Shmita points to the Torah’s Author

From the medieval Kuzari to Lawrence Kelemen’s Permission to Receive to Aish HaTorah’s “Discovery Seminar,” Orthodox Jews have promoted many arguments to support the idea of the Divine origin of the Torah. Many focus on the impossibility of a Revelatory event witnessed by millions simply being invented later. Others have made the intriguing point that no human-created document would pay so much attention to the failings of its own people and leadership.

Then there’s the Torah Codes nonsense (dissed even by its own promoters) that “equidistant letter sequences” reveal hidden messages that could only have been inserted by a Divine Being.

While I find those approaches interesting, the most compelling argument to me arises from a phenomenon related to this year’s calendar: shmita. The Torah commands us to let our land lie fallow every seventh year; and 5775 is one such year. All agricultural activity is forbidden, and detailed rules govern the consumption and sale of shmita produce.

Leviticus 25:20-22 reassures the Israelites that agricultural rest every seventh year will not cause them to go hungry. In fact, it says, they will enjoy eight years’ worth of crops for every seven calendar years, despite the apparent handicap of periodic forced cessation of agricultural activity.

For centuries, the “bonus crops” idea has been considered a miracle; even today, most traditional Jews interpret it supernaturally, as a sign of God’s benevolence toward those who obey Him.

But the reward for shmita is not supernatural. It’s completely natural.

As any agronomist will confirm, land planted with the same crop year after year starts to yield ever-smaller harvests. It’s a basic fact of botany that every crop removes specific nutrients from the land, which can only be replenished by planting different crops sometimes, or by periodically letting the land lie fallow altogether.

Other than shmita, the first documented use of fallow land to benefit farming was in ancient Greece in the 5th century BCE. (The Chinese adopted the practice 400 years later.)

But traditional Jews believe God gave us the Torah in the 14th century BCE – nearly a millennium before anyone else was letting their land lie fallow. Shmita adherents attributed the seemingly miraculous bounty of their land to their Torah observance, as none of them knew anything about the interaction of crops with nutrients in the soil.

Of course, many people contend that the Torah is a much more recent document written by human beings. But even that theory supports my argument. There’s a consensus among Biblical critics that the rules of shmita formed part of the “Holiness Code,” which was completed by the 7th century BCE, with some verses significantly older.

So even those who deny the Divinity of the Torah assign the commandment of shmita a date two centuries or more before any similar farming method arose anywhere.

Since the Torah treats shmita as a Heavenly command, with detailed rules about a seven-year cycle and who can eat produce that grows anyway, it seems to be more than a farming tip.

I allow that it’s possible that the Hebrews were just the cleverest farmers around in ancient times, but if the Torah is just a human document, how could any person convince an entire pre-modern agricultural society to start resting their fields every seven years? Why would anybody believe something so counter-intuitive? Of course, once the system got going and people saw the additional yields, they may have continued it, but shmita had to start somewhere.

It’s not complete proof that the Torah is divine, but it does raise questions that even the most hardened atheist would have to think about.

And for people who are looking to explore religious ideas, shmita can be powerful evidence that the Torah is much more than a set of human-authored laws and stories.

After all, regarding shmita, the Torah tells us that God said, “Do X and you’ll be rewarded.” And our ancestors did X and were rewarded – long before anyone understood why.

That’s evidence enough for me.

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About the Author
David Benkof is a St. Louis-based writer and former faculty member at Yeshivat Darche Noam/Shapell’s in Jerusalem. He has a master's degree in modern Jewish history from Stanford. Follow him on Facebook or E-mail him at
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