REVIEW: The Sabbath of the Land

Ariel Evan Mayse Tradition Online

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, The Sabbath of the Land: Selections from Rav Kook’s Shabbat HaAretz and Contemporary Reflections on Renewing Shemitta, translation and commentary by Yedidya J. Sinclair (Maggid Books, 2022)

My soul goes out among the green fields, among the plantings. But I am embarrassed to ask them if they will accept me with all the jumbled baggage; if there is room in their little tree-shed, for the many heavy pitchers of suffering in my home; for my silver candlesticks, for my mother’s ancient crown, for the collection of our nocturnal sufferings; for the silent gardens of Naught through which I wander, my child (Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky, Ganei ha-Ayin, 37).

There is a miraculous beauty found in the tangled madness of unworked fields. Such spaces are home to what the environmental philosopher Aldo Leopold called the “land community,” integrated and locally adapted webs of life that include everything from the microscopic residents of the soil biome to the majestic flora and fauna that inhabit its surface and air. These vivid worlds are crowded out by orderly rows of heavily tended crops, supported through artificial irrigation and chemical fertilizers. Fallow spaces remind us that the natural world of which we are a part is far less undomesticated than we like to think, and they also reveal the magnificent quality of ordinary ecosystems. A sense of quiet and untrammeled holiness emerges when human hands rest, a vital rhythm that pulses in time with that of Shabbat. This connection between agricultural rest and the sanctity and spiritual freedom of the Sabbath lies at the heart of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s Shabbat ha-Aretz, a remarkable work that has been opened anew for English readers by Yedidya J. Sinclair’s recent volume of carefully selected translations. 

Rav Kook

Great souls tend to inhabit those small but expansive stretches that exist between worlds, and this was certainly true of Rav Kook (1865–1935). A mystic, a legal scholar, and a philosopher, he authored an enormous number of writings that included poetry, essays, newspaper articles, theological treatises, personal and public letters, responsa, and private mystical journals. Rav Kook’s religious personality held together a wide variety of opposing forces: He was an introspective mystic summoned to the world of interiority, but, as a public rabbinic leader and functioning member of the pre-state Ottoman and British bureaucracies, he was devoted to civil life as well as his own inner spiritual universe. In a sense, Rav Kook’s intellectual life and career spanned the Old Yishuv and the New Yishuv, bringing together the pietistic culture of the Lithuanian yeshiva and the fiery, passionate spirituality of Hasidic piety with the pioneer ethos of the early settlers of Israel. He is rightly known for his attempts to rethink the legacies of Jewish thought and law in light of the political awakening of Zionism and especially for his deep and mystically expressed love of the Jewish people and for their connection to the Land of Israel.

Rav Kook’s Shabbat ha-Aretz was published just before the shemitta of 1909–1910. The issue of how to observe this agricultural ritual, then as now, was being hotly debated by Jews of all stripes. Some religious farmers, particularly those who had come to the Land of Israel during the First Aliyah, looked to follow the laws of shemitta in some sense, but many secular agriculturalists were uninterested in taking part in what they saw as an antiquated and economically stultifying ritual. Spelled out across the pages of Shabbat ha-Aretz, Rav Kook argued in favor of a controversial workaround: enabling continued production by selling the land (heter mekhira) to a non-Jew. This injunction would allow the growing agricultural economy to remain stable while maintaining nominal fealty to the laws of shemitta, not as an ideal but as a temporary means to an end. Rav Kook acknowledges that heter mekhira represents a rupture with the past, but one that is necessary because of the specific exigencies of returning to Zion and building the new land and its state.

The finer points of Rav Kook’s argument will be of interest to anyone concerned with the give and take of halakha, especially on a subject with vast and far-reaching consequences, but his forthright discussion of the meta-halakhic considerations that drove forward his ruling is particularly fascinating. Rav Kook yearned to observe shemitta in the new Jewish homeland, highlighting its tremendous spiritual, moral, and social significance, but he readily acknowledged the near-impossibility of doing so in the early twentieth century. Rav Kook emphasized the changed material and historical situation (shinui ha-matsav), arguing that the possibilities of halakha ought to follow suit in order to allow Jews to live upon the land while flourishing agriculturally. Seeing Israel as the national heart and geographic center of the people, Rav Kook was developing a theory of halakha as an expansive normative force that could work for the entire community rather than for the pious Jews of the Old Yishuv alone. In doing so, Rav Kook reveals himself to be neither a formalist nor a positivist, but as something closer to a legal realist for whom law ought to be interpreted, formulated, and situationally applied independently of purely legal considerations. 

This book and the ruling it advanced were quite controversial, and they garnered much critique from other rabbinic scholars. Rabbi Ya’akov David Wilovsky (Ridbaz, 1845–1913), for example, identified what he saw as a logical inconsistency in Rav Kook’s logic. The attempt to supplant the holiness of the land through heter mekhira cannot co-exist with the commandment to settle upon it, argued Ridbaz, since the latter mitzva is grounded in the sanctity of the Land of Israel as well. But this position, countered Rav Kook, incorrectly assumes that the land is no more than a preparatory trigger (hekhsher mitzva) for commandments that depend upon it. The land itself, like the study of Torah, has its own virtue and holiness that are not suspended by the temporary suspension of heter mekhira:

The principle of the holiness of the Land of Israel consists in living in it. The merit of being able to fulfill the commandments dependent on the land necessarily follows from living in the land, but if these commandments were suspended because of duress, the exalted holiness of the land itself would remain. The heart, spirit, and soul of every single member of Israel should yearn and desire to come and take hold of this precious land, the eternal home for the life of God’s people (115).

Selling the land may permit agricultural production during the shemitta year, but it neither diminishes the power and unique spiritual qualities of the land nor impacts the connection of the Jewish people. Taking a different tack, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (Beit ha-Levi 1820–1892) had cast aspersions on any activity that would suspend a commandment. Rav Kook acknowledged the fraught nature of any ruling that would compromise a mitzva, but at the same time he underscored its necessity in light of present circumstances:

[F]rom the perspective of balancing love of God, love of the commandments, love of the Land [of Israel], and its holiness, together with love of the whole people [ha-uma] – this requires a kind of balancing that is similar to the norm of weighing saintliness [in the performance of commandments], about which it is said, “and to him who improves his way, I will show the salvation of God” (Ps. 50:23) (119).

Stringency and excessive adherence to precedent, claimed Rav Kook, makes it so that the whole system cannot function for the entirety of the people. Such formalism may also demonstrate that the jurist is disconnected from the people and from their specific needs at the historical moment of returning to the Land of Israel.

The arguments adduced by Rav Kook in favor of heter mekhira are deeply compelling, though the matter remains much-debated even within the Religious-Zionist world. Readers uninitiated into the complex world of rabbinic debate and Jewish jurisprudence may get stuck in the weeds in Rav Kook’s proofs, though Sinclair’s explanatory notes and references are extremely helpful in clarifying the text. But these legal reflections are only one part of Shabbat ha-Aretz. Rav Kook’s magnificent introduction offers a stirring description of theological and spiritual significance of shemitta and even its ecological potential, though of course he did not use that term. This account reinforces his suggestion that heter mekhira is only temporary, with the ideal being full observance of shemitta and its effacement of social and economic hierarchy, sparking a time of spiritual renewal on the personal, communal, and terrestrial levels. “What Sabbath does for the individual,” claimed Rav Kook, “shemitta does for the nation as a whole” (57). Moreover, this spatio-temporal period of rest both reveals and strengthens the unique bond between a people and their land:

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 country, 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 (59).

The imprint of this experience, like the light of Shabbat carried over into the week, continues even after its observance has ceased: “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” (61). Though economically unattainable at present, the power of shemitta will further the aim development of the people, and the renaissance and renewal of their lives upon the Land of Israel.

Translating Rav Kook’s flowery, poetic, and often obscure Hebrew is a thorny task indeed, but Sinclair has shown himself to be up to the task. The original text, printed alongside the translation, is another particularly welcome addition to this volume. Sinclair’s excellent introduction regarding both the concept of shemitta and the life and times of Rav Kook will help orient readers and help them discern key themes and concepts. 

[Read Sinclair’s overview and an excerpt of Rav Kook’s Introduction, published last year in TraditionOnline.]

One lacuna is a wider discussion that puts Rav Kook’s thinking and the issues of shemitta into dialogue with the broader landscape of Religious Studies. A welcome juxtaposition to the noted American agriculturalist, yeoman philosopher, and poet Wendell Berry (b. 1934) as someone closer to Rav Kook’s thinking rather than ideologues of Gush Emunim, invites further comparisons. What is the ethos of land-care variously expressed in indigenous communities, sometimes called traditional ecological knowledge? Another desideratum is some critique—even if appreciative—of Rav Kook’s thinking, and the romanticism and essentialism of his positions. His work, though powerful and often gripping, evinces a certain political and intellectual naiveite. What is the price that is paid for such formulations, especially as his nationalistic doctrines were reinterpreted in the latter half of the twentieth century? Rav Kook’s writings are riven with a tension between his universalistic yearnings and his nationalistic commitments? “The particular and the universal are profoundly interdependent in the most vital and spiritual sense,” claimed Rav Kook, “the particular needs the universal, and the universal needs the particular” (51). But how does that really work? More could have been done spelling out these fissures, as well as the implications for contemporary Jews grappling with how to do shemitta, and also dealing with the ecological implications. 

A final note on that point. Sinclair’s volume is an extremely timely contribution. We are on the bridge of an ecological calamity. Global climate change and the impending environmental disaster represent the greatest moral and existential crises of our day. This ecological catastrophe manifests in extreme weather events, loss of biodiversity, depletion of resources, pollution of air, water, and soil, prolonged droughts, and mass extinction of species. Scientists concur that we are barreling toward the point of no return, and these statistics amount to a crisis, one that should obviously prompt us to rethink our ways of acting, thinking, and being in the world. While hungers for expansion and extraction have led us to the brink of environmental collapse, as a society and perhaps as a species, we have reached an inflection point that appears gordian in complexity and scope. Many Jewish environmental organizations have done little more than to mine religious literatures for notions analogous to contemporary environmental keywords (tikkun ‘olam, bal tashhit, tza’ar ba’alei hayyim, and so forth). These approaches, though well-meaning, do little more than repeat established paradigms without offering alternative worldviews or ethical frameworks. 

To address the dire environmental problems, we must now perform the deeper work of exploring traditional sources with an eye to alternative modes of theorization and valuation that can unseat regnant assumptions about humanity and our relationship to the non-human world. Shemitta offers a radically different frame for considering our ways of being and acting in the world, a vision that is far from the mindset of extraction and infinite growth that governs so much of our political, economic, and social order. The biblical verses teach that the land is to rest in the seventh year because it is an actor and a subject; it is not simply an object. It can become exhausted, and, if ignored or spitefully treated, it can flex its power and spit us forth from upon the soil. Shemitta should concern both Israeli and Diaspora Jews, claims Nigel Savage in the volume’s introduction, and it ought to matter even for those who are not directly involved in agriculture. The idea of a Sabbatical year has vast implications for rethinking our foodways, our means of agriculture production, our social organization, and our very conception of “land”—some of these are spelled out in Sinclair’s introduction, and I hope that readers will take them seriously. We are now in the twilight of this shemitta year. Will the next one be too late? Or will we have the courage to take Rav Kook’s message to heart and stretch toward a grounded future of spiritual, economic, and social renewal?

Ariel Evan Mayse is assistant professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University and rabbi-in-residence of Atiq: Jewish Maker Institute


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