Nature of the Pre-Shemittah Blessing of the Produce

Introduction

What is So Difficult?

Vayikra 25 is devoted entirely to the laws of Shemittah and Yovel.  Anticipating that a ban on all agricultural work for a full year will cause deep anxiety for the people, Hashem reassures them that the crops of the sixth year will sustain them for three years:

EN/HEע/E
(כ) וְכִי תֹאמְרוּ מַה נֹּאכַל בַּשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת הֵן לֹא נִזְרָע וְלֹא נֶאֱסֹף אֶת תְּבוּאָתֵנוּ. (כא) וְצִוִּיתִי אֶת בִּרְכָתִי לָכֶם בַּשָּׁנָה הַשִּׁשִּׁית וְעָשָׂת אֶת הַתְּבוּאָה לִשְׁלֹשׁ הַשָּׁנִים.
(20) And if ye shall say: 'What shall we eat the seventh year? behold, we may not sow, nor gather our crops';
(21) then I will command My blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth produce for the three years.

This blessing makes the reader wonder why Shemittah proved so difficult for the nation to observe.  The blessings and curses of Vayikra 26 single out non-observance of Shemittah as the root cause of the nation's ultimate exile,1 and Divrei HaYamim records the fulfillment of that dire prediction. Yet, if the people received a three-fold blessing of grain even before the seventh year began and their needs were already provided for, why was it so difficult for them to fulfill the mitzvah of Shemittah?

Blessings as Reward?

Generally, when Hashem gives a blessing in Tanakh, it comes as recompense for observance.  Thus, throughout Torah, formulations such as "לְמַעַן יְבָרֶכְךָ" are preceded by a demand to follow Hashem's commandments.2  Similarly, rewards of rain and livelihood are promised only "if you heed my commandments".‎3 The blessing in our verse stands in contrast to these examples, as it is given before, not after, observance.  Moreover, it is a response not to a show of faith, but to a lack thereof!  What makes this blessing unique?

Additional Questions

The above verses also raise several textual questions which might bear on the above issues:

  • "וְכִי תֹאמְרוּ" –  Does the word "כִי" mean  "if," lest," or "when"?  Who is asking "what shall we eat"?  Is Hashem preempting a question that the Generation of the Wilderness might have asked as they received the laws of Shemittah?  Or, is He speaking about a real scenario that might happen in the future, as farmers worry during each Shemittah cycle?4
  • "מַה נֹּאכַל בַּשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת" – RambanVayikra 25:20About R. Moshe b. Nachman and others are troubled by this question, as the people should have few concerns about what they will eat in the seventh year.  Like in any other year, they should be able to eat of the previous year's harvest. Should they not instead be questioning what they will eat in the eighth year?
  • Evaluating the concern – Hashem simply allays the people's anxieties without passing judgement over whether they are appropriate or not. How, though, should the people's questioning be viewed?  Is their concern a natural and valid one, or should it be understood negatively as a lack of faith and an unwarranted complaint?
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