Roughly 3300 years ago, the Jews received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Those commandments were designed for all Jews to follow at all times, whether the positive commandments like respecting one’s parents, or the negative commandments like not murdering.
One of the positive commandments included a reason for the order: keeping the Sabbath:
“8“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9“Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. 11“For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy. “
God told the Children of Israel to not work on the seventh day of the week, just as God rested on the seventh day when He created the entire world. By doing so, He made that seventh day holy, and commanded the Jews to make it holy as well.
The other nine commandments did not have explanations; the commandments were simply stated such as “You shall not steal.” The second commandment of not taking the name of the Lord in vain “For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children…” reveals more about the ramifications of ignoring the commandment, when no such threat was made in the text for the Sabbath.
Jews were told to actively remember the Sabbath, so, in turn, they can actively remember God’s creations and His decision to stop, rest and make the seventh day holy. The reason is not so much of an explanation, as it was meant to focus what should be remembered.
God gave the Jews other commandments beyond the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.
The Jewish tradition is that the Torah contains 613 commandments, all of which were given at Mount Sinai. The sages conclude this from Leviticus 25, where God commands Jews to observe shmita on Mount Sinai. The biblical commentator Rashi (1040-1105) stated that clearly mentioning that such law was given on Mount Sinai was to show that all of the commandments were given there as well.
“1The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai, 2“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. 3For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. 4But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. 5Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. 6Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, 7as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.”
The commandment of shmita resembled the commandment of keeping the seventh day a day of rest. In this case, the people may work the land for six years, but must not work the land on the seventh year, as the land must be given rest. However, unlike the commandment for remembering the Sabbath day, the underlying reason for giving the land rest was not given.
Further, this commandment was localized to the Holy Land. Only “when you enter the land I am going to give you,” when the Jews crossed the Jordan River, was the commandment relevant.
Nachmanides, or the Ramban (1194-1270), noted that there was a similarity of the Sabbath day and shmita when he wrote that shmita is about remembering this world and the world to come. He derived that from Avos 5:9 which described that Jews would be punished with exile if they did not keep shmita. Ramban added “whoever repudiates [shmita] shows that he does not acknowledge the truth of Creation and the World to Come.”
However, during his long explanation, the Ramban did not delve into the local nature of shmita.
Was the intention of the command’s preface to just let the Jews know that shmita was not necessary during the time from standing at Mount Sinai until they arrived in the Holy Land? Or was there a message behind the land itself?
The Holy Land for the Jewish Nation
The commandment to observe Sabbath day became effective immediately when it was received on Mount Sinai. Throughout the wanderings of the desert before they entered Israel, Jews kept the seventh day holy. They did so, because they continued to live and benefit from God’s creations – even the desert itself. Jews continue to observe Sabbath when they are not in the Holy Land for the same reason: the commandment’s underlying reason was to remember God’s creation of the entire world.
Was the commandment of shmita about memory too? Was it about remembering the “World to Come” as Ramban suggested? If so, why did the commandment need to only be kept in Israel and needed to be delayed until they arrived in the Holy Land?
Perhaps the parallel of memory in the Sabbath day and shmita was not about “the truth of Creation and the World to Come,” but about God’s gift of the land of Israel to the Jewish people.
God included the reason of keeping the Sabbath day as a remembrance of the world’s creation within the command itself. Keeping the Sabbath included remembering the story of creation.
In the commandment of shmita, maybe there was also an explanation inside the text: “the land that I am going to give you.” It was not just an explanation of when to begin observing the law, but the reason of observing the law: the land was God’s gift to the children of Israel.
דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַיהֹוָה:
The Hebrew biblical text is different than God’s other promises of the promised land in the Torah.
- When God promised the land to Abraham, it was described as “the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1), not give you.
- In Exodus chapter 3, God described leading the Israelites to a land flowing with milk and honey that is occupied by many other nations.
- In Exodus chapter 33, God told the Jews to go to the land that He promised their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Only in Leviticus did God change the language as giving the land to the Children of Israel themselves (Leviticus 20:24). It was a gift for them, not just a promise made to forefathers.
That is why the commandment is localized in the Holy Land. The commandment is not to just let the land lie fallow every seven years, but like the Sabbath, it is to remember that the land is God’s gift to the Jewish people. It would be an insult to that special present of Israel for Jews outside of land to celebrate shmita.
God’s gift of Israel to the Jewish people is not limited by time, but an eternal present. That is why even on the seventh year, when Jews cannot work the land, they can still enjoy the fruits of the land. The gift never stops, even while Jews pause to remember the gift itself.
“Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.”
Like the Sabbath day that is commanded to Jews, but to be respected among non-Jews that live with Jews, so is God’s gift to the Jews of the land of Israel. The fruits of such gift may be shared broadly among those living in the land together with the Jews.
Enjoy and actively remember the gift of the Holy Land every day. Try not to wait every seven years.
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