Beyond the Heads and Tails of the Sabbatical Year

Is the flip side of Rosh Hashanah the old year, meaning the outgoing year or, is the flip side of Rosh Hashanah the year’s tail, meaning the end of the upcoming year?

At the end of every seven year cycle, at an appointed time of the Year of Letting-Go, on the festival of Sukkos. When all of Israel comes to appear before HaShem your Elokim in the place that he shall choose, you must read this Torah before all of Israel so that it is heard by their ears.  You must assemble the Nation; men, women, children and converts who dwell within your gates and let them hear it …

Devarim 31:10-12

When they are a third grown by the end of the seventh year [then] produce and olives that ripen in the eighth year {i.e. the first year of the new seven-year cycle} have the halachic status of produce and olives of the Sabbatical “Year of Letting-Go ”] What is the source this rule? — Rabi Assi said in the name of Rabi Yochanan (some trace it back to the name of Rabi Yohsee the Galilean): The pasuk states: “At the end of every seven year cycle, at an appointed time of the year of Letting-Go, on the festival of Sukkos..” Why should the [seventh] year of Letting-Go to be mentioned here? When the festival of Sukkos is celebrated [coming as it does after Rosh Hashanah] it is already the eighth year? It is into teach us that if produce has grown one third in the seventh year before New Year, the rules of the seventh year are to be applied to it even in the eighth year.

— Rosh Hashanah 12B

The heavens are HaShem’s heavens; but He gave the earth to the children of Adam

— Tehillim 115:16

 Whatever HaShem wills He has done, in heaven and in earth, in the oceans and in all the depths.

— Tehillim 135:6

 A Pruning Song of David.  The earth and it’s fullness [belongs] to HaShem; the world, and its inhabitants.

— Tehillim 24:1/daily psalm of Sunday

 

Rabi Akiva would say … All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted. 

— Pirkei Avos 3:15

Rosh Hashanah is often mistranslated as “the New Year” and while it is the moed-festival that comprises the first days of a new calendar year the more precise translation is “Year’s Head.” The difference may seem inconsequential and hair-splitting at first glance but takes on greater significance when considering the obverse. Is the flip side of Rosh Hashanah the old year, meaning the outgoing year or, is the flip side of Rosh Hashanah the year’s tail, meaning the end of the upcoming year?

While this quandary is of primarily semantical interest every year, it is of particular interest when contemplating the impending year, 5775, the seventh year of the seven year cycle endowed with sabbatical and debt absolving properties. Per the halachah the cessation of agricultural activities indicative of the shevi’is-sabbatical; nature of the year begins when the year does; whereas the absolution of debts, reflecting the shemitah-“Letting-Go”; nature of the year begins when the year ends (Rambam: Laws of Release and Jubilee years 4:9). The Izhbitzer adds an insight into the essence of this extraordinary year that expands the years parameters beyond its “tail” terminus and that should have us thinking about it differently beginning from its “head.”

Man perpetually oscillates between G-d-reliance and self-reliance. The reality is that Divine Providence and Omnipotence is absolute and all encompassing as Rabi Akiva taught “All is foreseen.” Nevertheless the mysterious, Divinely granted autonomy of human beings; “yet freedom of choice is granted” seems to carve out a space for human self-reliance and self-determination and echoes the formulation of David the king that “The heavens are HaShem’s heavens; but He gave the earth to the children of Adam” i.e. that man was granted limited autonomy in terms of making moral and ethical choices, selections and refining in serving G-d.


Tragically, human beings often fall into the proverbial “give somebody an inch and they’ll take a mile” trap, extending and aggrandizing HaShems, limited, narrow gift to mankind of “the earth” i.e. free-will, way beyond its actual dimensions. For in truth, even after this baffling and mysterious gift to man, it is HaShems Will that is done, in heaven and in earth, in the oceans and in all the depths. The earth and it’s fullness the world, and its inhabitants still belong to HaShem. In the Izhbitzers metaphor; human free-will represents no more than the delicate, insubstantial membrane of the garlic clove, while man, surrendering to his own hubris-induced illusions, imagines it to be the clove itself, if not a million acre field full of garlic. Man surveys his art, agriculture, science, medicine, technology, politics, architecture, education, military and all the other trappings of human civilization and egocentrically proclaims “it was my own might and personal power that produced all this prosperity for me.” (Devarim 8:17) implicitly asking the heretical, rhetorical question: “What’s G-d got to do with it?”

The 39 categories of melachah-creative activity; prohibited on Shabbos cover the full gamut of human enterprise.  Absent melachah, man is rendered powerless and lacks the authority of possession. As it embodies the cessation of all human creativity, ingenuity and productivity; Shabbos is the anti-inflammatory that reduces the puffiness of mankind’s collective swelled head. Every Shabbos the compelling truth that the earth and its fullness, the world and its inhabitants still belong to HaShem is refreshed and reaffirmed. Charles de Gaulle wryly observed that “The cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable men.” To paraphrase we might say that the indispensible activity and dominion of men are buried in the Shabbosos of time, when all human input ceases and, voilà, the world continues to exist and function.

But it is not enough to behold Divine Control and Ownership on Shabbos — when it is clearly visible. We must maintain our Shabbos sensibilities amid the cacophony and white-noise arising from the storm and stress of weekday human civilization reasserting itself. The “seeing” of Shabbos needs to overflow its banks and spill “believing” in Divine Control and Possession into mundane, workaday time. This, teaches the Izhbitzer, is why the custom developed to extend shalosh seudos-the third Shabbos meal; well past nightfall on Motzoei Shabbos-Saturday night; which is the halachic onset of Sunday and all the mundane days of the week and why the psalm of Sunday begins with the words “The earth and it’s fullness … to HaShem; the world, and its inhabitants.” When the self-aggrandizing mirage of “it was my own might and personal power that produced all this prosperity for me” begins to rematerialize we need tangible reminders that “Whatever HaShem wills He has done, in heaven and in earth, in the oceans and in all the depths.”

Just as there are lower case and upper case letters; the rhythms of time are writ small and writ large. The shemitah-shevi’is year is the UPPER CASE letters, Shabbos writ large as it were.  What could be more illustrative of HaShem’s Ownership and Control than a full year in which man lays down his tools and does nothing — an agrarian economy in which no human farmers practice agriculture? Still, thick-headed and swell-headed humanity needs to have more than a year’s head, a year’s trunk and a year’s tail of being utterly superfluous to absorb the truth of Divine Sovereignty.

To accomplish this we have the halachah of assembling all of Klal Yisrael-The Jewish People; AFTER the shemitah-shevi’is year has just ended, on the Sunday of years, as it were, to read the Torah so that it is “heard by their ears”; so that they really “get-it”, so that  the sanctity and palpable reality of the shemitah-shevi’is years Divine Sovereignty becomes firmly and permanently implanted in their national consciousness.  Just as the edibles of the final (third) Shabbos meal are consumed with the reverence and unique otherworldly flavor of Shabbos, after Shabbos has actually departed; the final fruits of the year of Shabbos (those that grew a third, presumably in the last third of the year) are treated with the status of sabbatical-year fruits although they ripened in the Sunday of years.

As we usher in the shemitah-shevi’is Years head we should already begin to grasp that this special year has no real tail. The sanctified Shabbos of years overflows its banks and is a year without end. Yehi ratzon shenihyeh lerosh v’lo lezanav– May it be His will that we be as a head — and not as a tail.

~adapted from Mei Hashiloach Behar D”H Veshavsah
Mei Hashiloach Vayeilech D”H
Mikeitz
Mei Hashiloach II Vayeilech D”H Hakhel

 

6 comments on “Beyond the Heads and Tails of the Sabbatical Year

  1. I once heard someone explain that Izhbitz limited freedom of choice to the realm of thought and desire as opposed to carrying out the action. Does this capture any of their concept as you see it?

  2. A kesivah v’chasimah tovah to all readers / learners of From the Waters of Shiloah and to all of k’lal Yisrael.

    May this coming shnas shabboson usher in the yom shekulo shabbos umenuchah.

  3. Bob, as almost every passage in Noam Eliemelech is on the doctrine of Tzadikism (AKA the need for, and role of a, “Rebbe” in chassidus) as almost every passage in the Breslover ouvre deals with themes of joy, hope and staving off despair so too the Izhbitzer school virtually obsesses on the interplay between foreknowledge and free-will.

    To accurately answer your question would require translating hundreds, perhaps thousands of pages of profound and, at least to me, opaque divrei Torah.

    Suffice it to say that, as the metaphor of the garlic membrane implies, the predominant message emanating from the written words (chaval… there are precious few Radzyner chassidim left alive who heard the Torah she’baal peh of the great expositors of this school) of the Izhbitzer school “sounds” more deterministic, and allows for far greater limits on human free will, than we are accustomed to hearing.

    For a representative d’var Torah click here and see
    http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=19936&st=&pgnum=17

    http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=19936&st=&pgnum=18

    D”H ותכחש

  4. Going beyond the metaphor, how does Izhbitz explain the free choice? What aspect of free choice is objectively “real” in their view?

  5. And this would perhaps explain the various Maasros that are given; why they are prescribed for 3rd and 6 years of Shmitta cycle, to keep that reminder going…

    Beautifully WRIT, as usual.

  6. R. Schwartz,
    Once again, you brought a different take on
    these parshiot and what the sabbatical year
    has to do with shabbat.
    Thank you for an exciting new view on free choice vs. H’s plan for us.

    AMAZING AS USUAL

    SHAVUAH TOV GUT VOCH

    KETIVA V’ CHASIMA TOVA

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