The year of Shmita, the Sabbatical Year for the Land of Israel, began on September 25, 2014. Rabbi Ari Enkin offers some insight into the topic from our holy sages.
As a general rule, the Torah does not spell out the reasons for the various mitzvot (commandments). For example, we do not know why God forbids us to eat pork (no, it’s not for health reasons), we do not know why God orders us not to wear a garment that contains shatnez (a mixture of wool and linen), and we do not know why God wants us to shake willow branches on Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles). So, too, the Torah does not fully reveal the reasons for shmita, which is the mitzvah to let the Land of Israel lay fallow during the sabbatical year.
Nevertheless, our sages offer a variety of interpretations, some of which I will share with you.
The Talmud says that the reason for observing shmita is to realize that the land belongs to God.
Sefer Hachinuch (a somewhat anonymous work that explains all 613 mitzvot of the Torah) says that this mitzvah intended to make us understand that anything the land produces is not entirely due to the farmer, but to God.
Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1508-1593) notes that Rashi teaches that the reason the Torah opens with the story of creation is to teach that it was God who created the world and, therefore, He is completely entitled to give the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. Rabbi Alshich adds that observing shmita further solidifies our claim to the land; when the world sees that God provides for us even when we do not work the land, he continues, it is further proof that He is control and the land rightfully belongs to the Jewish people.
Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926) writes that when one gives a gift out of the goodness of his heart, he wants to see the recipient enjoy it. So, too, God gave us the land and wants us to benefit from it, but at the same time, He commands us to take a year off in order to recognize that He alone is responsible for the benefit and sustenance we receive from it during the other six years of the cycle.
According to Kabbala, the sabbatical year is closely related to the weekly Sabbath. Indeed, the Torah itself uses the word “Shabbat” to describe the shmita year which, like the Sabbath, represents the principle that God created the world and is Master over it.
The sage Nachmanides (1194-1270) writes that the six days of creation correspond to the 6,000 years that this world is destined to exist. The day of rest for mankind and the year of rest for the fields represent the messianic era, when all will be at peace.
Farmers are so busy with their chores that most do not get the opportunity to study Torah in depth. As such, some of our sages teach that God wished to give them an opportunity to enjoy Torah study.
Last but not least, shmita encourages us to reflect on the needs of the poor. It helps the wealthy to understand the challenges they face. Just as farmers may wonder how they will survive during the sabbatical year, poor people never know where their next meal is coming from. Hence, observing shmita sensitizes us to their needs and their feelings.