Shemittah: A Year of Torah Study by Zev Kahane


Parashat BeHar begins with the commandment of Shemittah, the commandment to rest the land every seven years.  The Torah describes the Shemittah year as a “Shabbat LaHashem” “A Shabbat to Hashem” (VaYikra 25:2)  Rashi explains that this phrase, “Shabbat LaHashem,” teaches us that the act of refraining from working the ground should be done for Hashem’s sake.  Although Rambam tells us that we are commanded to rest our fields in order to ultimately increase the field’s production, the Torah wants to emphasize that the main reason should simply be to follow Hashem’s word.

Ibn Ezra, however, understands the phrase “Shabbat LaHashem” differently.  He explains that the Torah uses this phrase in order to inform us that the Shemittah year should be “KeYom HaShabbat,” “Like the Sabbath.”  Ibn Ezra arrives at this conclusion by noticing the similarity between the phrase “Shabbat LaHashem” and a phrase which appears in the Torah’s description of Shabbat, namely “Kodesh LaHashem.”  Ibn Ezra explains that the Torah uses similar language in order to equate Shemittah with Shabbat; just as Shabbat is set aside for Torah study, Shemittah is also set aside as a sabbatical for Torah study.

The Talmud Yerushalmi teaches, that Shabbat and Yom Tov were given only for the purpose of learning Torah.  Similarly, the Midrash states, “When Yisrael entered Eretz Yisrael, the Torah asked HaKadosh Baruch Hu, ‘This person will be engrossed in his vineyard and this person will be engrossed in his field; of what importance will Torah be to them?’  Hashem replied, ‘For this reason I have given them Shabbat, so they can be engrossed in Torah.’” 

This is the same idea behind Shemittah.  For six years we are to work our fields.  The time consuming process of cultivating a field pulls us from the Beit Midrash, making it difficult to allot time to Torah study.  With so much focus on feeding one’s family, he can barely focus on learning Torah.  It is once every seven years, when we are required to drop our shovels, put down our reapers, and turn off our tractors, that we can turn towards the Beit Midrash and focus on Limud HaTorah.

Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida) takes this idea one step further to explain why Shemittah is specifically once every seven years.  Perhaps Hashem would want us to take a sabbatical every five years.  Chida answers this based on a Gemara (Berachot 35b) which states, “Rava would say to the Rabbis, ‘I beg of you, during the days of Nissan (the harvest) and the days of Tishrei (the time when grapes and olives are pressed), do not appear before me, so that you will not be preoccupied with your sustenance for the entire year.’”  In other words, Rava understood that if they neglected the opportunity to make a livelihood during those two months, they would not have the means to support themselves for the rest of the year.  For that reason, he urged his students not to enter the Beit Midrash during those two months.  Chida explains that after six years, the two month vacations from the Beit Midrash would add up to a year’s worth of absence from the Beit Midrash.  It is because those twelve months have accumulated that Hashem requires us to take a year off and focus on the Torah.

With this deeper understanding of Shemittah in mind, we can begin to appreciate the connection between Shemittah and Har Sinai.  Our Parashah begins, “VaYedabeir Hashem El Moshe BeHar Sinai,” “Hashem spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai” (VaYikra 25:1), and continues with the commandment of Shemittah.  Rashi wonders what connection exists between Shemittah and Har Sinai.

Perhaps the Torah is alluding to the very purpose of Shemittah: to learn the Torah that was given on Har Sinai.  Without an obligation to learn Torah, there would be no purpose in observing the Shemittah year.  For this reason, the commandment to observe Shemittah comes directly on the heels of Matan Torah.

As we count the forty-nine days of the Omer, we continue to near Zeman Matan Torateinu; during these days, we must strengthen our Limud HaTorah and prepare ourselves for Zeman Matan Torah.  Although we generally associate Pesach with redemption, the true redemption did not come until we received the Torah on Shavuot.  May it be the will of HaKadosh Baruch Hu that by internalizing the message of Shemittah, as we approach Shavuot, Zeman Matan Torateinu, we strengthen our study of Torah and through this study witness the true Geulah.

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