One of the longest-standing, most complicated, and ideologically driven halakhic debates since the turn of the Twentieth Century, Heter Mechira, has surrounded one of the most oft-repeated mitzvoth in the Torah, Shemitta. Once every seven years, the Torah commands us to leave all of our fields fallow and provide economic privilege to the poor and the hungry, and demands that we make cessions on owed monies. Ostensibly an economic plan almost certain to fail, Shemitta is one of the most challenging mitzvoth in the Torah. As is often the case in the realm of personal finances and economic endeavors, the tensile balance between emunah/bitachon and hishtadlut is palpable during the Shemitta year. As such, it is no coincidence that God addressed the inevitable faith-struggle, preemptively promising increased produce to avoid financial losses:
וְכִי תֹאמְרוּ מַה־נֹּאכַל בַּשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת הֵן לֹא נִזְרָע וְלֹא נֶאֱסֹף אֶת־תְּבוּאָתֵנוּ׃ וְצִוִּיתִי אֶת־בִּרְכָתִי לָכֶם בַּשָּׁנָה הַשִּׁשִּׁית וְעָשָׂת אֶת־הַתְּבוּאָה לִשְׁלֹשׁ הַשָּׁנִים׃ וּזְרַעְתֶּם אֵת הַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁמִינִת וַאֲכַלְתֶּם מִן־הַתְּבוּאָה יָשָׁן עַד הַשָּׁנָה הַתְּשִׁיעִת עַד־בּוֹא תְּבוּאָתָהּ תֹּאכְלוּ יָשָׁן׃
And if ye shall say: ‘What shall we eat the seventh year? behold, we may not sow, nor gather in our increase’; then I will command My blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth produce for the three years. And ye shall sow the eighth year, and eat of the produce, the old store; until the ninth year, until her produce come in, ye shall eat the old store.
Much like Shemitta appears to the contemporary non-farmer, one of the most under-appreciated challenges of Jewish life is the commandment to observe Shabbos. In an era of relative wealth and in societies and cultures where a one or two day hiatus from one’s job is the social and economic norm, Shabbos is seen as a welcome respite rather than an economic loss. In reality, though, Shabbos is an incredible economic challenge; cessation from one’s work and obligated spending1 perforce means economic loss. In fact, even if one were to observe Shabbos and not actively participate in business ordeals, any money earned is assur.
As the economic loss of a missed day of work casts a shadow over the inherent holiness of the day, the Talmud, much like God’s promise of three-fold produce in the sixth year of the Shemitta cycle, assures that there will be no financial losses as a result of observing Shabbos:
כל מזונותיו של אדם קצובים לו מראש השנה ועד יום הכפורים חוץ מהוצאת שבתות והוצאת י"ט והוצאת בניו לתלמוד תורה שאם פחת פוחתין לו ואם הוסיף מוסיפין לו
The entire foods [income] of a person is set for him from Rosh Hashana until [the next] Yom Kippur, except for the expenses of Shabbat, and the expense of Yom Tov [Holidays], and the expense of sending his children to Talmud Torah [Yeshiva]. If he reduces, it will be reduced for him; if he increases it will be increased for him.
Even only a superficial reading of the aforementioned Scriptural and Talmudic sources reveals that there is a special quality to both Shabbos and the Shemitta year that is meant to be realized and actualized in those times, such that any constraints — financial constraints chief among them — on the realization/actualization of said quality must be removed. In Rambam’s terms, the promise of extra produce and assurance of not having any net loss from Shemitta and Shabbos respectively would be called “hasar ha’monim”, roughly translated as “removal of obstacles or constraints2.
The Special Quality
What is the special quality of the Shemitta year and the day of Shabbos that must be realized and actualized?
In the introduction to his sefer on Hilchot Shemitta, Shabbat Ha’aretz, R. Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook writes that a Jew’s innate Divine quality and spiritual predisposition, which he terms “segula” (and what Chasidic tradition and folklore calls the “pintele yid”), cannot be revealed or actualized amidst the material pursuits of our daily lives. Rather, one must periodically take time to “shake off” the foreign influences that take hold of him and realign himself with his self. That is, to realign himself with the elevated spiritual goals that must characterize an individual oriented towards the Divine, as a sort of spiritual interlude into one’s week, if you will, thereby bringing to the fore his innate Divine quality. In this way, Shabbos is an "אות", as it reveals his innate capacity and need to engage in sincere Avodas HaShem. For the individual, R. Kook writes, this time is Shabbos.
Characteristically turning his focus from the individual to the national, R. Kook writes that Shemitta has the same effect on the nation — which he takes for granted as having a metaphysical quality beyond being a conglomeration of individuals — as Shabbos has on the individual. Whereas an individual must distance himself from the preoccupations of his daily life on Shabbos, the nation must distance itself from the socioeconomic realities of economic competition, financial obligation, and social injustice during the Shemitta year. Because using the land’s produce for commercial purposes is forbidden, individual debts are forgiven, and fruit is considered hefker3 during the Shemitta year, the social arrangement of the Jewish nation turns from one that (unfortunately) allows for a framework for competition and immoral economic practice to one that is the height of morality and charity. During the Shemitta year, the social fabric of the nation transforms, and the true character of the Jewish people is revealed, as the nation becomes (re)oriented towards the Divine.
Although he does not explicitly say so, R. Kook undoubtedly holds that the prime medium for achieving spiritual elevation on Shabbos and during the Shemitta year is talmud Torah. Surely, as R. Kook makes clear, other forms of action (or inaction) will have an elevating effect on an individual, as his moral sensitivities are heightened through improved interpersonal relationships. But since the destruction of the Second Bet Hamikdash, and the suspension of nevua and korbanot, the most direct way to tap into spirituality and foster a sustained commitment to Torah practice and belief is through the communion with the “mind of God” that is achieved by immersing oneself in rigorous study of God’s word in its various forms.
Regardless of the specific medium employed to achieve spiritual elevation and commitment to Avodas HaShem, the clear implication of R. Kook’s understanding of the meaning of Shabbos and Shemitta is that both will effect change in the individual and nation respectively. The revelation and realization of one’s innate spiritual dimensions and redoubled commitment to Torah and mitzvoth induced by the once-weekly and once-every-seven-year “vacation” will carry over for the rest of the week and rest of the Shemitta cycle.
As has been established, Shabbos is analogous to Shemitta, as they both have the same effects, but on different levels of the social stratosphere in different increments of time. R. Yehuda HaLevi, author of the Kuzari, explains Tefilla in a similar, yet more local vein:
שאין תפלת החסיד דבר שבמנהג או שבהרגל כשירת הזרזיר והתכי כל מלה מחשבה עמה וכונה בה בדרך זו תהיה שעת התפלה לחסיד כגרעין הזמן ופריו ושאר השעות תהיינה לו כדרכים המוליכות אל שעה זו שלבואה הוא מצפה כי על ידה הוא מדמה אל העצמים הרוחניים ומתרחק מן הבהמיים...
“…does not speak in prayer in a mere mechanical way as the starling and the parrot, but every word is uttered thoughtfully and attentively. This moment forms the heart and fruit of his time, whilst the other hours represent the way which leads to it. He looks forward to its approach, because while it lasts he resembles the spiritual beings, and is removed from merely animal existence…”
והנה ערך כל אלה לנפש הוא כערך המזון לגוף שכן תפלת האדם טובה לנפשו כשם שהמזון תועלת לגופו וכן ברכת כל תפלה שורה על האדם עד שעת תפלה שאחריה כשם שכח הסעדה שסעד מתקים בו עד שיסעד סעדת לילה אולם ככל אשר תתרחק שעת התפלה תלך הנפש הלוך וקדור מטרדות העולם הבאות עליה וביחוד אם יביאנה ההכרח להמצא בחברת ילדים נשים או אנשים רעים ולשמע דברים העוכרים זך נפשו דבורים מגנים או שירים שהנפש נוחה אחריהם עד שאי אפשר להשתלט עליה אך בשעת התפלה מטהר האדם את נפשו מכל מה שעבר עליה בינתים ומכין אותה לקראת העתיד...
“All this stands in the same relation to the soul as food to the human body. Prayer is for his soul what nourishment is for his body. The blessing of one prayer lasts till the time of the next, just as the strength derived from the morning meal lasts till supper. The further his soul is removed from the time of prayer, the more it is darkened by coming in contact with worldly matters. The more so, as necessity brings it into the company of youths, women, or wicked people; when one hears unbecoming and soul-darkening words and songs which exercise an attraction for his soul which he is unable to master. During prayer he purges his soul from all that passed over it, and prepares it for the future.”
According to R. Yehuda HaLevi, Teffila in its most pristine state ensures that one will not fall prey to forces that will challenge his spirituality, carrying an individual through his day as he “regains the eternal verities of the higher life…” and purifies, enlightens, and uplifts his inner self “to the recognition of the Most High and our duties towards Him in truth” much like Shabbos does weekly and Shemitta does for the nation once every seven years.
Casual questions of “How was davening?” or “How was your Shabbos?” should not be met with responses such as, “The shaliach tzibbur dragged out kedusha” or “I had a great meal Friday night!” As R. Mayer Schiller writes4, questions of this sort are “compelling exhortation to some serious cheshbon ha’nefesh.” We must ask ourselves: how have we emerged from these periods of time in terms of our spiritual growth and commitment to Torah and Avodas Hashem? Have we realized the potential of these special times?