The Spiritual Meaning of the Sabbath and Jubilee Years: Why Does Land Rest? | Aleph Beta

Why Does Land Have To Rest?

The Spiritual Meaning Of The Sabbath And Jubilee Years

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

We talked last week about seeing Shabbat in different worlds. But how do we understand, conceptually, what this means? The clues may lie in the laws of the Sabbath and Jubilee cycles of rest, which follow a pattern of seven years in the Bible.

In this week's video, we look at Pesach, Shmita and Yovel and ask, where do we see Shabbat, and why does it matter? Rabbi Fohrman follows the clues to unearth the spiritual meaning of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, one that applies to our own lives today. He discusses the concept of how when the land rests and slaves return to freedom, so do we, too.


Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parsha Behar. In this week's Parsha, we get yet another look at a different kind of Sabbath.

This time, instead of a 7 day Sabbath, we hear of a Sabbath of 7 years, a Sabbath that affects land.

What Is the Purpose of the Sabbath and Jubilee Years in Judaism?

In order to understand this kind of Sabbath and its counterpart yovel – the jubilee year which takes place after 7 times 7 years – I want to come back to some of the ideas we talked about last week when we discussed the section of the Torah that talks about the various festivals and melded that all of them in someway or another seemed to be patterned after the Sabbath itself. How do we make sense of these various Sabbath iterations in the Torah, these expressions of Sabbaths, beyond the 7th day that we celebrate each week?

I think we understand this in the context of the holidays, we will also get some hints towards understanding it in this week's parsha in the context of land.

Understanding the Sabbath Cycles of Seven Years in the Bible

In what way does Chag Hamatzot, the 7 day feast that we know as Passover, in what way does that approximate Sabbath? Again we noted the Sabbath elements of the days in fact everything seems to be a function of the 1 and the 7.

The 7 day holiday, the first day is holy, the 7th day is holy takes place in the first month on the 14th day of the month; but conceptually how would Pesach be related to Sabbath, what you are resting from, on the 7 day holiday that we call Passover?

Interestingly a hint seems to come from the Torah itself – what is the one thing that you cannot do on a Passover? You can't eat chametz, bread that has been left, but what's the language that the Torah uses to describe that prohibition? We hear that described as tashbitu sior mibateichem, supposed to get rid of sourdough or yeast from your houses but the language for 'get rid off' here, tashbitu, the root of it is actually Sabbath. It literally seems to mean is to take a rest from, taking a rest from chametz. That's just borrowed language, not really resting from chametz, we are just not eating it, right? In what sense is stopping to eat chametz, a kind of rest? But maybe when you really think about it, you see that it really is a kind of rest.

If you go back to last week's video, we argued that right before the Torah talked about these holidays, it talked about a way that we rest with respect to the animal world. Now with Pesach, maybe we are encountering a way that we rest with respect to the plant world.

The Bible's Clues to What the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years Mean

Let's think about rest, rest on Sabbath. We rest from malafah, from creative activity, it is using your mind to direct your activities, so you can shape the world around you to suit your needs. It is what God did and God created the world, dividing things, putting things here, there, building them. The last thing that God built was mankind himself, creating men in God's image. God wouldn't endow mankind with that ability in turn to create and indeed one of those creative activities perhaps is the way that we relate to the plant world.

Let's talk about how you make bread, I am indebted here by the way, to my friend Adrian Waller, who referred me to a fascinating talk given by master baker Peter Reinhart, on what it is that we do when we make bread. So Reinhart says what do we do when we make bread? The first step of course is planting wheat, the wheat in the fields as vibrant alive and then what do you do? Well, you say, we harvest the wheat. But harvesting the wheat of course, that is euphemism, what you are really doing when you harvest the wheat? You are cutting the wheat, you are killing the wheat and then wheat doesn't die just the way animal does, in a single moment, by a slice of a knife. The wheat can yet remain alive as long as it has water but we deprive the wheat of water, we leave it out on the sun until it slowly dries and goes brittle and dies. And then, when the wheat is dead, we take it and we separate it. We take the wheat's ability to reproduce itself, we take those seeds and we crush them into flour and then we take that crushed flour, when the wheat is good and dead, we mix it with water. We bring water back in to the equation just when it is too late for the wheat and with that we make dough, real bread makers call that clay. We need that clay and then you know what happens, the dough begins to rise. The way God set things up, there's naturally yeast occurring on the stocks of wheat and we leave the dough and we let it rise. What happens when the dough rises? The yeast is an organism, it's alive and it begins to eat the starches on the bread and as it eats, it exhales, it breaths out carbon dioxide. The bread now becomes alive and then just as the bread is alive once more, what do we do? We take the bread and we put it in the oven and in the oven the temperature sores and the microorganisms that we know as yeasts explode into the bread, giving the bread its wonderful flavor. And then we take the bread out of the oven and we consume it and it gives us life.

Look at what's happening here. It's like we are playing God. We bring life into the world, we plant the wheat, we slowly kill it and then we add water, we make clay. We make it alive again only to kill it once more but then, it gives us life.

That is what creator does, he can grant life but he can also take away life. He grants death and what's more, that moment when the yeast breaths it's breath into the clay, what does that remind you of? When else was there a moment one someone breaths the breath of life into clay?

That was God himself creating us, we are mimicking that process, in creating bread. We are mastering the plant world for our purposes and with every great act of creativity, there needs to come an act of rest. Tashbitu sior mibateichem, take a break from the process, let it go. We experience our Shabbos from bread making, from leaven, from Pesach. We pull back in the recognition of the fact that we are not the only creator in the world, that there are limits to creativity that sometimes we just have to let things be.

I have given you the beginning of a taste here, pardon the pun, for how it might be that some of these moadim, some of these holidays, approximate Shabbos-like experiences, not Shabbobs in the week but Shabbat in the year, and in this week's Parsha Behar, we meet a Sabbath in years. If the Shabbat in a week is the Sabbath, if shabbatot in a year are the holidays, then the Shabbos in years is the sabbatical year, shemittah, and that's the Sabbath for land.

The Sabbath Year of Rest for Land

It all seems to fit, if you go back to the Parshat Hamoadim, the festivals that we have talked about last week, those festivals were Sabbath-like experiences with respect to derivatives of land – animals live on the land, plants grow from the land, we are bidden to observe Sabbath with respect to these things. To allow the mother to be with its calf for 7 days, for her to experience a kind of resting, a kind of independence for her calf to just let the calf be. Then we are bidden to rest with respect to our domination of the plant world, to take a break from the process of leavening, of bread making. And now in Parsha Behar, at our Parsha we go to the source of it all and allow the land itself to experience rest.

Interestingly, if you look carefully at the language, something counter-intuitive seems to strike you. At face value, you would say that it is men who must rest with respect to the land by not harvesting the crops but if you look carefully, the Torah seems to treat the land as the subject of it all, the one who actually experiences the rest. Almost as if the land were sentient being and all human being is needed to do is to get out of the way.

Listen to the language, ki tavou el-haaretz asher ani noten lachem, when you come to the land that I give you, veshavetah haaretz Shabbat l'Hashem, the land shall rest a Sabbath for God. Who is resting, is that the year resting? By not working the land, you are getting out of the way. You are allowing the land to experience rest, the land is a being. Its rest is sacrosanct and this helps us actually understand something curious about the jubilee year, the 50th year, the one that comes after 7 Sabbaths of 49 years.

The Spiritual Meaning of the Jubilee Year of Rest

According to the text servants go free from their masters at that year and ancestral land returns to its original holder. If you sold your ancestral land, it goes back to you in the jubilee year. Why should those two laws be a product of the Sabbath of the Sabbaths for land? What do servants go free from their masters, land going back to its ancestral holder, what does that have to do with the Sabbath for the land? But listen carefully to the language of the text, on this jubilee year vekidashtem et shnat hachamishim shanah, make holy this 50th year, ukratem dror baaretz lechol-yoshveiha, those words engraved on a liberty bell, we often translate as proclaimed liberty throughout the land but if you translate them literally, is not so much human beings that are proclaiming liberty throughout a pass of land but it is the land that experiences the liberty.

Listen carefully, ukratem dror baaretz, and proclaim liberty in the land. Such that, lechol-yoshveiha, the liberty overflows and affects not just the land but it affects its inhabitants. We, our destiny is tied to the land. We experience what the land experiences, when the land experiences liberty, that experience of liberty in the land is so profound in the 50th year, it spills over and affects the inhabitants, those who live in the land.

Veshavtem ish el-achuzato, and each man returns to his ancestral holding. If you listen carefully to those words, it is not that the ancestral holding returns to you, it is you return to it, the land calls back its sons. The freedom of the land, affects its inhabitants. It affects servants too; the freedom that the land experiences is so profound that there could be no such thing as servitude anymore, the land beckons its children to be free as well. When the land experiences liberty, so in some profound way, do we all.

Hey, it's Rabbi Fohrman, if you get a chance to leave a comment at the end of this video, I always love reading those. Hope you enjoyed the video, Shabbat Shalom to you!

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