Connection Between Shmitah and Mount Sinai

With Appreciation for Rabbi Jonathan Slater

          One of the favorite questions of the rabbis is מאי שמיתה אצל הר סיני, what do the laws of the sabbatical year have to do with Mount Sinai (on which they are given)? As Rabbi Jonathan Slater taught, a contemporary question we might ask is “How much is the price of tea in China?” In other words, what does this have to do with me?

          The Gerer Rebbe, in his book Sefat Emet, teaches that the relationship between the sabbatical year and Mount Sinai has to do with condition of humanity. He writes, “Humans are both heavenly and earthly: the soul from the heavens, the body from the earth. When our soul is more powerful than the body, we can be like angels.” He references a teaching by Rabbi Yitzhak that “the usual way of things is that a person will fulfill a commandment for one day, for one week, even for one month. But is it likely that they will do so for the rest of the days of the year? But here, one sees their field untilled, their vineyard untilled, and yet they pay their taxes and keep silent! Have you a mightier one than this?”[1]

          The connection between the sabbatical year and Mount Sinai is that each of us has the potential to rise to heavenly beings through earthly acts. By letting our land lie fallow, trusting that we will have enough for ourselves, we are demonstrating our faith in the Holy One. Sefat Emet further quotes the Zohar which teaches “Whatever is in your power to do, do with all your might. With all your might-this signifies the soul.”[2] Our task as holy beings is to utilize our full potential to serve God. In the rat race of life we can lose sight of this, striving instead to get ahead of our fellow without recognizing that everything in life is a gift gratis from God.

          The connection between the physical and the spiritual is profound yet it is often overlooked or separated. What is taught in Sefat Emet is that we concretize the spiritual through our actions in the physical world. By resting once day a week, or letting our produce grow as it naturally does one year out of 7, we bring godliness into the world. Thus something which is as earthly as tilling the soil has the deepest spiritual significance.

          The next time we read a series of laws like that of the sabbatical year and think “That only applies in Israel” or “That’s the farmer’s domain” may we recognize that everything is interconnected and how we use (rather than ab303use) our land has Divine impact.

[1] Sefat Emet Behar 5663 (1903)

[2] Zohar I 196b commenting on Ecclesiastes 9:10

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