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For six years you shall plant your field and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and you shall harvest its produce. And in the seventh year there shall be a Shabbos of rest for the land, a Shabbos for Hashem. You shall not plant your field and you shall not prune your vineyard. (Vayikra 25:3-4)
In this week’s parsha we learn about the mitzvah of shemittah. Every seventh year we are forbidden to work the land. The land must remain fallow and rest.
In the sefer Tosefes Berachah, Rav Baruch Epstein tz”l provides a homiletic explanation as to why the shemittah cycle is exactly every seven years. The Gemara (Berachos 34b) relates how Rava would tell his students. “I beg of you, in the months of Nissan and Tishrei do not appear before me in the study hall so that you will not lack sustenance for the entire year. The commentators explain that in the time of Chazal it was customary to work the land two months a year, Nissan and Tishrei. These were the harvest and gathering seasons of the fields and vineyards. The remaining ten months of the year were devoted to the study of Torah. Rava admonished his students to work the land these two months and not attend the study hall at all. If they failed to listen, they risk not having what to eat and with what to support themselves for the remainder of the year.
Rav Epstein notes that after six years the students would have worked in the field for exactly twelve months. Being that a year is twelve months, Hashem declared the seventh year shemittah so that the student could study Torah the entire year to compensate for the twelve months they were unable to study the previous six years.
There appears to be an obvious difficulty. Even if the seventh year was not a shemittah year, the students would not work more then two months anyhow. How does a shemittah year compensate for twelve months? Rav Epstein appears to answer that the shemittah year involves absolutely no work whatsoever in contrast to the ten months of a regular year which do involve some minimal work, albeit not as intense as Nissan and Tishrei.
Let us suggest another answer. The Gemarah (Kesubos 62b) relates how Rebbi Akivah left his wife to study Torah for twelve years. Upon his return he overheard an old man torment her by telling her how foolish she was for marrying Rebbi Akivah who had abandoned her for twelve years. He said to her, “How long will you conduct yourself like a living widow.” She replied “If only he would listen to me, I would permit him to study Torah for another twelve years.” Upon hearing this Rebbi Akivah said, “I have received permission” and immediately retuned to the study hall for another twelve years. The commentators ask, why didn’t Rebbi Akivah at least stop in to say hello and spend some time with his wife and family before returning to the study hall? The answer is, there is no comparison between the study of Torah in two sets of twelve years and the study of Torah for twenty-four consecutive years. Twelve plus twelve does not equal twenty-four. Twenty-four consecutive years of Torah study is a qualitatively different experience then two sets of twelve years.
In connection with this idea there is fascinating story found in the introduction of the sefer Shevet Hakihasi. The Chazon Ish zt”l once came across two students who were idling away during a study session. He rebuked them for wasting their time and explained that it is impossible to enjoy the study of Torah unless one is uninterrupted for at least three-four hours. He compared Torah study to cooking food. If one would cook a dish, remove it from the fire before it was completed and then return it to the fire for completion, it would produce a dish that is qualitatively inferior to a similar dish that was cooked without interruption. He then went on to describe in detail the experience of each additional hour of uninterrupted study from five to eleven hours.
With this idea, we may answer our question. Although in the year of shemittah one technically works only two months less work than in a regular year, there is a major qualitative difference. In the year of shemittah there is no interruption. The lack of interruption completely transforms the quality of the other ten months to a degree that elevates them to a new experience. This was the blessing of the shemittah year. There were indeed twelve new quality months of Torah study to compensate for the twelve months of work in the last six years.
© Efraim Levine 5760/2000 - 5765/2005