And God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: 'Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them, when you enter the land which I am giving to you, the land shall be at rest - a Shabbat unto the Lord. For six years you shall plant your field and for six years your shall prune your vineyard and you shall harvest its produce. But the seventh year shall be a Shabbat of rest for the land - a Shabbat for the Lord ...' (25:1-4)
The Torah proceeds from this point on to give detailed instructions regarding the laws of shmita, the sabbatical year. The people are promised that if they trust in God and obey the laws of shmita they will have a bumper crop in the sixth year which will last them through the sabbatical year.
There are two idiosyncrasies which concern the commentators on these passages. First, why was it necessary for the Torah to stress that this law was given at Mount Sinai? Second, why is this law taught in such detail, while other basic concepts in Judaism are transmitted very succinctly and filled out mainly through extensive comments in the oral tradition?
Rashi cites the Midrash:
What is the connection between shmita and Mount Sinai? Were not all commandments taught at Sinai? Just as shmita was taught with general principles and detail at Sinai, so were all the commandments taught with general principles and detail at Sinai.
Rashi has noted in his explanation both peculiarities, but in a sense his answer begs the question. Why was the sabbatical year singled out for special treatment? Surely any of the 613 commandments would have been equally appropriate. There must be something intrinsic to the sabbatical year which caused it to be chosen.
Nachmanides makes reference on numerous occasions to a mystical tradition which contains within it a key to understanding the laws, indeed the entire process, of the shmita. He cites Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra: "The meaning of aShabbat unto the Lord is like that of the Shabbat day. The secret of the years of the world is alluded to in this place."
The quotation from Ibn Ezra is somewhat cryptic, but before we analyze it and Nachmanides' explanation, let us first see other instances where Nachmanides makes reference to this particular mystical tradition.
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A MYSTICAL TRADITION
Commenting on the very first verse of the Torah, Nachmanides explains why the Torah had to begin with "In the beginning God created heaven and earth." After stating that belief in God, who created and sustains the universe, is the starting point and basis for all belief, Nachmanides adds:
The answer is that the process of creation is a deep mystery not to be understood from the verses, and it cannot truly be known except through the tradition going back to Moses, our teacher, who received it from the mouth of the Almighty, and those who know it are obligated to conceal it.
From Nachmanides' previous comments we know that somehow the sabbatical year is connected to Shabbat; therefore it says "Shabbat for God" referring to the sabbatical year. Another explanation of Nachmanides will link the topics.
While discussing slavery, Nachmanides considers why should slavery be mentioned before all the other laws in Parshat Mishpatim.
It also contains a remembrance of the creation just as Shabbat does, for the seventh year signals to a servant a complete rest from the work of his master, just as the seventh day of the week does. There is in addition a seventh amongst the years, which is the Jubilee, for seven is the chosen of the days, of the years, and of the sabbaticals and they all point to one subject, namely the secret of the days of the world (i.e. the age of the world) ... therefore, this commandment deserved to be mentioned first, because of its extreme importance, alluding as it does to great things in the process of creation." (Ramban, Exodus 21:2)
Again Nachmanides uses the term "process of creation" but now he connects it with the age of the world. The implication is that speculation about the age of the earth would be included in the list of mystical topics which may not be taught publicly (see Mishna Hagiga 2:1), and therefore Nachmanides is cautious in his comments.
Nachmanides was one of the greatest Kabbalists of his time, and we guess that he would have connected the idea of the sabbatical year with mystical considerations without any assistance from Ibn Ezra. In fact, Nachmanides writes elsewhere:
Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra already intimated it when he wrote "the secret of the years of the world is alluded to in this place" nowhere else in Ibn Ezra's works is there a better statement than this which is indicative of his good [understanding of] Kabbalah.
Nachmanides refers here to a passage in Ibn Ezra's writings which concerns the age of the earth, and the duration of the earth. Nachmanides was privy to a teaching which is reported in an ancient mystical treatise called "Sefer Hat'munah" - the Book of the Picture. The "Sefer Hatemunah" teaches that there is a cosmic shmita cycle which effects the creation and duration of existence.
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SIX THOUSAND YEARS OF HISTORY
The teaching itself is alluded to in a passage in the Talmud:
Rav Kattina said: "The world will exist for 6000 years and one (thousand) of destruction" ... We have a teaching which is in agreement with Rav Kattina, as the seventh is the sabbatical year - one in seven years. Likewise the world will rest 1,000 in 7000 ... a thousand years in Your eyes are like yesterday which has passed...[Psalms 90:4]. (Sanhedrin 97a)
The idea which is taught in this passage is quite well known; the world is destined to exist 6000 years, followed by the culmination of history.
Rather than choosing the more familiar model of days of the week and Shabbat, the Talmud utilized the model of the sabbatical year to illustrate this concept. We cannot help but notice, though, the major difference between Shabbat and shmita. Yes, Shabbat is six days of work and one of rest, and yes,shmita is six years of work and one of rest. But shmita does not exist within a vacuum; it is part of a greater system known as yovel - Jubilee. At the end of seven sabbatical years is the great Jubilee, in which everything returns to its natural place.
While existence as we know it may come to an end in the year 6000, another cycle may well be awaiting us.
The "Sefer Hat'munah" sees our existence within this larger framework of shmita and yovel. While existence as we know it may come to an end in the year 6000, another cycle may well be awaiting us.
Furthermore, as Nachmanides said, belief in a God who created and sustains the universe is basic to Judaism. There is a secret, unfathomable from the verses alone, regarding creation, namely there may have been cycles prior to ours.
The mystical commentaries have traditions and/or speculate regarding the question of which cycle we are in now. Some say the second, others fourth, others sixth, and still others seventh.
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THE FIRST TIME OR THE SECOND?
Let us return to the opening verse, "And God spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai."
Rabenu Bachaye, commenting on Nachmanides, raises the following question: When it says that God spoke these details about shmita and yovel at Sinai, is this referring to the first time Moses ascended Mount Sinai, or the second? Rabenu Bachaye then answers his own question that it must be the second, because in Parshat Mishpatim there is a brief reference to the laws of shmita:
For six years you shall sow the land and gather its fruits, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor among you may eat, and what they leave the beast of the field shall eat. In like manner you shall deal with your vineyard, and your olive grove. (Exodus 23:10-11)
Here, the Torah does make mention of the laws of shmita, but with nowhere as much depth or detail as it does in Parshat Behar. Therefore Rabenu Bachaye asserts that the first time Moses ascended Mount Sinai he brought back all the laws as written in Parshat Mishpatim. The second time that Moses came down, he brought detailed laws, as they appear in Parshat Behar.
Based on this theory, we can assume that the laws as stated in Parshat Mishpatim make no hidden reference to the Jubilee. Of course, this may have to do with the general terseness of Parshat Mishpatim; all the laws there are in fact more detailed than the text itself indicates. But, if we follow Rabenu Bachaye, then we have to conclude that certain laws were not written because they were not applicable at that time, a suggestion that necessitates clarification.
The laws of the sabbatical year parallel Shabbat, six years work and one year of rest.
The laws of the sabbatical year parallel Shabbat, six years work and one year of rest. This rest is significant for the land and the worker alike. The Jubilee has no apparent parallel with Shabbat. It is a time when all land returns to its original owner. In a word, shmita is a time of renewal while the Jubilee is a time of complete return.
Furthermore, the Torah instructs that the shofar be blown in the Jubilee on Yom Kippur.
Then you shall call the sound of the shofar to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, on the day of atonement, you shall sound the shofar throughout the land.(Leviticus 25:9)
If these details were taught when Moses ascended the mountain the first time, the reference to Yom Kippur would be inappropriate. Yom Kippur came into existence when the people were forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf. And this sin was committed while Moses was on Sinai the first time, and the people were granted forgiveness only when Moses ascended the second time.
This would support the position of Rabenu Bachaye that this section was taught when Moses was on Mount Sinai the second time.
We can also see a parallel between the Jubilee and Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is known as Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths. Jubilee is the time which comes after seven sabbatical years - also Shabbat Shabbaton of sorts.
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IN GOD WE TRUST
Let us consider another point. Had there not been a sin of the Golden Calf there would not have been a Yom Kippur. Had there not been a sin of the Golden calf, the punishment of exile would never have entered the lexicon of Judaism (Eruvin 54a). The sin of the Golden Calf took place due to a basic lack of trust in God. This breach of trust served as the negative spiritual precedent for future generations who sinned similarly and were exiled.
Our Sages teach us that one of the reasons for the exile was laxity in the observance of the laws of shmita (Avot 5:9).
This is because observance of shmita is an explicit expression of trust in God. He who does stakes his livelihood on his belief.
Exile is the result of (among other things) the lack of observance of the laws ofshmita. Exile as a concept comes into existence as a result of the Golden Calf, when the people displayed their lack of trust in God.
Exile is directly related to the lack of trust in God, which is indicated by the rejection of the laws of shmita, when one who trusts in God need not work the land.
The Torah promises sustenance directly from God during the sabbatical year.
The Torah promises sustenance directly from God during the sabbatical year, and those who do not rely on this explicit promise are punished by exile. In this sense, the sabbatical year and its message of renewal reminds us of Adam prior to the sin - he had no need to work; he existed in the shadow of God.
The punishment for the sin of the Golden Calf mirrored the sin of Adam and his exile from the Garden. The Golden Calf changed the course of history in its own way, just as the sin of Adam did.
In the aftermath of the Revelation at Sinai, the Jewish People were to enter the Land of Israel immediately, with Moses himself leading the victorious march. This should have resulted in the immediate building of the Temple in Jerusalem, with Moses as king and Aaron as High Priest. Such a Temple never would have been destroyed. The Word of God would have spread like wildfire throughout the world. Moses would have been the Messiah.
But this dream never materialized. It was shattered by the sin of the Golden Calf. A people who did not trust in God sufficiently could not mend the world, even with the greatest leaders. There would be exile.
Lack of trust in God would, once again, bring exile. For this reason, of all the commandments, the laws of shmita were repeated with the most explicit detail when Moses came down from Sinai for the second time.
The very existence of the Jews in the land depends on shmita.
Following the sin of the Golden Calf, there was a need for a Yom Kippur to forgive the Jews for the Golden Calf. There was a need for a Jubilee, a time of complete return, a national return or renaissance.
Trust in God, as indicated by observance of the laws of shmita, is the path to our final destiny of a world perfected.