Shemittah: Religious, Social, or Agrarian Focus?
What is the purpose of the Shemittah year? While Ramban focuses on how Shemittah facilitates spiritual growth and recognition of Hashem, Shadal emphasizes how it inculcates social equality and concern for the less fortunate. Rambam offers a third option, suggesting that Shemittah serves a practical function in maintaining the fertility of the land.
- Is it possible that certain commandments were ordained purely for utilitarian purposes? What other mitzvot might be understood in a similar fashion? For one example, see Ralbag on Tzara'at.
- Does the Torah promote a world outlook closer to capitalism or socialism? What do the laws of Shemittah suggest?1
- How are Shemittah and Shabbat similar? What benefits are engendered by an enforced resting and refraining from work? For more, see Purpose of Shemittah.
A Test of Faith?
Vayikra 26 singles out the non-observance of Shemittah as the the root cause of the nation's ultimate exile from the land of Israel.2 Indeed, Shemittah would seem to be an extraordinarily difficult commitment to make for an agrarian society. However, cognizant of these difficulties, Hashem reassures the nation that the crops of the sixth year will sustain them for three years. To some extent, this turns the question on its head: If the people received a three-fold blessing of grain even before the seventh year began, why did the mitzvah prove so difficult to fulfill? How was it a test of faith at all? See Nature of the Pre-Shemittah Blessing of the Produce.
Does Tishrei Mark the New Year?
To enable the observance of Shemittah, Hashem promises a three-fold blessing of the produce of the sixth year, enough to last for three years. However, if working the land is prohibited for only one year, would not a two year blessing have sufficed?
- Some Karaite commentators explain that the Shemittah year and its prohibitions do not begin in Tishrei, but rather in Nisan, at the beginning of the harvest. This, thus, prevents the crops planted in the sixth year from being harvested in the seventh year. And since nothing is sown during the rest of the seventh year as well, the result is two consecutive harvest-free years, requiring a three year blessing.
- Rabbinic law, in contrast, asserts that each of Nisan and Tishrei serve as the start of the year for different purposes and laws. What is the basis and motivation for this complex dual system? What Biblical support can be brought for the Rabbinic notion that the agrarian or Shemittah year begins in Tishrei?
- How else can one explain why a three year blessing was necessary? For more, see Duration of the Pre-Shemittah Blessing of the Produce.