Letter & Spirit: Is Shmitta Utilitarian?

In this week’s edition of Letter and Spirit, in honor of this year of shmitta and this week’s parsha (B’har-b’chukosai) where we learn the laws of shmitta, we present a letter from the Rebbe in which he explains the idea of shmitta as much more than just a question of utility – where we give the land a “rest” (as is so commonly believed). The letter was written in English through the Rebbe’s trusted secretary Rabbi Nissan Mindel, and was made available by the latter’s son-in-law, Rabbi Sholom Ber Shapiro.

The Rebbe argues that shmitta is not even necessary for the productivity of the land. Furthermore, the Rebbe discusses the general concept of “rest” as Jews see it, the Torah perspective. Is rest a necessary evil (as seen from the non-Torah perspective), or a true and essential good in and of itself?

This weekly feature is made possible by a collaboration between CrownHeights.info and Nissan Mindel Publications. Once a week we publish a unique letter of the Rebbe that was written originally in the English language, as dictated by the Rebbe to Rabbi Mindel.


By the Grace of G-d

20th Iyar, 5740

Brooklyn, N.Y.


Bridgeport, Conn.

Greeting and Blessing:

This is to acknowledge receipt of your letter in which you outline your concept of Shemittah and refer to the day of Shabbos by way of analogy. As you see it, the Torah teaches us that the land must rest, in the seventh year, in order to recoup its mineral losses and be refreshed for the labors of the subsequent six years, much in the way as Shabbos refreshes not only the soul but the body so that it too can recoup its losses for the labors that are sure to come.

Since you asked me to comment on your said thesis, I will begin with an illustration.

When one observes a human being giving food th a hungry person and attempts to analyze this action, the explanation will surely not be limited to the physical hand that gives the food, for this is but the last in a chain of actions and reactions going back to the human soul, which possesses the quality of kindness with which the soul has been endowed. To say that all that is involved in the said action is a simple act of kindness to a hungry person, or that this is the main explanation of it, would obviously be taking a most narrow, limited and indeed, misconceived view.

Similarly, in regard to the totality of the Torah and mitzvos. Certainly, the Torah is the G-d-given “Good Doctrine” ( ki lekach tov nossati lochem torosi al ta’azovu) for man’s benefit, both spiritual and material. However, all its precepts must be observed as Divine imperatives, whether they are obviously beneficial or not. From the actual compliance with the Divine imperatives evolve their consequences in terms of benefits, not only spiritually, the primary benefit, but also physically and materially, since we live in a physical and material world. Such benefits would include, in the case of Shabbos observance, physical and mental recuperation and in the case of kashrus, wholesome nutrition and so on; but the utilitarian aspect of mitzvos is certainly not everything, nor is it the primary and essential aspect.

Nothing makes this point clearer than the text of the benediction recited before doing a mitzvah  “… who sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us to…” This plainly means that every mitzvah has to be fulfilled as a sacred act of obedience to G-d, whereby a Jew partakes of G-d’s holiness and sanctifies every aspect of his everyday life. Indeed, the whole Torah was accepted on the…..(missing end of sentence……)

Incidentally, in the case of shemittah, you surely know that modern science has dispensed with the necessity to keep the soil fallow for a season in order to maintain its fertility; and certainly there was never any necessity to keep the soil completely uncultivated for a whole year. Rotation of crops and fertilization can do more for the soil than by idling it, and there would be no need to lose a whole year’s harvest. Besides, the prohibition to cultivate orchards and vineyards during shemittah cannot be explained on the basis of utility.

The same is largely true in the case of Shabbos observance. Physical and mental recuperation does not necessarily call for complete inactivity; one may benefit also from merely changing the kind of activity and people often engage in strenuous recreational exercises by way of change and rest. Clearly, therefore, the cessation from all manner of work on Shabbos is not intended to provide physical recuperation. The halachah itself provides proof of this. For, as you know, striking a match on Shabbos is strictly prohibited as a desecration of the holiness of Shabbos, whereas moving about heavy furniture inside the home is not prohibited on Shabbos. There is surely no need to elaborate to you on the above.

While on this subject, it is worth noting the cardinal difference between the Jewish and non-Jewish concept of the “day of rest.” The ancient Romans considered the Jewish people “indolent” for not working a whole day in the week. When the nations of the world eventually adopted the idea of a day of rest (on Sunday of Friday), it was more in the nature of a concession to human weakness, recognizing that the human body needed physical rest. But the Jewish concept of Shabbos as a day of rest is completely positive, as is eloquently brought out in the Midrash, where our Sages observe that after G-d completed the work of Creation in six days and found that everything was “very good,” the world was still lacking something, namely menuchah, rest, and only when Shabbos came and brought menuchah did the whole Creation attain perfection.

At first glance, the institution of Shabbos, as well as shemittah , may appear at variance with the rule that “man to toil is born.” But the truth of the matter, as explained in our sacred sources, is that G-d gave us the Shabbos not for physical rest per se, but for spiritual rejuvenation, through increased Torah study and prayer without distraction of the normal weekday routine. The same basic concept characterizes the year of shemittah which, though it does not call for the cessation of all the 39 types of “work” as on Shabbos , does call for cessation of all agricultural activity (the principle occupation in olden days), leaving ample free time to devote to the affairs of the soul and strengthening our bond with our Creator. This is why the Torah designates the year of shemitah as “a Shabbos unto G-d.”

With blessing,


The above letter is from a forthcoming volume of The Letter and the Spirit Series, two volumes of which have been published to date, with volume three coming out shortly, IYH. The letters are from the archives of Rabbi Dr. Nissan Mindel, a personal secretary to the Previous Rebbe and The Rebbe, whose responsibilities included the Rebbe’s correspondence in English.

We thank Rabbi Sholom Ber Shapiro, director of Nissan Mindel Publications and the one entrusted by Rabbi Mindel, his father-in-law, with his archives, for making these letters available to the wider public. May the merit of the many stand him in good stead.

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