Shemittah: A Restrained and Wild Love

Rabbi Aviva Richman

Parashat BeHar

Shemittah (the sabbatical year) is considered one of the hardest mitzvot. The Torah itself is aware of the impracticality, particularly around Yovel (the Jubilee year), when people will wonder what they will eat after neglecting agriculture for two years in a row.1 It seems impossible that the system of Shemittah and Yovel was practiced ever in Temple times. As for the post-Temple period, a major theme in Rabbinic teachings about Shemittah is how one who is observing Shemittah should interface with someone who is not—thus revealing that many (most?) Jews were unable or unwilling to exercise this level of restraint.2 But the mitzvah might not only be about inculcating discipline to the extreme. We can also understand Shemittah and Yovel as mitzvot meant to inculcate an extreme love.

Many mitzvot ask us to exercise discipline.3 But few require us to be in an ongoing state of disciplined restraint for a whole year. Shemittah requires us to hold back constantly, day in day out, for 12 months. A midrash in Vayikra Rabbah describes being in this constant state of mitzvah for so long as super-human: it makes us like angels.

ויקרא רבה א:א

(תהלים קג:כ) "[בָּרְכוּ ה' מַלְאָכָיו] גִּבֹּרֵי כֹחַ עֹשֵׂי דְבָרוֹ [לִשְׁמוֹעַ בְּקוֹל דְּבָרוֹ]", בַּמֶּה הַכָּתוּב מְדַבֵּר, אָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק בְּשׁוֹמְרֵי שְׁבִיעִית הַכָּתוּב מְדַבֵּר, בְּנֹהַג שֶׁבָּעוֹלָם אָדָם עוֹשֶׂה מִצְוָה לְיוֹם אֶחָד, לְשַׁבָּת אֶחָת, לְחֹדֶשׁ אֶחָד, שֶׁמָּא לִשְׁאָר יְמוֹת הַשָּׁנָה, וְדֵין חָמֵי חַקְלֵיהּ בָּיְרָה כַּרְמֵיהּ בָּיְרָה וְיָהֵב אַרְנוֹנָא וְשָׁתִיק, יֵשׁ לְךָ גִּבּוֹר גָּדוֹל מִזֶּה.

 

Vayikra Rabbah 1:1

“[Bless God, God’s angels—]heroes of strength, who do God’s word, [to hear the voice of God’s word]” (Psalm 103:20). About what is Scripture speaking? Said Rabbi Yitzhak: Scripture speaks of those who keep Shemittah. Usually, a person does a mitzvah for one day, for one week, for one month—but not the other days of the year. But this one sees their field barren, their vineyard barren, and gives the Roman tax in silence. Is there a greater hero than this?

 

The verse in Psalms is clearly speaking of angels (מלאכים), but midrash applies it to people—people who demonstrate great strength (גבורי כח). The ability to hold yourself back from tending to your source of income for a whole year, even as you have to pay (unjust) taxes, is nothing short of heroic. Most mitzvot are not so demanding, asking us to restrain ourselves for a much more fleeting interval. The strength described here is not the aggressive might of a battle but an inner strength, as we battle against our own desires and instincts.4

This kind of restraint blurs the boundaries of our humanity as we leap towards the angelic. Angels have to hold back. Like the angels God silenced at the sea, admonishing them “How can you sing when my creations are drowning in the sea?” we sometimes have to restrain our emotional responses (Talmud Bavli Megillah 10b). Ironically, God silenced the angels at exactly the moment that Israel sang their song of the sea, and their very human song explicitly celebrated those drowning Egyptians. There is a stark divide between angels and humans in this scene. For Israel this was the exact opposite of a moment for restraint: it was catharsis, an emotional release. Yet, in the reception history of this midrash, later interpreters demand that we too be like the angels.5 We have to check our emotional instincts and take stock of a fuller picture: we restrain our joy on Passover, as we do not recite a full Hallel for most of the holiday, and remove wine from our cups.6 This restraint of emotion is akin to the stoic landowner who watches silently as others reap the fruits of their labor. As humans who strive to be angels, we cannot afford to be overly consumed by our own interests or our own narrative, no matter how redemptive it might feel.

This restraint isn’t only about developing personal character and virtue: it has a real impact on others. Landowners would invest in their own field for six years and then become detached, letting others take from the harvest. On the one hand, the “silence” of the landowner depicted in the midrash is an image of resignation, suffering under an oppressive taxation regime that has no respect for observance of Shemittah.7 But we can also picture the silent landowner watching as community members freely sustain themselves from what naturally grows from the field and vineyard. This “hero” has learned what it means to devote their time and resources to something, only to see what others will do with it. Rather than resignation—or maybe alongside it—this could be a posture of curiosity, and investment in others. During Shemittah, a landowner lets go of controlling the fruits of their labors. Instead, they see what other people do with their investment. The restraint of Shemittah might lead to generative learnings. What outcomes can emerge from my investments when I let go of control? What impact can I have when I feel no more attachment to my own benefit than to anyone else’s, when I feel just as invested in how others’ might access what I have so carefully tended?

This Shemittah of restraint sits alongside a very different reading of Shemittah, understanding it as radical and impractical. Rather than a stoic exercise in careful discipline, we might view this as an act of wild abandon. In the language of midrash,8 “אהבה מקלקלת את השורה (love upsets the row)”—when we are in love, it can be totally destabilizing and lead to irrational choices as we try somehow to channel the intensity of our passion. Like the landowner who gazes at his fallow field and vineyard during Shemittah because he knows that something matters more than his own immediate gain, there is a story of one prominent Sage (R. Yohanan) who voluntarily gives up his field, vineyard, and olive orchard so he can study Torah (Vayikra Rabbah 30:1). His student weeps over the irresponsibility of this irrational decision, worried his teacher will have nothing to eat in his old age.9 The midrash concludes:

כד דמך ר' יוחנן היה דורו קורא עליו "אם יתן איש את כל הון ביתו באהבה [בוז יבזו לו]" (שיר השירים ח, ז), שאהב ר' יוחנן את התורה.

 

“When R. Yohanan died, his generation recited over him, “If a man offered all his wealth for love [he would be laughed to scorn]” (Song of Songs 8:7), for R. Yohanan loved the Torah.

 

R. Yohanan gave up all of his land so he could study Torah. The midrash is not advocating that we all be like R. Yohanan. In fact, it explains his actions as stemming from an intensity of love that might even go too far, to be ridiculed rather than modeled (בוז יבזו לו). But it is an important foil to the stoic Shemittah observer. R. Yohanan represents the opposite of restraint as he detaches himself from his land; his overflowing attachment to Torah drives this irrational and perhaps irresponsible choice. אהבה מקלקלת את השורה - love can be destabilizing.

In light of this midrash, we might understand some of the extremity of Shemittah from a different perspective. God’s love for freedom10 (דרור) stands behind Shemittah and Yovel. And it may seem to be going overboard, but we can learn from this that our passion for the values we want to actualize also needs to be so intense that it is not overly constrained by “what works.” Sometimes we have to let ourselves be driven by our passion in an almost maniacal way. Often, we let ourselves love with wild abandon when it comes to our children, or our life’s passions. The idea of placing “reasonable” boundaries on how we express that love would feel totally anathema. We invest because we cannot imagine anything else. We invest solely to manifest our love. God has this kind of wild passion for a reality of freedom, where there is no human subjugation. This is the same wild passion R. Yohanan felt about Torah. If we want the things we care about most to exist, this kind of wild, destabilizing love has to have room for expression. That might not translate into a seven-year Shemittah and fifty-year Yovel, but there must be an outlet for the quality of this wild, untamed love.

Shemittah teaches us to restrain ourselves in unimaginable ways, and Shemittah teaches us to love without bounds. We have to sit at the fulcrum of these abilities. Through both of these modes, we come to see our fields—our investments—through a broader, more empathic lens. Ideally, all who need will be able to access the fruits of these labors, like in the Shemittah year when all have access to the produce of the fields. But if we haven’t reached that level of impact yet, we must find the ways to strengthen our capacities for the discipline and the unbounded love that will get us there.


1 Leviticus 25:20: “וְכִ֣י תֹאמְר֔וּ מַה־נֹּאכַ֤֖ל בַּשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשְּׁבִיעִ֑ת הֵ֚ן לֹ֣א נִזְרָ֔ע וְלֹ֥א נֶאֱסֹ֖ף אֶת־תְּבוּאָתֵֽנוּ׃ / And should you ask, ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?’” The answer is given immediately (v. 21): “וְצִוִּ֤יתִי אֶת־בִּרְכָתִי֙ לָכֶ֔ם בַּשָּׁנָ֖ה הַשִּׁשִּׁ֑ית וְעָשָׂת֙ אֶת־הַתְּבוּאָ֔ה לִשְׁלֹ֖שׁ הַשָּׁנִֽים׃ / I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years.”

2 The term “אוכלי שביעית - those who eat Shemittah produce” in Tosefta Demai (3:17, 4:29) assumes existence of Jews who are not careful about—or willfully disregard—this mitzvah.

3 We explored this theme in my essay on Parashat Kedoshim, “Radical Ratzon, Part 1: An Ethics of Holiness,” available here: https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/radical-ratzon-part-1. See especially the interpretation of קדושים תהיו from the Ramban discussed there.

4 This is also the kind of strength valorized in wisdom literature, e.g. Ben Zoma’s advice in Mishnah Avot 4:1, quoting Proverbs 16:32.

5 See, for example, the Shenei Luhot HaBerit (R. Yeshayahu Ha-Levi Horowitz, 16th-17th c. Austria-Hungary and Eretz Yisrael), Torah SheBiKhtav on Parashat BeShallah.

6 See Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (Parashah Aheret) for an early explanation for half Hallel on the last days of Pesah (hinging on Proverbs 24:17). Spilling wine at Seder night as an expression of diminished joy is variously attributed to the Abarbanel or the Avudraham, but in fact neither of them mention this explanation; this minhag has been subsumed under the verse from Proverbs apparently only in recent years.

7 In the Talmud, the need to pay taxes to the local Roman authorities is described as “persecution.” Actually, the burdensome nature of this tax leads to exemption from having to keep Shemittah from a halakhic perspective. Yet, it is also clear that there are those who persevere in observing Shemittah throughout this period.

8 E.g. Bereishit Rabbah 55:8

9 “R. Yohanan would go walking up from Tiberius to Sepphoris, and he would lean on R. Hiyya bar Abba. They came to a field, he said, ‘This field used to be mine, but I sold it so I could earn the Torah.’ They came to a vineyard, he said, ‘This vineyard used to be mine, but I sold it so I could earn the Torah.’ They came to an olive orchard, he said, ‘This olive orchard used to be mine but I sold it so I could earn the Torah.’ R. Hiyya began to cry. Said R. Yohanan, ‘Why are you crying?’ He said to him, ‘Because you won’t have anything left for your old age!’ He said to him, ‘Hiyya, my son, what I did was easy for me! For I sold something which was given over six days and I acquired something which was given over 40 days. The whole world and everything in it was created in no more than six days, as it is written, “For in six days, God made the heaven and the earth” (Exodus 20:11). But the Torah was given over 40 days, as it is said, “[Moshe] was there with God for 40 days and 40 nights” (34:28), and it is written, “I [Moshe] sat on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights” (Deuteronomy 9:9).’” (The teacher leaning on the student is a common way the latter served the former for rabbis in Eretz Yisrael; see, e.g., Talmud Bavli Yevamot 42b).

10 Vayikra 25:10: "וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּ֗ם אֵ֣ת שְׁנַ֤ת הַחֲמִשִּׁים֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ לְכׇל־יֹשְׁבֶ֑יהָ יוֹבֵ֥ל הִוא֙ תִּהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם וְשַׁבְתֶּ֗ם אִ֚ישׁ אֶל־אֲחֻזָּת֔וֹ וְאִ֥ישׁאֶל־מִשְׁפַּחְתּ֖וֹ תָּשֻֽׁבוּ׃ / And you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family."