Parashat B'har

The Mitzvah of Shemitah

The concept of the sabbatical year reveals the awesome splendor of God's earth.

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Before the sin of Adam and Eve, the earth provided sustenance not through the plotting and plowing of people, but rather through prayer. In the Talmud, the Sage Rav Assi explains that vegetation did not break through the earth until Adam came along and prayed to God to have mercy on the earth. The rains fell and the earth sprouted (Hullin 60b).

The removal of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil can be interpreted as a decision to derive pleasure from God's earth without paying attention to the consequences. As a result, humankind's working of the land was no longer within the context of safeguarding it. And thus, the earth was cursed, sprouting thorns and thistles, only giving forth its fruit by the sweat of one's brow.

The Shemitah Rules

The commandment of Shemitah (the sabbatical year) in the portion of B'har enables a return to the ideal relationship between humankind and creation. The laws relating to the Shemitah year are numerous and complex, but there are four general commandments in the Torah from which they are derived.

The first commandment is that the land should rest, as it says "and the land shall rest a Shabbat to Hashem (Leviticus 25:2)." Though this commandment is directed at the land, it is humanity's responsibility to return all of creation to proper relationship with God. When we refrain from planting, pruning, plowing, harvesting, or any other form of working the land, the land is allowed to rest and move towards achieving the union of Shabbat.

The second commandment is to declare all seventh-year produce hefker--ownerless and free for all to take and enjoy. The third general commandment is to sanctify all seventh-year produce. We are prohibited to do any business whatsoever with the produce and obligated to ensure that it is consumed properly and equitably and does not go to waste. The fourth commandment requires us to absolve all loans from one Jew to another in the seventh year.

Moving Away from Materialism

The conscious and meticulous observance of these laws and their rabbinic application can expand our awareness of the true nature of reality. The mandated abstinence from attempting to physically and commercially control the land and the positive commandment to give up all sense of ownership of its produce can free us from the enslavement of the constant pursuit of material goods and the idolatrous illusion that material things serve as a testament to our existence.

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Noam Yehuda Sendor is studying for rabbinic ordination at the Bat Ayin Yeshiva in Israel.