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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Shemittah 1989

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

In this week’s parsha we learn about the mitzva of shmita. This seems to be a very difficult mitzva to perform. If, for example, someone decides to observe the mitzva of tefillin, that will only keep him busy a few minutes each morning. Keeping kosher is a bit more complicated, but also not really so hard. But shmita—that’s a different ballgame. To keep the land fallow for a whole year, every seventh (Sabbatical) year! We might well understand that a farmer in the Land of Israel (to whom this mitzva would apply) could become nervous about this. The Torah seems to anticipate this problem, by saying: “And if you say: What shall we eat on the seventh year? ... “ (Levit. 25:20), and then reassuring the reader that there will be a miracle on the sixth year, with enough produce to last for three years.

Now we know that the Torah is an eternal document, intended for all time. So we must suppose that this question would be asked repeatedly, before every shmita period. But that is strange! Why should someone ask the same question every seven years? The first time, it is understandable—It is a totally new experience. Even the second time—the farmer might suspect that the miracle on the first occasion was just a coincidence. But the third time? And the fourth time? And always thereafter?

What makes this stranger is that the farmers who were originally responsible for observing the shmita had just arrived in the Land of Israel from the Desert, and had witnessed many miracles. Why should they have been sceptical at all? For indeed, many of us have the feeling that if we were to witness an actual miracle, we would no longer be sceptical about the divine claims of the Torah.

To compound this problem, Rashi explains that the length of the exile between the First and Second Temples, seventy years, was equal to the seventy Sabbatical years that that the Jews had ignored before then! So we must infer that ignoring the shmita was widespread among early generations, so much closer than we are to the Exodus from Egypt and the wanderings in the Desert, with all their attendant miracles! How can we explain all this?

The answer is, I think, very simple. People are induced to perform mitzvos not from external forces—even miracles—but from within themselves.

There is a midrash that our Forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, observed the Torah without actually receiving it. We may assume that on some level they understood what it contained. We may ask: Why did they not receive the Torah? Or (the other side of the same question) why did the generation of the Exodus receive it? I believe the answer is that the Forefathers did not actually need the written document—they were on a sufficiently high level to make that unnecessary—but that the generation of the Exodus did need it—in spite of all the miracles it had experienced.

About one century ago the Chofetz Chaim published his classics: “Chofetz Chaim” and “Shmiras HaLoshon”, on the laws against “loshon hora” (slander). This was the first time in history that a book on this important topic had been published! Why is this? I believe that this was the first time that such books were really necessary—people’s behavior in matters of slander had deteriorated so much!

There is a similar situation with regard to the “mussar movement” of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter about a century ago. Mussar (the study morals or ethics) did not suddenly become important—such issues were always important! But I believe that that was the first time that mussar was ignored so widely, so that a “mussar movement” actually became necessary.

All this shows that they only way to follow the Torah is by internalizing it. External factors alone—even miracles—cannot work in place of that.

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