The commandment of shmita stands at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Behar. Every seven years, the farmer must abandon his field work, desert his crops, and relate to the land as though it were property that belonged to the public and to which he has no additional rights over anyone else.
This is how the Torah states it: “When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest a Sabbath to the Lord.
“You may sow your field for six years, and for six years you may prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce, But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest, a Sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field, nor shall you prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest, and you shall not pick the grapes you had set aside [for yourself], [for] it shall be a year of rest for the land. And [the produce of] the Sabbath of the land shall be yours to eat for you, for your male and female slaves, and for your hired worker and resident who live with you, And all of its produce may be eaten [also] by your domestic animals and by the beasts that are in your land.” (Leviticus 25, 2-7) This unique mitzva changes everything regarding the gaps among various economic classes. Though it only occurs during the seventh year, its purpose is to affect man’s perspective about his possessions and financial state also during the other six years.
The farmer, who is used to relating to his land as his source of abundance and livelihood, becomes – for one year – completely equal to everyone else. During this year, he is a guest on his own land, just like all other guests. He does not nurture his land, and he takes from it as do others.
This seems to be the place to examine Judaism’s perspective on accumulation of wealth and the human desire that leads to it. From a great many sources we can see that in general, there is a positive outlook on a developed economy based on the desire for wealth. For example, when the Temple stood, the High Priest would recite a special prayer said at the high point of Yom Kippur, immediately upon exiting the Holy of Holies, whose main theme was the nation’s economic success (Talmud Yerushalmi, Tractate Yoma, Chapter 5). Likewise, the sages of the Mishna stated, “If there is no flour – there is no Torah” (Tractate Avot, Chapter 3). We know that Judaism’s concept of everything relating to economic classes is far from that of Communism.
The Torah is concerned, however, that a financially successful person should not see himself as having more rights than the general public, and specifically not the weaker segments of it.
The Torah created the necessary balance, among other ways, via the mitzva of shmita.
Every seventh year, there was no practical significance to being a person of means, and in the ancient world, most assets were attained through working the land. This affected society as a whole also during the other six years. Every seventh year, the poor and the rich stood in the same line. This changed the perspective of the rich man as well as that of the poor one.
It is always amazing to discover that the Torah, written more than 3,000 years ago, dealt with values that Western society discovered only in recent centuries. And the Torah created a socioeconomic system that dealt with social issues that are naturally created as a result of economic inequality.
Next year, the year 5775 (2014/15), is a shmita year. Farmers who support themselves through working the land will need directives on how to fulfill this commandment nowadays. For those who do not work in agriculture – which is most of us – there is occasionally practical significance to ways of taking care of private gardens, etc. The Chief Rabbinate, as well as rabbis in every town and city, is available to assist and advise. But even for those people for whom shmita has no practical implications in their daily lives, this mitzva carries great ideological significance regarding our relationship to wealth, poverty, social inequalities and, in general – our relationship to others and to their economic standing.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.