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The Sabbatical Year: Six Reasons

The Sabbatical Year: Six Reasons


Would you enjoy taking a full sabbatical every seven years? You could relax, travel, study, and spend quality time with your family. How would you like it if your entire country took a sabbatical every seventh year? Would you think that a good idea?

Farmers in Israel are required by Jewish law to keep Shemittah, letting their fields lie fallow for a full year, once every seven years.1 Why is this sabbatical ordered?

1) The Soil

The early philosophers saw Shemittah as an opportunity to rest and refresh the soil.2 However, this theory alone is insufficient, because the soil requires more frequent rests than once in seven years to be fully refreshed.3

2) A Macro-Shabbat

Others saw Shemittah as a larger-scale Shabbat. We rest on Shabbat to demonstrate that G‑d created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh. We similarly let the field lie fallow in the seventh year to demonstrate that G‑d rested on the seventh day.4

Later commentators rejected this theory, arguing that if Shemittah is intended to instill an awareness of G‑d as the Creator, its purpose is defeated by the long interval between the rest periods. The weekly Shabbat already serves this purpose, and with much shorter intervals. What does the Shemittah contribute that Shabbat does not accomplish?

3) Making Up for Six Years of Shabbats

In response, some argued that Shemittah enables the field to rest on Shabbat. It is true that we rest on Shabbat, but even as we rest, our fields continue to work. We plant on Friday, and the seeds germinate on Shabbat. During Shemittah, our fields make up for the lost Shabbats and festivals of the previous six years.5

There are fifty-two Shabbats in a solar calendar year. The total number of Shabbats over six years is 312. Seven festival days per year raise the total by another 42 (6 × 7) to 354, which is the precise number of days in the Shemittah, a lunar calendar year. Observing Shemittah for three hundred and fifty-four days, a full lunar calendar year, enables the field to “balance its accounts” and catch up with its owner in observing the full allotment of Shabbats over six years. 6

4) A Lesson in Faith and Humility

This argument notwithstanding, a new theory was later proposed. The laws of Shemittah were binding upon our ancestors only after they settled in Israel. When we toil and labor over crops that we grow, or other forms of income that we generate, we can grow proud of our achievements and take personal credit for them.7

We are liable to forget that G‑d’s blessing is the sole reason for our success. We are liable to forget that G‑d gave us our land and our seed; that He made the rain fall, the sun shine and the crops grow. Shemittah reinforces our faith in G‑d’s providence over our affairs.

We work the land for six consecutive years, although conventional wisdom dictates that this is unhealthy for the soil.8 In fact, the soil retains its strength and actually provides a larger crop in the sixth year to provide for the Shemittah year.9 Then we rest in the Shemittah year, despite natural misgivings and concerns about providing for our families.

This kind of behavior is a formula for disaster. Farmers who undertake this kind of work ethic should prepare for bankruptcy. Yet for Jews in Israel, it produces tremendous results. This reinforces our faith that the land belongs to G‑d, that our success flows directly from His blessing, and that we must be grateful to Him for everything we have.10

5) Unity

It is easy to share with others when we can afford to share, when we have a steady income and when we know how we will pay for tomorrow’s expenses. It is much more difficult to be charitable when we are unsure of what tomorrow holds. Landowners had no income during Shemittah, yet they would routinely abandon to the public all crops that grew spontaneously during Shemittah. In this way Shemittah enhanced Jewish unity.11

Outside of Israel, this phenomenon is evidenced in charitable contributions. Conventional wisdom dictates that the more we give, the less we retain. From G‑d’s perspective, however, the more we give, the more He blesses us. This is especially true when we give more than we can afford to give. Charity thus also strengthens our faith and our unity.

6) Liberation

The belief that the world belongs to G‑d and that our success depends on Him is a liberating notion. It enables us to release the burdens that we carry. We still toil, but we breathe easier. We still labor, but we sleep easier. We know that G‑d guides our footsteps and that everything happens for a good reason. We learn to see G‑d’s hand in everything we do, and His presence in everything we see.

This leads us to the final reason for Shemittah proposed by biblical commentators. 12The Talmud informs us that in the Holy Temple, the Levites sang G‑d’s praises every day. On Shabbat, the seventh day, they sang about the day of eternal rest, the messianic age.

The Talmud teaches that our world will last for six millennia. The first two were devoted to creation. The second two were devoted to Torah. The last two are devoted to Moshiach.13 Indeed, the Talmud tells us that in the seventh millennium, the world as we know it will cease to exist. It will become a world of freedom and of G‑dliness.14

Shemittah, the seventh year, like Shabbat, the seventh day, represents the messianic age. Our faith in G‑d is strengthened during Shemittah, just as it will be in the messianic age. Our unity is strengthened during Shemittah, just as Moshiach will usher in an age of peace. The sixth year is a year of plenty, just as Moshiach will usher in an age of prosperity.

The messianic age is most notably known for freedom. Indeed, the Shemittah is a year of emancipation, when all debts are cleared. May we soon merit the freedom of the messianic age.

Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 3:27; Sefer ha-Chinuch, mitzvah 84. See also Keli Yakar, Leviticus 25:2.
The Talmud often speaks of a two work year/one rest year formula. Today we refresh the soil through the use of fertilizers and crop rotation, but even today, letting the field lie fallow remains a viable solution to keeping the land productive.
Abarbanel, Leviticus 25:2.

Abarbanel offers an additional insight. Every year of the seven-year cycle is symbolic of a decade. The average lifespan is seventy years. Resting in the seventh year symbolizes that we must rest from heavy labor towards the end of our life and devote our remaining time to study and religious devotion. Of course, one must also utilize this time to guide the younger generation through the errors of youth.
One can argue that fruits from the sixth year continue to grow for the first few months of the Shemittah year. Yet it must be remembered that the Land of Israel was blessed in that its fruits ripened quickly.
Tif’eret Yehonatan (Rabbi Yonasan Eibeschutz, 1690–1764), Leviticus 25:2.

More on the particulars of Rabbi Yonasan’s calculation:

a) Though Jews follow the lunar calendar, a system of leap years was instituted to balance the two calendars. This means that over a larger number of years, the number of weeks in the lunar and solar calendar years will be equal.

b) The seven annual holidays are one day of Rosh Hashanah, the first day of Sukkot, the eighth day of Sukkot, the first day of Passover, the eighth day of Passover and the day of Shavuot. This number ignores the additional festival days that are added in the Diaspora.

c) There is no need to make up for the fifty-nine rest days of the seventh year, since the field lies fallow for the entire year. In this sense, the Shabbat and festival days of the Shemittah serve dual purposes. They make up for lost days, and they also provide for themselves.
This theory was developed by the later commentators, but the idea itself can be found in a number of eleventh- and thirteenth-century sources such as Rabbeinu Bechayei’s commentary on Leviticus 25:2, and Sefer ha-Chinuch.
See note 3.
Leviticus 25:21–22. The sixth-year crop actually provides for three years—the sixth, seventh and eighth—because we store for the first few months of the eighth year, until the new crops are harvested.
Keli Yakar, Leviticus 25:2. Keli Yakar further explains that this may be why the Torah specifies that the laws of Shemittah were given to Moses at Mount Sinai. Shemittah enhances our faith in G‑d and His providence over our affairs, and this faith is the foundation of the Torah. See Rashi and Nachmanides, Leviticus 25:1.
Ketav Sofer, Leviticus 25:2. Ketav Sofer makes a similar argument as in note 12, but he directs it to Jewish unity. The Torah was given to the Jews only after they were truly united (see Mechilta and Rashi on Exodus 19:2). This is because there are many commandments that can be fulfilled only by a certain segment of the Jewish population—for example, commandments that relate to kohanim and commandments that relate to homeowners. When we are truly united, the commandment performed by one is attributed to all. In this sense, Jewish unity is a prerequisite to Sinai, which explains why the Torah specifies that the laws of Shemittah were given at Sinai.
Nachmanides, Leviticus 25:2.
Talmud, Avodah Zarah 9a.
Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 31a.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, and a frequent contributor to The Judaism Website— He has lectured extensively on a variety of Jewish topics, and his articles have appeared in many print and online publications. For more on Rabbi Gurkow and his writings, visit
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Shaul Wolf January 5, 2015

Re: Shmittah begins at Rosh Hashanah, which is the beginning of the new year. All of the laws and prohibitions regarding Shmittah begin or are calculated in reference to Rosh Hashanah. Reply

Nondumiso Swaziland January 4, 2015

Very informative. Does shemittah year begin on Passover or Rosh haashana? What is the difference? Reply

Shoshana London, England April 28, 2013

thank you that was very thorough, learned and lucid...a great summary Reply

Shimon brooklyn May 7, 2010

very straight to the point! Reply

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