Parshas Behar – The Sanctity of Shmitta

The Torah states, “When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest 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 Sabbath for Hashem; your field you shall not sow…” Photo Credit: Wikipedia

By: Rabbi Yosef Kalatsky

  1. The Hidden Meaning of Mitzvos

Regarding the mitzvah of Lulav, the four species taken on Sukkos, the Torah states, “U’lecachtem L’chem – you shall take them for yourself.” The Midrash Tanchuma cites a verse from Mishlei (Proverbs) “Listen my son and take for yourself My statements (mitzvos)…” The Midrash explains that when Hashem says, “take for yourself” it means, “I (Hashem) have commanded you in many instances to bring you merit.”

The Midrash continues that when the Torah commands the Jew to “take for himself” it is something that is for his own benefit. As it is stated, “You shall take for yourself the Red Heifer.” One may think that G-d wants the Jew to take the Red Heifer for His sake. To this Hashem commands the Jew to take the Red Heifer only so that through it he can be purified from the contamination of the dead. It is only in the best interest of the Jew that he is to “take the Red Heifer.” Also regarding the building of the Mishkan the Torah states, “Take for Me Terumah…Make for me a Sanctuary so that I may dwell in your midst.” Hashem commanded the Jewish people to build the Mikdash not for His own sake but rather so that He may be close to them- which is in their best interest.

The Torah states regarding the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah (candelabra), “And you shall take for yourself pure olive oil to kindle a continuous light.” It is not that Hashem needs your light but it is only to protect your neshama (soul). The soul is compared to the light- as it is stated, “The light of Hashem is the soul of man.”

The Torah states regarding the four species, “And you shall take for yourself …” Meaning, “It is not that I (Hashem) need your species but rather to bring merit to the Jewish people.” On the festival of Sukkos, the Jew is commanded to take four species (Esrog, Lulav, Hadas (myrtle), Aravah (willow)); only some of these produce fruit.

The “Esrog” (citron) symbolizes tzaddikim (righteous) who possess good deeds. The willow represents Jews who are in the middle of the road vis-à-vis their good deeds and Torah. Hashem says, “All of you together should bind yourself into one bond so that there should not be impurity (something of no value) among you. If you shall do this, I shall be elevated upon you.” When is Hashem elevated? When the Jews are united.

Holding the four species in one bond represents the unity of the Jewish People. When the Jewish people are united as one, there will be no individual who will be singled out as “non-essential or unworthy.” Thus, even those who are individually failing vis-à-vis their spirituality will not be distinguished as such because they are part of the Jewish people as a whole. Thus, Hashem’s people, being so special will cause Him to be elevated and exalted.

The mitzvos of the Torah are intended to enhance, protect, and develop the spirituality of the Jew. Taking the pure olive oil for the kindling of the Menorah, taking the many materials that were needed for the building of the Mishkan (taking Terumah), and taking the Red Heifer are only examples given by the Midrash of mitzvos that are beneficial and have positive consequences to the Jew. One may ask, “What is the significance of binding together four species of vegetation and fruit? What benefit could such an act have?” To this, the Midrash explains that the purpose of Creation is to give praise to Hashem – as it is stated, “I have created it (existence) for My Glory.” The symbolism of taking the lulav in its appropriate time represents the unification of the Jewish people, which elevates Hashem. Thus the taking the four species is in effect fulfilling the objective of creation, which is bringing Honor to Hashem. It is through this honor that a Jew develops and advances his own spirituality.


  1. Appreciating the Value of the Sabbatical Year

When the Jews were about to enter the Land of Israel, Moshe communicated the mitzvah of Shmitta (Sabbatical year- seventh year) to them. The Torah states, “When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest 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 Sabbath for Hashem; your field you shall not sow…” Sforno explains that Moshe told them about Shmitta because he thought they were about to enter the land. However, because of the sin of the spies (who slandered the Land) they wandered the desert and were delayed for forty years. Why did Moshe communicate the laws of the Sabbatical Year (Shmitta) before they entered the land? The Sabbatical year was not meant to occur until the seventh year – which would have given Moshe six years to communicate the laws.

Sforno explains that Moshe communicated the mitzvah of Shmitta at this time because the Jews’ right to remain in the Land was contingent upon the adherence to its laws. If they were to transgress this mitzvah it would cause them to be exiled from the Land. Chazal tell us that the reason the Jewish people experienced a 70-year exile in Babylon was because they had violated 70 Sabbatical years. Thus, in order secure the Land, Moshe needed to communicate the laws of Shmitta at this particular moment.

The Torah tells us that the Jew is obligated to redeem the first male offspring of the donkey (pidyon chamor). The donkey is to be redeemed with a sheep that is given to the Kohen; however, if the owner chooses not to redeem it, then its neck is broken. It is interesting to note that the special status of the first-born is limited to Kosher species – with the exception of the donkey. Chazal explain that the donkey, although it is a non-Kosher species, has a special status regarding sanctity – thus requiring redemption. When the Jewish people left Egypt, the donkey was used as the pack animal (beast of burden) to transport all of the wealth that the Jews had borrowed out of Egypt.

Hashem had promised Avraham our Patriarch, at the time of the Covenant Between the Parts, that when the Jewish people would complete their exile they would leave with great wealth. Had it not been for the donkey, the Jewish people would not have been able to transport the wealth that had been promised to them. Thus, the donkey was integral for the fulfillment of G-d’s Promise. The donkey itself was a factor in bringing about this Kiddush Hashem (Sanctification of G-d’s Name). Therefore, the first-born donkey, although being a non-Kosher species, assumed a status of kiddusha (holiness).

The Midrash tells us that even the most ordinary Jew left Egypt with 40 pack animals laden with wealth. After the Jewish people left Egypt, they spent 40 years wandering the desert. Other than the material that was needed to build the Mishkan their material wealth had no value in the desert.

During the forty-year trek in the desert, Hashem provided the Jewish people with all their physical needs (Manna, the wellspring, and the Clouds of Glory for protection). Although the Jewish people possessed enormous wealth, they understood that their belongings had no relevance or value vis-à-vis their existence in the desert. They had been conditioned over this period with the fundamental principle of “it is not on bread alone that man lives, but it is rather through the Word of Hashem that man lives.” Material wealth is only the physical means and conduit through which beracha (blessing) is manifested. It is not in itself the source of blessing. Success only comes to an individual because it is the Will of G-d. This was the lesson that the Jews had learned in the desert.

Upon entering the Promised Land, each individual received his own tract of land. It was possible that over time one could forget the fundamental lesson learned during the desert period. One could come to believe (especially through his own successes) that he is the master of his own destiny. Thus, there would be no beholdeness to Hashem. Therefore, before entering into the Land, Moshe communicated to the Jewish people the mitzvah of Shmitta to establish the proper perspective regarding one’s rights vis-à-vis occupying the land. In essence, the Jewish people were the equivalent of tenant farmers. They had to adhere to the bylaws of the agreement, which was to leave the land fallow in the seventh year.

The Gemara in Tractate Rosh Hashanah cites a verse, “The Eyes of Hashem oversee the Land of Israel from the beginning of the year until the end of the year.” The Gemara explains that the Land of Israel is unlike any other land in that it does not give forth its bounty without the direct intervention of G-d. Hashem placed the Jewish people in a physical environment that makes the need of His Presence and involvement obvious. He provides the Jew all of the indicators to understand and appreciate that if he follows the path of Torah, he will then be blessed with bounty.

Ramban explains that from the time the Jews entered the land of Israel, only non-idolaters have been able to remain in the Land and draw from its bounty. As we see, only at the beginning of the 20th Century when the Jews returned to the Land did it again begin to give forth its blessing. Every other location on Earth produces bounty regardless of who occupies it. Why is it the case that the blessing in the Land of Israel is dependent on the worthiness of its occupants?

The Gemara tells us that Hashem provides the Jew with the solution before He brings the problem. Since the beracha (blessing) of the Land of Israel is dependent on the deservingness of the Jewish people, thus the success or failing of the Jew will indicate whether he is meeting the Torah standard that was prescribed to him. This reality will enable the Jew to make the necessary corrections.

Hashem gave the mitzvah of Shmitta in order to allow even the simple farmer to take the time to address and reflect upon his spirituality. As Sforno explains, for six years the farmer works his land but on the seventh (Shmitta) he is to devote his time to spirituality and the study of Torah. He is to contemplate the fact that Hashem is the Creator. It is only by observing the Shmitta in the seventh year that the preceding six years of labor will be blessed with bounty.


  1. The Difficulty of Dealing with One’s Ego

The Torah tells us regarding the mitzvah of Shmitta that the land is to be worked for six years, but must be left fallow on the seventh year (Sabbatical year). In the Sabbatical year, one is not permitted to engage in agricultural activities and must leave all the produce of the field ownerless. During the Shmitta year, any individual Jew and non-Jew alike are permitted to enter into the fields and vineyards and partake of their produce.

The Midrash Tanchuma cites a verse from Tehillim (Psalms), “Bless Hashem His angels mighty in strength (geborei koach) who do His bidding to obey the voice of His word.” The Midrash explains that the geborei koach (those of enormous strength) is referring to the Jewish people who had declared at Sinai “Naaseh V’nishma – we will do and we will listen.” Another opinion cited by the Midrash is that the geborei koach are those who observe the mitzvah of Shmitta (Sabbatical year).



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here