The Mitzvah of Shmita: The Unity of the Jewish People

It is written, “For six years you may sow your field, and for six years you may prune your vineyard…but the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land” (Vayikra 25:3-4).

Appearing in these verses is Hashem’s command to Moshe regarding the mitzvah of shmita, which consists primarily of not working the earth for an entire year every seven years. Furthermore, an additional instruction is given afterwards: “The Sabbath produce of the land shall be yours to eat – for you, for your male servant, for your female servant, and for your hired worker and resident who live with you” (v.6). Elsewhere we read, “The poor of your people shall eat” (Shemot 23:11).

Let us examine how the mitzvah of shmita is described in terms of the commandment to let fields lie fallow and not to harvest the fruits that grow there. In such a situation, the owner of the field will eat exactly in the same way as his male and female servants. Hence it follows that the nature of this mitzvah is the unity of the Jewish people, the fact that no one should feel superior to another. This is why a person is required to leave his field and vineyard open to everyone once every seven years, in order to recognize that despite their various differences, all Jews are one. They are all equal – rich and poor, master and servant, newcomer and member of an esteemed family – all of them are equal.

Sefer HaChinuch states something similar regarding the great principles of the mitzvah of shmita (Parsha Mishpatim, Mitzvah 84): This enables a person to acquire the attribute of renunciation, for a generous man does not give without the hope of receiving something in return, and renunciation – which primarily consists of the fact that a person does not feel superior to others – is the foundation of the mitzvah of shmita.

This mitzvah was given to the Children of Israel on Mount Sinai after the exodus from Egypt, in order to remind them not to get caught up again in quarrels and disputes, which were the cause of their suffering in Egypt and which prolonged the exile. In fact Moshe, on the day after he killed an Egyptian who was striking a Jew, saw two Jews having a violent dispute. When he told the wicked one, “Why would you strike your fellow,” he replied: “Do you propose to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” (Shemot 2:13-14). Here the Torah states, “Moshe feared and said, ‘Surely the matter is known’ ” (ibid.), regarding which the Sages explain: “Moshe was thinking in his heart, ‘How has Israel sinned in such a way that they are more enslaved than all other nations?’ When he heard these words, he said: ‘Lashon Harah is rife among them, so how can they be ready for deliverance?’ Hence: ‘Surely the matter is known’ – now I know the cause of their enslavement” (Shemot Rabba 1:30).

Furthermore, the absence of unity and peace among the Children of Israel caused them to breach the 49 gates of impurity (Zohar Chadash, Yitro 39a), descending to such a level that they practiced idolatry. Thus as the Sages explain on the verse, “Draw out and take a lamb according to your families, and kill the Passover sacrifice” (Shemot 12:21): “Draw out your hands from idolatry, and take for yourselves the lamb of the mitzvah” (Mechilta, Bo 11).

As we know, the Egyptians worshipped rams (the lamb), which was a god to them. The proof is that Moshe rejected Pharaoh’s suggestion that the Children of Israel bring offerings in the land of Egypt, as we read: “Moshe said, ‘It is not proper to do so…. Behold, if we were to slaughter the deity of Egypt before their eyes, would they not stone us?’ ” (Shemot 8:22).

As a result, since the Children of Israel were suffering in Egypt due to a lack of unity and an abundance of disputes, Hashem gave them the mitzvah of shmita following the exodus from Egypt. The essence of this mitzvah is the unity of the Jewish people, meaning that no Jew is more important or less important before Hashem. All Jews are equal before Him.

That is why this mitzvah was given precisely on Mount Sinai, and it is why the Torah recalls that it was given on Mount Sinai. It is because the Children of Israel already knew, while still in Egypt, that they would leave that land for Mount Sinai and receive the Torah there, but only if they were perfectly united. Thus we read, “Israel encamped before the mountain” (Shemot 19:2) – “Like a single man with a single heart” (Mechilta, ad loc.).

We find another novel idea in the mitzvah of shmita: Although all the mitzvot were given on Mount Sinai during the giving of the Torah, it is only in regards to the mitzvah of shmita that the Torah expressly states: “Hashem spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai” (Vayikra 25:1). [Rashi deals with this issue and gives his own interpretation.] We shall now explain why Mount Sinai has a greater connection to the mitzvah of shmita than to the other mitzvot.

Before the giving of the Torah on Sinai, and as a precondition for the giving of the Torah, Jews had to reach an elevated level in terms of perfecting themselves as a people and being united. In fact the Torah testifies that this precondition was fulfilled when the Children of Israel reached Mount Sinai, as it is written: “Israel encamped opposite the mountain” (Shemot 19:2). Here the Sages note that the term “encamped” is in the singular, meaning that Israel acted like a single man with a single heart (Mechilta, ad loc.). It was only after acting in this way that they could approach and receive the Torah.

Because the essence of the mitzvah of shmita is the unity of the Jewish people, as we have explained, and since everyone is equal before Hashem, the Torah chose to highlight Mount Sinai (for there too, unity was required to receive the Torah) in regards to the mitzvah of shmita. It therefore said “at Mount Sinai” in regards to the mitzvah of shmita, for Mount Sinai is where the Children of Israel achieved such complete unity that they could receive the Torah.

If we think deeply about this concept, we will realize just how important the mitzvah of shmita truly is. The Torah has given us a mitzvah that comprises the concept of Jewish unity, as it is written: “You shall love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18). Regarding this mitzvah, Rabbi Akiva said: “[It] is a great principle of the Torah” (Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:3). In this regard we also find the story of how a non-Jew went to see Hillel to be converted, but only on condition that Hillel teach him the entire Torah as he stood on one foot. Hillel converted him and said, ‘What you hate, do not do to your fellow” (Shabbat 31a), which is the translation of the mitzvah, “You shall love your fellow as yourself.”

Unity is thus a great Torah principle, and since we stated that the essence of the mitzvah of shmita is love for others and the unity of the Jewish people, it too is a great principle of the Torah. It is the entire Torah while standing on one foot, just like the mitzvah of loving your fellow as yourself.

There is more. All the mitzvot that deal with relations between man and man (such as giving charity, not stealing, etc.) are mitzvot that the nations of the world can understand. However these do not include the mitzvah of shmita, which also contains the realization that a person, in and of himself, possesses nothing, and that everything he has is a gift from the Creator. The mitzvah of shmita is thus extremely important, for it weighs as much as all the other mitzvot, dealing with relationships between man and man as well as between man and G-d. That is why Mount Sinai is mentioned in regards to this mitzvah.

By way of allusion, the term shmita has the same numerical value as “fifty” (gates of purity) and the Name Sha-dai. This tells us that Hashem says dai (“enough”) to the troubles of a man who observes the mitzvah of shmita and is not afraid of having nothing to live on. Hashem protects all the doors of his home, and he will reach the level of the fiftieth gate of sanctity. In fact a person who practices charity gives life to the world, and he is also the partner of G-d, Who said dai (“enough”) to Creation (Zohar III:251b). Such a person will be protected from the danger of breaching the fifty gates of impurity, and he will grow in sanctity. By the merit of observing the mitzvah of shmita and all the other mitzvot, we will also emerge from our present exile and hasten the Final Redemption, speedily and in our days. Amen!


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