Joel Cohen’s Question:

The Land of Israel belongs to G‑d, not us. I get it.

I also get that G‑d wants us to remember that immutable fact of His ownership of the Land—underscoring it by ordering that the Land remain fallow every seven years. There’s nothing to remind a farmer or property owner that “his” land is not really his like telling him, when he wants to plant in the seventh year, “Not so fast!”

But there’s more to the Shemittah (Sabbatical year) story. G‑d tells us that, given their periodic injunction against sowing and harvesting crops, the people may say, “What will we eat in the seventh year?” The answer? G‑d will “ordain” His blessing in the sixth year, and the Land will yield a crop sufficient for three years; the farmers will sow in the eighth year, and until that year’s crop is harvested—in the ninth year—they will still eat from the sixth year’s crop.

This is awfully hard to accept. G‑d is essentially foretelling for us the future’s agricultural reality: for every cycle of seven years, during the sixth year a crop will be harvested sufficient for the public’s consumption for three years—a biblical Farmer’s Almanac, as it were.

Really? Am I to understand that since the time that our ancestors “landed” in the Promised Land forty years following the Exodus, when the rules of Shemittah began, this foretelling by G‑d has always been an agricultural reality?

And if not so, what should one make of His foretelling?

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, your question this week is a good one, and the answer, I believe, relates not only to the laws of Shemittah but to the entire Jewish belief system.

The world that the Torah addressed was an agricultural world, one in which the vast majority of the people owned fields and, through the produce that the fields produced, they fed their families and traded for those things that their own fields did not produce. Therefore, the prohibition of Shemittah, of not working your field during the seventh year, must have been the most frightening of all 613 commandments. Basically, the people were being told that they would make no money every seven years.

How does a Jewish community committed to the word of G‑d and His Torah react to such a prohibition? Or, maybe the question should be asked whether G‑d wanted the people to suffer so much as to be without income for entire year. It is in this vein that we can understand the Torah’s description of the Shemittah year. Don’t worry, G‑d tells the people, there is a prohibition against working the field every seven years. However, I promise, says G‑d, that I will allow the fields to produce enough in the sixth year to cover three years. G‑d tells the people not to worry. He will take care of the people, and they will not suffer due to the Shemittah prohibitions.

However, if the Jews will not suffer due to Shemittah, why bother with the prohibitions? Is it merely a game of symbolic gestures on both sides? Here, I believe, is the essence of Shemittah and its importance in the corpus of Jewish religion. G‑d promises that the Shemittah year will not adversely affect the people. Yet, did the people always believe G‑d? Sometimes, when things are going well, you are more prone to accept G‑d’s promise. Yet, in times when things are going poorly, you may doubt G‑d’s promise. Therefore, the Torah tells us that Shemittah falls very seven years regardless of how things are going. It is our job every seven years to reaffirm our faith and trust in G‑d, regardless of what is going on around us. That is the lesson of Shemittah that applies to this very day.

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

After browsing through pages and pages of Bible commentaries, from medieval to contemporary, I can say with certainty that the answer to your question is: yes, it means exactly that. To quote you: “G‑d is essentially foretelling for us the future’s agricultural reality: that is, for every cycle of seven years, during the sixth year a crop will be harvested sufficient for the public’s consumption for three years.”

This is perhaps the reason why later in this week’s (double) Torah portion, when G‑d speaks of the punishments that will befall the Jews because of their disobedience, the only sin singled out for notable mention is the abandonment of the Sabbatical year. “Then the Land will be appeased regarding its sabbaticals. During all the days that it remains desolate while you are in the land of your enemies, the Land will rest and thus appease its sabbaticals” (Leviticus 26:34). In my humble opinion—and apparently, Joel, you concur—this is the most difficult of G‑d’s promises to swallow and act upon. But He really means it, and that’s why He is so disturbed by the lack of trust.

(It is important to note that there are two ways of explaining how this miracle will play out. While some explain that the sixth year will yield triple the natural amount of produce, R. Chaim ibn Attar (1696–1743, Morocco and Jerusalem), author of the Ohr HaChaim commentary on the Torah, explains that the actual harvest will be the same, but the crop will miraculously replenish itself, much like the story related in I Kings 17:16, when “the pitcher of flour did not end, nor did the flask of oil diminish.”)

I would like to share the following story, which I found on our site, of a modern-day Shemittah miracle. The names and places are authentic, so this story can be verified by anyone who’d like:

My name is Dov Weiss, and I was one of a group of about thirty young men who started the moshav (agricultural settlement) of Komemiyut, in the south of Israel. It was in 1950, after we had completed our army service. I was still a bachelor then. Among the founders was also the well-known Torah scholar and rabbinical authority, Rabbi Binyamin Mendelson, of blessed memory. He had previously immigrated to Israel from Poland, and had served as the rabbi of Kfar Ata.

At first we lived in tents, in the middle of a barren wilderness. The nearest settlements to ours were several kibbutzim associated with the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement: Gat, Gilon and Negba. Several of our members supported themselves by working at Kibbutz Gat, the closest to us, doing different types of manual labor. Others worked in our fields, planting wheat, barley, rye, and other grains and legumes. I myself drove a tractor. Our produce, which grew throughout the 15,000 or so dunams (nearly 4000 acres) allotted us, we sold to bakeries and factories.

At that time, there were not yet water pipes reaching our moshav. We had to content ourselves with what could be grown in dry, rugged fields. Every few days we would make a trip to Kibbutz Negba, about 20 kilometers distant, to fill large containers with drinking water.

The second year we were there, 5712 on the Jewish calendar (1951–52), was the Shemittah year, which comes every seventh year, in which the Torah commands to desist from all agricultural work. We were among the very few settlements in Israel at the time to observe the laws of the Sabbatical year and refrain from working the land. Instead we concentrated on building, and succeeded that year in completing much of the permanent housing. The moshav gradually developed and expanded, and more and more families moved in, as well as a number of young singles. By the end of the year we numbered around eighty people.

As the Sabbatical year drew to its completion, we prepared to renew our farming activities. For this we required seed to sow crops, but for this purpose we could use only wheat from the sixth year, the year that preceded the Shemittah, for the produce of the seventh year is forbidden for this type of use. We went around to all the agricultural settlements in the area, near and far, seeking good quality seed from the previous years’ harvest, but no one could fulfill our request.

All we were able to find was some old wormy seed that, for reasons that were never made clear to us, was lying around in a storage shed in Kibbutz Gat. No farmer in his right mind anywhere in the world would consider using such poor quality seed to plant with, not if he expected to see any crops from it. The kibbutzniks at Gat all burst into loud derisive laughter when we revealed that we were actually interested in this infested grain that had been rotting away for a few years in some dark, murky corner.

“If you really want it, you can take all that you like, and for free, with our compliments,” they offered in amusement.

We consulted with Rabbi Mendelson. His response was: “Take it. The One who tells wheat to sprout from good seed can also order it to grow from inferior wormy leftover seed as well.”

In any case, we didn’t have an alternative. So we loaded all the old infested seed that the kibbutz had offered to us free of charge onto a tractor, and returned to Komemiyut.

The laws of Shemittah forbade us to plow and turn over the soil till after Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the eighth year, so we didn’t actually sow the seed until sometime in November. This was two or three months after all the other farmers had already completed their planting.

That year, the rains were late in coming. The farmers from all the kibbutzim and moshavot gazed upward longingly for the first rain. They began to feel desperate, but the heavens were unresponsive, remaining breathlessly still and blue.

Finally it rained. When? The day after we completed planting our thousand dunams of wheat fields with those wormy seeds, the sky opened up and the rains exploded down to saturate the parched earth.

The following days we were nervous in anticipation, but we turned our attention to strengthening our faith and trust in G‑d. Anyway, it did not take a long time for the hand of the Almighty to be revealed clearly to all. Those wheat fields that were planted during the seventh year, months before the first rain, sprouted only small and weak crops. At the same time, our fields, sowed with the old infested seed and long after the appropriate season, were covered with an unusually large and healthy yield of wheat, in comparison to any standard.

The story of “the miracle at Komemiyut” spread quickly. Farmers from all the agricultural settlements in the region came to see with their own eyes what they could not believe when they heard the rumors about it.

When the farmers from Kibbutz Gat arrived, they pulled a surprise on us. After absorbing the sight of the bountiful quantity of wheat flourishing in our fields, they announced they wanted payment for the tractor-load of old rotten wheat they had scornfully given us for free only a short time before.

Even more startling: they said they would file a claim against us at a beit din, a rabbinical court, and with Rabbi Mendelson himself, no less! They must have figured that in a secular court, such a claim wouldn’t have even the slightest possible chance of gaining them a single penny.

Rabbi Mendelson accepted their case seriously, and in the end judged that we should pay them. He explained that the reason they gave it for free was because they thought it worthless for planting, while in truth it really was excellent for that purpose. We were astonished to hear his ruling, but needless to say, we complied.

The whole story became an extraordinary kiddush Hashem (glorification of G‑d) in the eyes of Jews across the country. Everyone agreed it was a clear fulfillment of G‑d’s promise in the Torah (Leviticus 25):

Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruit. But in the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath for G‑d . . .

If you shall say: “What shall we eat in the seventh year? Behold, we shall not sow, nor gather in our produce!” I will command My blessing upon you . . .