Shmittah, It’s more than about fruits and vegetables

Thoughts on Parshat Re’eh

Quick, what is the first word that comes to mind when you hear the word “shmittah”?

Most likely it is “agriculture”. Or more specifically an entire industry of grossly overpriced, imported fruits and vegetables, mostly from our not very good friends in the Gaza strip, with rabbis signing their names on carrots and onions; caftaned kollel men leasing a square meter of arable land in “Eretz Yisroel” for one year on which to observe the mitzvah fully by NOT growing anything; and of course, the battle royal between haredim and Zionists about whether it is permissible to sell the land of Israel (as we do our hametz during Passover) and thereby continue farming during the fallow year of shmittah.

Indeed shmitah has become big business, and a great way to make a buck for people who wouldn’t know how to suspend an avocado pit over a glass of water let alone grow a proper tomato. And this big business, ironically, preys mostly on the poor who can least afford such overpriced produce.

Because, oddly enough, this week’s Parsha (Re’eh) devotes no fewer than eleven verses to Shmittah without even once mentioning agriculture. In fact the entire shmitta section in our parsha focuses on helping the poor financially, not gouging them.

The laws of shmittah begin with Deuteronomy Chapter 15 verse 1-2:

At the end of every seven years you shall make a release (shmittah). And this is the manner of the shmittah: every creditor who lends anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not exact it of his neighbor or his brother because he has proclaimed a shmittah (release) to the Lord.

 The Torah then goes on to assuage our fears of sustaining unbearable losses through bad loans by reassuring us; “But there shall be practically no poor among you because G-d will bless you in the Land which the Lord your God is giving you as a leqacy to inherit (15:4). But only if you listen to the voice of the Lord your God, to keep and perform all this entire mitzvah which I command you today.”(15:5)

In other words, our very generosity in extending loans guarantees the lack of need for generosity, as there will be few who are truly needy.

The Torah however assures us that there will always be at least some needy folk and “…you Should not harden your heart nor shut you hand from your poor brothers, but you should open your hand wide to him, and must surely lend him enough for his need, for that which he lacks” (15:7)

The shmittah section concludes with a warning that we should not withhold loans as the shmittah year approaches, even though in all likelihood we will never see such loans repaid as the Shmittah will cancel those debts in short order:

“Beware lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart saying, the seventh year, the year of Shmittah is at hand, and you eye will be wicked against your poor brother, and you will give him nothing, and he will cry to the Lord against you for it will be reckoned against you as a ain (9) You will surely give him and your heart will not be aggrieved when you give to him because this is why the Lord your God will bless you in all your works and in everything to which you put your hand” (15:10)

Now, aside from the curious fact that the Torah here is vastly, indeed exclusively, concerned with the poor and how we treat them within the context of the shmittah cycle, it is equally interesting to note the manner in which the Torah instructs us to extend such financial aid.

Up until the actual approach of shmittah and its mandatory remission of debts, the Torah instructs us to lend money to the poor, rather than give it as charitable handouts. Is the reason for this to protect the financial interests of the lender, or is it to protect the pride of the borrower?

And yet when we are instructed to continue helping the needy even as shmittah approaches, at a time when any loan is virtually certain to remain unpaid, the Torah shifts from the language of lending to the language of giving

(“נתון תתן לו – verse 10) even though it is a loan that we are extending, not a handout.

I believe the Torah’s message is threefold:

  1. Our charitable activity is intimately connected to labor. We work our fields six years out of seven. And so do the poor. It is just that the poor cannot make ends meet. They need our help getting their act together. Hence anyone who refuses to work altogether is a priori outside the pale of the shmittah cycle and therefore deserving of no help. After all, if you do not work the land during the six years, then how exactly do you observe shmittah on the seventh? And if you have zero possibility of repaying a loan, how could any loan be justified?
  2. The second lesson is that we do not give handouts, we give loans. This is not because we are greedy and expect our money back (although hopefully we will see it returned). Rather it is because a loan is a way to preserve the dignity of the poor, by providing the veneer of a business transaction rather than outright charity. And, once again, a loan can only be given to one who has some hope of repaying it. An indolent individual who rejects the commandment of “six days you shall work” is not someone to whom we are obligated to lend money.
  3. The third lesson is that we have to be realistic. A loan given as Shmittah approaches is not likely to be repaid ever. Hence the Torah here uses the word “give” rather than “lend” – not because the money is not being given as a loan, but because we are being realistic, as we are lending money which we have virtually zero chances of recovering.

And finally, the overarching lesson is that when we provide loans to the poor we should not do so because we are certain of being repaid. Indeed, the likelihood – especially as shmittah draws closer – is that we will never be repaid. Even in the earlier years of the shmittah cycle, giving a loan to a high risk, legitimately poor individual could very well mean never seeing the money again. Still, this should never prevent us from lending that money. On the contrary, we must lend money to those in need, without interest, while being fully conscious of the fact that it may never be repaid. This is the source of our blessing.