage and faith for religious farmers of that period to attempt to observe the Torah’s laws regarding Shmittah, especially since farmers in Israel depend to some degree on the support and cooperation of various government agencies.
During that period, there was a beloved sage, Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, who was the founder and head of the Ponivez Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. Rabbi Kahaneman was aware of the economic and social difficulties facing those farmers who were striving to fulfill the teachings and laws of the Shmittah. On the eve of the Sabbatical Year, this sage traveled to Kibbutz Chafetz Chaim, a religious kibbutz which was keeping the Shmittah laws, for he desired to strengthen the spirit of the farmers. He spoke to them about the holiness of this “Shabbos for Hashem” – a holiness which permeates each plant and each “boimelah” (an affectionate Yiddish term for a tree). As the Shmittah year was about to begin, he suggested that every farmer go over and wish a tree, “Gut Shabbos, boimelah.” He himself then kissed the earth and wished it a “Gut Shabbos”!
It is written, “The land is Mine, for you are strangers and sojourners with Me” (Leviticus 25:23). With these words, say our sages, the Creator is conveying the following paradoxical message: “When it is Mine, then it will be yours” (Sifra). When we acknowledge that the land belongs to the Creator, then the Creator gives us the right to live in the land and to serve as its custodians.