Rav Kook’s “Shabbat Haaretz”

Yedidya Sinclair Tradition Online | September 5, 2021

Rav Kook’s Introduction to Shabbat Ha’aretz
Introduced and translated by Yedidya Sinclair

Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook’s Shabbat Ha’aretz is a rigorous and detailed halakhic treatment of what was and was not to be done in the shemitta of 1909-10 — and why. Its focus is the famous and still-controversial heter mekhira leniency of selling land in Israel to a non-Jew for the duration of the Sabbatical year to obviate the requirement to let it lie fallow. Characteristically, Rav Kook prefaced the book with an introduction written in an entirely different register. These pages are a poetic and mystical paean to the possibilities of shemitta. Their principal point of connection to the halakhic work is in Rav Kook’s argument that the talmudic sages enjoined the continued observance of shemitta as a reminder of what it could one day be. The introduction is an ecstatic effort to render the reminder as vividly as possible.

In this prefatory section, Rav Kook paints a picture of shemitta as enabling a renewed connection to the divine life-force in each individual and within humanity as a whole. Like Sabbath, shemitta quiets the tumult of the intervening periods and restores a more authentic relationship to ourselves, to one another, to nature, and to God. Its observance reveals the unique weave of socioeconomic relationships that the Torah would have us pattern. The Jubilee year is a revelation of the cumulative insight and holiness that we will have achieved in the previous seven shemitta cycles. Its ideals of liberty and emancipation bear universal meanings for the whole of civilization. Rav Kook outlines a biblically-based schema of Jewish history in which our ancestors’ avaricious neglect of shemitta led to exile from the Land of Israel and a prolonged divorce from the earthly, physical dimensions of life. This lengthy period of ethereal existence refined the people’s ethical sensibility, and they began once more to long for a return to their homeland. Rav Kook hoped that this nascent resettlement of the land would lead one day to the mitzvot connected to the land, shemitta foremost among them, being observed in full force. Yet he realized that the state of the agricultural pioneers in early twentieth-century Palestine was still precarious and that most would need to avail themselves of the heter mekhira so that the Yishuv could continue to grow and flourish to the point where full shemitta observance would eventually be possible. Meanwhile, he urged his readers to continue to study all they could about shemitta, as learning leads to action, and would help bring closer the day when shemitta would be observed as it should be.

But how should it be ideally observed? Clearly, Rav Kook hoped that one day it would be possible for all the halakhot of shemitta to be operational, including observance of the prohibitions against doing most forms of agricultural labor. But he envisioned much more: a periodic outbreak of justice, equality, psychic rebirth, and restored universal human dignity amounting to a comprehensive spiritual and social renewal.

This original translation from Rav Kook’s introduction to Shabbat Ha’aretz is excerpted from my forthcoming The Sabbath of the Land: Selections from Rav Kook’s Shabbat HaAretz and Contemporary Reflections on Renewing Shemitta (Hazon & Maggid Books).

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What Sabbath does for the individual, shemitta does for the nation as a whole. The Jewish people, in whom the godly, creative force is planted eternally and distinctively, has a special need to periodically reveal the divine light within itself with full intensity. Our mundane lives, with their toil, anxiety, anger, and competition do not entirely suffocate this creative force. On the shemitta, our pure, inner spirit may be revealed as it truly is. The forcefulness that is inevitably part of our regular, public lives lessens our moral refinement. There is always a tension between the ideal of listening to the voice inside us calling us to be kind, truthful, and merciful, and the conflict, compulsion, and pressure to be unyielding that surround buying, selling, and acquiring things.1 These aspects of the world of action distance us from the divine light and prevent its being discerned in the public life of the nation. This distancing also permeates the morality of individuals like poison. Stilling the tumult of social life from time to time in certain predictable ways is meant to move this nation, when it is well-ordered, to rise toward an encounter with the heights of its other, inner moral and spiritual life.2 They touch the divine qualities inside them that transcend all the stratagems of the social order and that cultivate and elevate our social arrangements, bringing them toward perfection.

“Just as it was said about the Sabbath of creation, ‘it is a Sabbath for God,’ so, too, it was said about the Sabbath of shemitta, ‘it is a Sabbath for God.’”3 The distinctive character of the people and the land dovetail with each other. Just as the people has a special aptitude for reaching spiritual heights from within the depths of everyday life, so, too, the land—God’s land—forms the people who dwell there as an everlasting inheritance that comes through a covenant and promise, with faith in the Eternal One of Israel, and is founded on the divine nature immovably infused in this wonderful land, which is married to the people whom God chose. The soul of the people and the land intertwine, working from the basis of their being to bring into existence the intricate patterns of inner holiness that lie within them during the sabbatical year. The people works with its soul force on the land, and the divine seed is revealed through its spiritual influence; the land, too, works on the people, refining its character in line with the divine desire for life inherent in their makeup.

The people and the land both need a year of Sabbath!

A year of peace and quiet, where there are no tyrants or taskmasters; “he shall not oppress his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of the Lord”;4 a year of equality and relaxation in which the soul may expand toward the uprightness of God, who sustains all life with loving-kindness; a year when there is no private property and no standing on one’s rights, and a godly peace will pervade all that breathes. “It shall be a year of complete rest for the land, but you may eat whatever the land will produce during its Sabbath—you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, and your cattle and the beasts on your land may eat all its yield” (Lev. 25:5-7). Persnickety claims to private property will not profane the holiness of the produce of the land during this year, and the urge to get rich, which is stimulated by trade, will be forgotten; as it says, “for you to eat—but not for your trade.”5 A spirit of generosity will rest on all; God will bless the fruit of the land “for you to eat and not your loss.” Human beings will return to a state of natural health, so that they will not need healing for sicknesses, which mostly befall us when the balance of life is destroyed and our lives are distanced from the rhythms of nature; “for you to eat” but not to make medicine and not to use as bandages (Sukka 40a). A holy spirit will be poured out upon all life; “it will be a year of complete rest for the land—a Sabbath of the Lord” (Lev. 25:4-5).

In this year, the divine character within the people will be revealed in its glory. This once-every-seven-year illumination carries an afterglow of divine ideals that will gradually shape our ethical characters so that the outlook that flows from them will become a deeper and more formative part of us, until a longer, significant period has elapsed—enough to raise up not merely individuals—or just the collective in a particular generation but all the generations that lived during that period.6 The Jubilee is a time of rebirth for the whole world, grounded in divine freedom.

Life during the shemitta year is guided by the natural, inner desire for goodness and justice, equality, and calm, which God has planted within the nation. The people did not become like this by imitating something external; it is part of its nature. When this inner life begins to reveal itself in all its purity, it does not stand still. It is expansive and generous, seeking the power to act and to influence its surroundings. Israel’s inner nature soaks up the elevating power of its good choices, which restore our lives and the pure penitence that reconnects us to the source of the Jewish people’s inner strength. Holiness grows throughout these spans of time: “Count the shemitta years in order to sanctify the Jubilees,”7 to prepare life for the Jubilee. “And you shall count off seven weeks of seven years—seven times seven years—so that the period of seven weeks of seven years gives you a total of forty-nine years” (Lev. 25:8). Shemitta will suckle from the life channel of the Jubilee, which will gradually rise and spread, until it gives shape to the life of the people. From those sources will the shemitta be filled with a wholesome and invigorating glow that will arise out of the yearning for a divine order that fills all existence and not merely its own inner being.

The spirit of the Jubilee will gather great strength, until it has sufficient potency not only to reveal the goodness within the soul of the people and protect its form of life, as does the shemitta, but also to fix the crookedness and brokenness of the past and to re-establish the people’s existence on its original pattern. It can restore a pristine freshness to our lives, not only through what is already present, albeit hidden in our souls, but also through what is being prepared to reveal itself and illuminate us by the power of our free choice to do what is good—which must awaken in the exalted Jubilee year.

In these years, when its inner character is being revealed, the nation gives a sign that it is preparing itself for an even higher level; one that can lead to a keen awareness of the godliness in life. The awakening of such awareness heralds a new spirit that announces great things: “Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month on the tenth day of the month—the Day of Atonement—you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land” (Lev. 25:9), and a godly spirit of general forgiveness, such as an individual experiences on Yom Kippur, will arise through the holiness of the Jubilee and spread throughout the entire society, clothing the whole people in a spirit of repentance and acquittal that will straighten out the injustices of the preceding period: “You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants” (Lev. 25:10). From Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur, slaves would neither be liberated, nor would they remain enslaved to their masters, but they would eat, drink, and rejoice with crowns on their heads. When Yom Kippur would arrive, the beit din would sound the shofar, slaves would be free to return home, and fields would revert to their original owners (Rosh Hashana 8b). This freedom does not erupt like some volcano; it emerges gradually from the higher holiness. It is not a radical exception to the regular social order but flows from within it, nurtured by the life of the shorter, preceding periods until, reinforced by the revelation of our choices for good, it has the power to repair past injustices.

If individuals fall from the status of free men and women and, forgetting their inherent nobility, are made into servants—“the ear that heard the words at Sinai, ‘the children of Israel are My servants’ (Lev. 25:55)—My servants, and not the servants of My servants”—and yet in spite of this he went and acquired a human master for himself8—now his freedom and self-respect are returned to him. Holiness flows into our lives from the highest source, the place from which the nation’s soul suckles light and “freedom is proclaimed throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Lev. 25:10). Inequality in landed property, which resulted from bodily and spiritual weakness and error, sapped his strength until he was forced to sell his ancestral patrimony. Now, however, restitution comes, corresponding to the people’s status at the beginning of its journey. The original property returns to those who have suffered from the vicissitudes of life, distorting their sense of their true value: “In this Jubilee, everyone shall return to his original holdings” (Lev. 25:13).

Yedidya Sinclair lives in Jerusalem, where he works in hi-tech. He holds Orthodox semicha, degrees from Oxford and Harvard Universities, and pursued Ph.d. Studies in the thought of Rav Kook. This essay is excerpted from his forthcoming The Sabbath of the Land: Selections from Rav Kook’s Shabbat HaAretz and Contemporary Reflections on Renewing Shemitta(Hazon & Maggid Books).

  1. There is a note of suspicion about commerce in this passage. For a discussion of Rav Kook’s relationship to socialist thought, see Shalom Rosenberg, “Introduction to the Thought of Rav Kook,” in The World of Rav Kook’s Thought, ed. Benjamin Ish-Shalom and Shalom Rosenberg (Avi Chai, 1991), 59–61.
  2. Cf. Rav Kook’s idea of “the continuous prayer of the soul”: the soul is always praying (i.e., yearning to unite with God). When we consciously pray, we rise to an encounter with the soul that is praying constantly (Olat ha-Re’aya 1:1).
  3. Rashi’s commentary on Lev. 25:2.
  4. Deut. 15:2. The verse quoted refers to the remission of debts in the shemitta and prohibits creditors from exacting payment from debtors.
  5. Mishna Shevi’it 7:3. In this passage, Rav Kook draws on a series of halakhic midrashim based on a phrase from Lev. 25:6, “for you to eat,” which is interpreted to exclude making use of food grown in the Land of Israel during the shemitta for purposes other than eating.
  6. For Rav Kook the elevation of the individual is achieved through observance of the Sabbath, and of the collective through shemitta.
  7. Arakhin 32b. The Talmud describes here how the advent of the Jubilee was to be calculated.
  8. Kiddushin 22b. The Talmud here censures the Hebrew slave referred to in Exod. 21:6, who elects to remain a slave beyond the mandatory period. His choice shows that he has not internalized the innate freedom and dignity that attaches to being a servant of God, not of man.

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