There are three (distinct) districts (in Eretz Yisrael) in respect to the law of (biur) removal: Judea, Eiver haYarden, and the Galilee, and each one of these is (in turn,) divided into three districts. (Galilee is divided into) Upper Galilee, Lower Galilee, and the valley; from Kfar Hananiah upwards, where sycamores do not grow, is the Upper Galilee; from Kfar Hananiah downwards, where the sycamores grow, is the Lower Galilee; the environs of Tiberias is the valley. And in Judea: The mountain region, the lowlands, and the valley. The plains of Lod are like the lowlands of the south, and its mountain region is like the King’s Mountain. From Beit Ḥoron to the sea is considered one district.
[Mishna, Sh’vi’it 9:2]
The Torah commands that we refrain from working fields in Eretz Yisrael and declare the land’s yield ownerless. The produce of the fields is called “the produce of sh’vi’it”, and special laws apply to it, including the requirement of “biur”. Chazal (Our Sages) understood the posuk (verse) “And all of its produce may be eaten (also) by your domestic animals and by the beasts that are in your Land” [Vayikra 25:7] to mean that as long as there is food in the fields for the non-domestic animals, the produce may be used to feed one’s domestic animals. When no produce is left in the fields for “beasts”, the Israelite must remove whatever produce he has taken into his home and declare it ownerless. Chazal determined the appropriate time for biur on a regional basis. Each of the three regions has three sub-regions, with the time of biur being unique to each region.
Questions on the Mishna
We must understand why the Torah decreed that once produce is no longer available to wild animals, the farmer is obligated to remove it from his home and declare it ownerless. Is the Torah concerned that there be food for wild animals, or is it simply the criterion for biur, with no connection to caring for the welfare of wild animals?
We can also question the Chazals’ division of the Land into regions and sub-regions. Why was it so clear to Chazal that if there is no produce left in the fields for wild animals, they will have no other place to find food? Perhaps the animals will migrate to find food in a different region?
By understanding the mitzva of Shemitta in general and of biur in particular, we shall be able to answer our questions.
Mitzvat Shemitta A Taste of the Days of Mashiacḥ
Toledot Yitzḥak (Rabbi Yitzḥak Karo 1458 – 1535) writes that the mitzva of Shemitta is intended to instill faith in the coming of Mashiacḥ, a hint of the time when the land itself will bring forth bread. Similarly, Rabbi Karo explains the reason the blessing of bread is “Who brings forth bread from the land,” even though God does not provide bread directly, but it produced through man’s work done after the wheat has been harvested: Chazals’ intention in the wording of the blessing is to hint at the days of Mashiacḥ, when everything will be ready without any effort by man, and the punishment of Adam “by the sweat of your brow you will eat your bread” [Bereishit 3:19] will no longer be in force. Based upon this approach, Rabbi Karo explains the reason that failure to observe Shemitta results in exile. Apparently, Rabbi Karo’s intention is that the reality of eating bread through “the sweat of one’s brow” was forced upon mankind as the result of Adam’s sin. The vision of the World to Come is of a place where dealing with things material is minimalized and the bulk of one’s time will be devoted to spiritual ascension. The farmer who refrains from working his fields during Shemitta thereby expresses his internal desire to achieve that reality. On the other hand, the farmer who works his fields during the Shemitta year, in effect demonstrates that he believes the current reality to be the ideal and he has no spiritual aspirations to reach the days of Mashiacḥ, and therein lays his sin. Exile from the Land will disconnect him from things material and rectify him spiritually.
The days of Mashiacḥ will be times when the world achieves its rectification, an era in which mankind will improve itself morally and reach the level of doing that which is good and just. During the era of Mashiacḥ, man’s choice will not be between good or doing evil, but between good and better.
Rabbi Kook zt”l explains that the goal of Shemitta is to gradually prepare us for the sublime reality of the future. The mitzva of biur does not arise out of concern for wild animals, proof of which is the fact that after declaring the produce ownerless, the Israelite has no obligation to leave it for the animals. Nonetheless, the very fact that the Torah created a connection between the available produce and animals which are not ours should engender in us a feeling of some measure of responsibility for those animals. In the future, we will not be obligated to do cḥessed with our fellow- men, since it will not be necessary, but we will do cḥessed with animals which are not our property, such as wild birds and animals. This is not current reality, but preparation for the future.
However, says Rabbi Kook, in contemporary times we cannot act in this manner on an ongoing basis and in every year. The mitzva of Shemitta is a hint of the sublime era which will arrive, the days of Mashiacḥ. Our contemporary expression of concern for wild animals takes place during the Shemitta year. Only during Shemitta, when one is free from material activity to focus on Torah, is it appropriate to strive for this high level. As long as the world has not been rectified, during the remaining years it behooves one to focus on doing cḥessed with those who long for bread to eat.
The Strictness of Biur Sh’vi’it
The Torah is strict in the matter of biur on a detailed regional basis because of its great moral significance. During the Shemitta year we encounter a vision of the future, when men will be free to do cḥessed with the animals of the fields. In the future, the desire to do good with animals will be complete. In every region it is necessary to determine when humans can benefit from the produce of the fields in order to ensure that he is doing cḥessed with animals. It is necessary to make this determination for each species and each region. During the Shemitta year, a year of ascent from materialism, we strive to link up with the high moral level of concern for all of God’s creatures.
This approach answers our second question: why Chazal did not relate to the possibility that animals would migrate to find sources of food. The Gemara [Pesacḥim 52b] states that animals from the region of Yehuda cannot be sustained by the produce of the Galilee and vice versa. Every animal is used to the produce available in its region; its food is part of its habitat. Therefore, an animal is reluctant to leave its natural habitat. The Torah wants us to be sensitive and see to it that animals not have to wander out of their own habitat to find their food. While it may be that an animal will find its necessary sustenance elsewhere, it is not appropriate that humans eat the produce of a region in which wild animals have nothing to eat and will be forced to wander out of their habitat to find its sustenance.
Spiritual Elevation in the Holy Land
The spiritual elevation towards the level of the days of Mashiacḥ is exclusive to Eretz Yisrael. Only within the Land is it possible to achieve elevation to the lofty moral heights of the World to Come on a national level. Rabbi Kook explains that the Shemitta year is one of national elevation, not of individuals. The entire nation refrains from material endeavors and frees itself to focus on Torah and Divine service. Shemitta is a year of spiritual rest for the entire nation. This can be true only within the Holy Land, which is the homeland of the Israelite nation. Only upon the holy soil of the Land is it possible to reveal the messianic level which the nation is worthy of reaching and which the nation so eagerly wants to announce to the world.