From Year to Year

"The earth is HaVaYaH's and all that it holds" (Psalms 24:1)

The earth and everything in it belongs to God, as the Psalm says: "The earth is HaVaYaH's and all that it holds" (Psalms 24:1). On the other hand: "He gave the earth to the sons of man" (Psalms 115:16). This means that the earth is entrusted to us. We are entitled to eat of its goodness -- but only if we remember that ultimately everything belongs to God, and as His trustees, we are obliged to follow the laws of the land.

The Sabbatical Year

The whole creation is founded on the principle of six days of work followed by the Shabbat day of rest. The Torah law of the land is based on the related principle of six years of agricultural work followed by a year of Shabbat release, the Shemittah or Sabbatical year.

"Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in its produce. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Shabbat of complete rest for HaVaYaH" (Leviticus 25:3-4).

During the six years of work the farmer is full owner of his field. He is entitled to work the land as he desires. After giving his gifts to the poor and tithes, the owner may eat or otherwise use the produce as he pleases. But in the seventh year, ownership of the land returns to the Lord of the Land, and the farmer is no longer free to treat it as his own personal property.

In the Land of Israel during the Sabbatical year most kinds of agricultural work are forbidden. Ground-crops that grow by themselves may neither be harvested nor eaten, while the fruits of the trees must be left for anyone to take. Even the wild animals are entitled to their share of the Sabbatical produce. The fruit of the Sabbatical year has a holiness of its own. It may not be sold commercially. The produce must be treated with respect and not be wasted.

The Sabbatical year is a teaching about our true situation as guests on this earth and the proper respect with which its produce must be used.

The seven year Sabbatical cycle has a bearing on the tithing of produce. During the six years of agricultural work, the gifts of Terumah to the priests and of Maaser Rishon, the Levitical tithe, remain constant. But there is a second tithe that is used differently in different years of the sabbatical cycle. In the first and second years of the cycle, this second tithe would in Temple times be eaten in purity by the farmer himself with his family and friends in Jerusalem. However, in the third year this tithe must be given to the poor. In the fourth and fifth years of the cycle, the second tithe would be eaten by the farmer himself, while in the sixth year it is given to the poor (see Cultivating the Land).

A farmer who had faithfully observed all the laws of the land could come to the Temple on Pesach of the fourth and seventh years of the cycle and declare:

"I have removed the holy portion from the house and I have given it to the Levite and the stranger, to the fatherless and the widow in accordance with all Your commandments that You commanded me. I have not transgressed Your commandments and I have not forgotten.... Look down from Your holy abode from Heaven and bless Your people Israel and the land that You have given us as you swore to our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey" (Deuteronomy 26:13 & 15).

Many of the land laws do not apply directly to today's city-dwellers. But we all depend on fruits, vegetables and other produce, and we must remember that the bounty of the land comes from God. Besides blessing God for all that we eat, we must check that all the necessary tithes etc. are taken from produce before we consume it. A good way to remember our position as God's guests in this world is by familiarizing ourselves with the Torah land laws. It is also good to keep track of the years of the cycle and be aware of where we are standing. The last Shemittah year was in the year 5754 (1993-4), and the next will be in the year 5761 (2000-1).

The Jubilee Year

Just as in the forty-nine day Omer count we count seven times seven days (see Seasons and Festivals) so the Torah commands us to count seven Sabbatical cycles of seven years each, making a total of forty-nine years, after which we celebrate the fiftieth year as the Yovel or Jubilee year:

"And you shall count seven weeks of years -- seven times seven years.... And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants: it shall be a jubilee year for you" (Leviticus 25:8-9).

According to Torah land law, if a person sold inherited ancestral land in Israel and failed to buy it back, the land would automatically revert to the original owner in the Jubilee year. In addition, all Israelite slaves were set free. These laws do not apply today, but the redemption and freedom of the Jubilee are precisely what we are awaiting as we look forward to the coming of Mashiach, the rebuilding of the Temple and the return of all the Children of Israel to our land. When the laws of the land are observed by all, true peace and prosperity will come to the world:

"If you will go in My statutes and keep My commandments and practice them, I will give your rains in their time and the earth will give its produce and the tree of the field will give its fruit. Your threshing will overtake the vintage and your vintage shall overtake the sowing. You shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land. I will grant peace to the land and you will lie down untroubled by anyone...." (Leviticus 3-6).



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