Purpose of Shemittah



Shemot + Devarim : Vayikra

The commandments of the Torah provide guidelines governing man's relationships with Hashem, other people, and the world as a whole.  In some cases, the reason for a particular mitzvah appears abundantly clear, while in others it is more complex.  The institution of the Sabbatical Year ("שְׁנַת הַשֶּׁבַע שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה") is a case in point.

The passages describing the laws of Shemittah in both Shemot and Devarim focus on its aid to the poor:


וְהַשְּׁבִיעִת תִּשְׁמְטֶנָּה וּנְטַשְׁתָּהּ וְאָכְלוּ אֶבְיֹנֵי עַמֶּךָ וְיִתְרָם תֹּאכַל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה כֵּן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְכַרְמְךָ לְזֵיתֶךָ.  (שמות כ"ג:י"א)

כִּי לֹא יֶחְדַּל אֶבְיוֹן מִקֶּרֶב הָאָרֶץ עַל כֵּן אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ לֵאמֹר פָּתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לְאָחִיךָ לַעֲנִיֶּךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹנְךָ בְּאַרְצֶךָ. (דברים ט"ו:י"א)

And in the seventh, you shall let it rest and lie fallow, and the needy of your people may eat, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat; you shall do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. (Shemot 23:11)

For the needy will never be gone from amidst the land, therefore I command you, saying: "Open your hand to your brother, to your poor and to your needy in your land". (Devarim 15:11)

In contrast, Vayikra 25 makes no mention of the poor and describes only how the Sabbatical Year is for Hashem, the people (in general), and the land:


(ב) דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַי"י.  (ג) שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְרַע שָׂדֶךָ וְשֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְמֹר כַּרְמֶךָ וְאָסַפְתָּ אֶת תְּבוּאָתָהּ.  (ד) וּבַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן יִהְיֶה לָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַי"י שָׂדְךָ לֹא תִזְרָע וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תִזְמֹר.  (ה) אֵת סְפִיחַ קְצִירְךָ לֹא תִקְצוֹר וְאֶת עִנְּבֵי נְזִירֶךָ לֹא תִבְצֹר שְׁנַת שַׁבָּתוֹן יִהְיֶה לָאָרֶץ.  (ו) וְהָיְתָה שַׁבַּת הָאָרֶץ לָכֶם לְאׇכְלָה לְךָ וּלְעַבְדְּךָ וְלַאֲמָתֶךָ וְלִשְׂכִירְךָ וּלְתוֹשָׁבְךָ הַגָּרִים עִמָּךְ.

(2) Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them, when you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a Shabbat to Hashem. (3) Six years you are to sow your field, and six years you are to prune your vineyard, and gather its produce.  (4) And in the seventh year there shall be a Shabbat Shabbaton for the land, a Shabbat to Hashem, you shall not sow your field and prune your vineyard.  (5) The aftergrowth of your harvest you are not to harvest, and the grapes of your consecrated vines you are not to amass, a year of rest shall be for the land.  (6) And the Shabbat of the land shall be for you for eating, for you, and for your servant, and for your handmaid, and for your employee, and for your resident settler who live with you.

What is the relationship between these differing portraits?

Shemittah and Exile

The importance of the observance of Shemittah is highlighted in Vayikra 26, where it is singled out in the blessings and curses as the root cause of the nation's ultimate exile:1

(לד) אָז תִּרְצֶה הָאָרֶץ אֶת שַׁבְּתֹתֶיהָ כֹּל יְמֵי הָשַּׁמָּה וְאַתֶּם בְּאֶרֶץ אֹיְבֵיכֶם אָז תִּשְׁבַּת הָאָרֶץ וְהִרְצָת אֶת שַׁבְּתֹתֶיהָ. (לה) כׇּל יְמֵי הָשַּׁמָּה תִּשְׁבֹּת אֵת אֲשֶׁר לֹא שָׁבְתָה בְּשַׁבְּתֹתֵיכֶם בְּשִׁבְתְּכֶם עָלֶיהָ.

Indeed, the final chapter of Divrei HaYamim records the unfortunate fulfillment of this striking admonition:

(כ) וַיֶּגֶל הַשְּׁאֵרִית מִן הַחֶרֶב אֶל בָּבֶל וַיִּהְיוּ לוֹ וּלְבָנָיו לַעֲבָדִים עַד מְלֹךְ מַלְכוּת פָּרָס. (כא) לְמַלֹּאות דְּבַר י"י בְּפִי יִרְמְיָהוּ עַד רָצְתָה הָאָרֶץ אֶת שַׁבְּתוֹתֶיהָ כׇּל יְמֵי הָשַּׁמָּה שָׁבָתָה לְמַלֹּאות שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה.

But of all of the Torah's cardinal prescriptions,2 why is the violation of Shemittah viewed with such severity and why does it have such enormous consequences?

To explore how commentators throughout the generations have understood the character and significance of the mitzvah of Shemittah, proceed to Approaches.