Holy and Secular – NOTE: Several weeks ago, my “boss” in the Shabbat b’Shabbato bulletin, Rabbi Yisrael Rozen, wrote about the laws of Shemitta. He stated that Shemitta not only doesn’t improve the lot of poor people but that it in fact causes them harm. Rabbi Rozen gave a well reasoned analysis explaining that Shemitta and the worry for the poor are not connected at all. “The best way to provide for the poor people is to grow as much as possible and to distribute all the produce to the needy ones, not to void all ownership so that the rich and the poor are equal,” Rabbi Rozen wrote. “A year of hunger (because of the rabbinical prohibition of ‘sefichin’) always has the most serious effect on the poor.”
As far as I am concerned, even though Rabbi Rozen’s reasoning is correct his conclusions are wrong. Below, I will try to explain why I think that the Shemitta year does indeed provide some very basic and significant needs of the poor and the weakest sectors of the nation.
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The area was dark. Amir, a participant in a tank commander’s course, studied the field very carefully before he did what he wanted to do. Making sure that nobody was looking, he climbed onto a tank. There was nobody at all on the field. Everything was completely ready for the next day’s exercises.
Amir stood on top of a turret of the tank, and in front of him was the special instructor’s chair, installed for the commander to sit on during exercises. The chair was high up, giving the commander a view that was very impressive and gave him a sense of power. The students in the course were strictly forbidden to sit in this chair, since it was meant only for the commanders.
Amir approached the chair, and after a moment’s hesitation he gathered his courage. He sat down in the chair, and his face lit up with a broad smile of victory. When he got up, Amir felt great satisfaction. He might have been in danger of being thrown out of the course, but in the end he had sat in the special chair. It was worth the risk.
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What Amir did was indeed somewhat childish (even though he was never caught and he graduated successfully from the course). But his action stemmed from a very basic human need. This need exists among many people who are at the lowest social rung – the need to achieve social status.
We commonly categorize how unfortunate a person is according to his or her economic position. But it is important to realize that this is wrong. The economic status of those who live beneath the poverty line today is much better than that of the wealthiest people in our land at the time of the First Temple. But this does not contradict the fact that today’s poor people are unfortunate and the rich people of ancient times were happy. The economic status of all the Ethiopians who made Aliyah is much better than what exists in Ethiopia. But in spite of this, many of the new immigrants feel frustrated and bitter.
The correct measure of a person’s status depends mostly on his or her social situation and on how satisfied he is with his work. A person surrounded by rich people who do not have respect for him feels humiliated even if his economic situation is reasonable. On the other hand, a person who feels appreciated will be satisfied even if his salary is very low.
If we look at the types of gifts the Torah commands us to give the poor, we will see that aside from Maaser Ani, which is given out once every three years, the other gifts force the recipient to do physical labor. The gifts given in the fields – leket, shichicha, pe’ah – require the poor man to make an effort by gathering the produce in order to obtain it. The poor person does not get a free gift. He must work hard in order to provide for his family.
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Rabbi Rozen is right that from an economic standpoint there are better ways to provide for the poor people. But the mitzva of Shemitta gives the poor people something that no charity institution can give. Shemitta gives a poor person respect. The poor man is allowed to enter the orchards of the wealthy landowners and enjoy the fruits just like the owners usually do. The poor man is allowed to walk through the vineyards and the fields the same way as the richest men in the land, free and happy. Perhaps his economic situation will not be improved, but he will be brought to great heights of social and spiritual encouragement. Once every seven years, the poor people will feel that they are equal to everybody else.
Reprinted with permission from Zomet Institute (www.zomet.org.il). Translated from the Hebrew by Moshe Goldberg. To subscribe to receive the complete version of Shabbat B’Shabbato please write to email@example.com].
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.