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The Benefits of Keeping Shemittah

Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

The Torah portion outlines the mitzvah of Shemittah – refraining from working one’s land. Most people are nowadays are not farmers so this aspect of the Mitzva is not so applicable 1, but that does not mean that Shemittah is irrelevant. There are numerous laws pertaining to fruit that grew on the Shemittah year itself – they are imbued with holiness and must be treated as such. For example, it is forbidden to throw Shemittah fruit away unless it rots, to use them in an unusual way, and to send them out of the Holy land. The main idea generally derived from Shemittah is trust that a person who refrains from working his land will not ultimately lose out, and God will help him. The following story indicates that this idea even applies to someone who is careful to observe the other aspects of Shemittah. This is in addition to the general concept that a person will not lose out from performing a Mitzva, as expressed in Kohelet: ‘One who keeps a Mitzva will not know anything bad’.2

Rabbi Yissachar Frand relates this story in the name of Rabbi Asher Anschel Eckstein, a Rabbinic Judge in the Belzer Community in Jerusalem, which he heard with his own ears from the family members involved in the story.

A woman who resided in the holy city of Jerusalem had a non-Jewish Thai housekeeper who was a foreign national. She had been working for this Jewish woman for some time. One day she told her employer that she was leaving Eretz Yisrael. The Jewish woman wanted to give her long time housekeeper a going away present as a token of appreciation for her many years of good service.

She searched her house high and low for some kind of appropriate gift but could not find anything that seemed suitable. Finally, all she could find was a bag of apples to take with her back to her homeland. The lady’s husband came home a short time later and his wife told him “Our cleaning lady is going home to Thailand, so I gave her a bag of apples as a going away present.” He was horrified: “You gave her a bag of apples? It is Shemittah! Those apples have holiness, how can we give her the apples? She does not know how to handle fruit with Shemittah sanctity properly. Furthermore, Shemittah fruit may not be taken out of Israel. They must stay in Israel!”

The wife did not give up hope – instead she decided to immediately run after the worker as she knew what bus the woman would take. She hoped to run to the bus stop to catch her. She ran out of her house, ran to the bus stop just as the bus with her cleaning lady was pulling away from the stop. People told her that the bus took a circuitous route and that if she ran ahead to another stop, not far away she could expect the bus to be there in ten minutes.

Rabbi Frand relates:

“She ran huffing and puffing to that next bus stop and once again, as soon as she got there the bus started pulling away. She started waving frantically to the bus that she needed to get on. The Israelis on the bus saw her waving and yelled to the bus driver Atzor! Atzor! [Stop! Stop!]. Finally, the driver stopped the bus and the breathless housewife boarded the bus. She looked around and finally spotted at the back of the bus her housekeeper from Thailand! She ran over to her and the housekeeper started crying! The housekeeper tearfully said, “I’m sorry! I am sorry! Here it is!” Apparently, the homemaker took her own going away present. She went into the woman’s jewelry box and took her most expensive jewelry. She assumed that her employer was running after her to get her jewelry back. She said, “Here is the jewelry! Here are the apples! Just don’t tell the police!” The Jewish woman said, “Okay. I won’t tell the police.”

Because of being particular about the sanctity of Shemittah fruits – that they should not be abused and should be treated with Shemittah sanctity – God rewarded this woman on the spot, and she was able to get back the jewelry that she had not yet discovered was missing.

In a more general sense, this story reminds us that a person will ultimately never lose out from keeping Mitzvot even if it is sometimes difficult to understand certain occurrences. May we all merit to observe all Mitzvot in general and Shemittah in particular3, and to reap the benefits in both this world and the next.

  1. Apart from people who own gardens or cultivate plants.
  2. Kohelet, 8:5.
  3. Even for people who do not reside in Israel, questions relating to Shemittah can arise, with regard to fruit from Israel that is sold in stores around the world. Another way that anyone can have a portion in the Mitzva of Shemitta is by helping to financially support the farmers who make great sacrifices to refrain from working their land for a full year.

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