Why would the Torah dictate such a challenging set of laws, requiring that landowners relinquish their land and neither plant nor reap for an entire year? Many great sages have asked this question and have offered a variety of answers. The Rambam offers two very different reasons for shemitah. Firstly, that shemitah is but another manifestation of the Torah’s concern for the welfare of the poor. The farmer relinquishes ownership of his land, thereby allowing the destitute to freely partake of his crops. Secondly, the Rambam suggests that letting the land lie fallow is agriculturally beneficial, for it results in the land rejuvenating itself. Thus, to the Rambam, there is a pragmatic aspect to shemitah—the land itself benefits—but there is also a moral/ethical aspect as the needy benefit as well.
Rav Kook sees the shemitah year as a time when the Divine light can shine in all its glory, when society as a whole can experience a spiritual rejuvenation.
The medieval author of Sefer Hachinuch offers several reasons: by observing shemitah, one de-emphasizes his attachment to materialism, enabling one to eradicate within himself the negative character traits of stinginess, possessiveness and selfishness. The farmer comes to realize that God is the ultimate Master of the Universe, and that he is not even the master of his own land. Furthermore, when one observes the laws of shemitah, it helps cultivate bitachon, trust in God.
Rav Kook, who lived well into the twentieth century, sees shemitah as an antidote to the ills of modern society. He contends that just as an individual needs Shabbat to remove himself from mundane pursuits once in seven days, so too does the nation require a set time once in seven years to renew itself spiritually. In fact, many farmers today use the shemitah year for what it was originally intended—they return to the beit midrash. Rav Kook sees the shemitah year as a time when the Divine light can shine in all its glory, when society as a whole can experience a spiritual rejuvenation. Indeed, shemitah and its lessons are no less germane today than they were 2,000 years ago.
Shemitah has many purposes, some of which are pragmatic, others that are profound. Perhaps the purpose of this mitzvah differs throughout different times in history, so that each generation requires shemitah for reasons specific to that age. Shemitah helps the earth renew and nourish itself, and amends the unfair distribution of wealth. It cultivates a spirit of generosity and prevents an attitude of self-sufficiency and arrogance, both of which are antithetical to spirituality. It encourages trust in God and brings one closer to Him. Finally, it provides a counterbalance to the struggles and anxieties that pervade modern economic societies.
Shemitah is not just a set of arbitrary laws and demands. It provides an opportunity for the improvement of society and improvement of the self.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president, emeritus of the Orthodox Union.