Teaser: In the Land of Israel, the Jewish farmer is ensured that in the sixth year of the Shemitah cycle his fields will produce a harvest three times that of the previous years, so that he will have a livelihood during the seventh, Sabbatical year, and the year that follows, until the new crops are harvested.
Why is seven an "un-Natural" number?
Judaism attaches a deep significance to numbers and their patterns. This discussion will deal only with the number seven and its meaning in the framework of Judaism.
Without a doubt, seven is the most significant number in Judaism. It appears again and again in the life of the individual Jew and of the nation as a whole. In the framework of time, we find the six days of the workaday week followed by the seventh, hallowed day of the Sabbath.
Following the Passover – Pesach holiday, we are instructed by the Torah to count seven consecutive weeks and then, on the fiftieth day, celebrate the Festival of Weeks, Shavuoth, the day when the Torah was given to Israel at Mount Sinai.
In addition to these cycles of seven days and seven weeks, we find a cycle of seven years. For six years, we are allowed to work the soil in the Holy Land, but on the seventh, sabbatical year, the Shemitah, we are to let the land lie fallow, just as on the seventh day of the week, we are to refrain from creative work. Furthermore, we are enjoined to count a cycle of seven sabbatical years, seven Shemitah years. We arrive at the fiftieth, Jubilee year, known in Hebrew as the Yovel.
It is obvious that the number seven has a special status in the view of the Torah. Why should this be so? What makes the quantity of seven qualitatively different from nine, eleven, or seventeen?
We try to enter the realm of timeless scholars such as Rabbi Judah Loewe, known as the Maharal of Prague. Rabbi Judah Loewe (c. 1520–1609), who delved deeply into such matters, starts out by giving us the following insight:
Man's world has three dimensions: length, width and height. It follows that every object in the physical world has six primary sides: right and left, front and back, top and bottom, although there may be subdivisions of these. A physical object can expand in any of these six directions. Thus the number six encompasses the full extent of physical objects.
The number seven goes one step further than six. It represents the non-physical aspect of an object, or its abstraction. Let us take a concrete example. We take any book off the shelf of the library. Now we're holding an object which has three dimensions, each of which has a beginning and an end, for a total of six sides. This is true regardless of the nature of the book, its contents or its meaning, or even what language the author wrote in.
But each book has an additional quality not defined by those six sides: its content. This is where the extra dimension, the seventh “side”, comes into play. To what end did the author compose this book? What did he hope it would accomplish? What do its words convey to the reader?
The influence of the book's content, the seventh side, extends far beyond the limits of the height, width, and thickness of the pages and their binding. If its author was a powerful thinker and writer, this six-sided volume may exert a world-shaking influence on thousands or even millions of people on the other side of the globe, far beyond the scope of the physical volume's limits of width, breadth, and height.
Similarly, man himself has physical limitations which can be reduced to six sides. However, there is more to a human being than his body. The Maharal tells us that in man, this seventh dimension is the soul, man's inner content.
G-d created the physical world in six days; the seventh day, with its sanctity, was to be the "soul" of the physical world. On the seventh day, the sanctity of Shabbat and its blessing came down into the world. Only with the onset of Shabbat was G-d's act of Creation complete. Through the Shabbat, each individual can begin to fulfill the mission assigned to him by Heaven in this world, namely, to elevate himself, and with him, the entire universe, to greater spiritual perfection. Only by nourishing our souls through the spiritual forces the Creator built into His creation can we hope to nurture and develop the abstract, seventh dimension of our self. It is the sanctity of the "sevens" that develop our soul just as meat, fish, and potatoes nourish our limbs and make them grow. This is one of the meanings of the number seven; it represents sanctity and purpose.
The Midrash tells us: "All 'sevens' are cherished" (Vayikra Raba 29:11). Jewish mysticism speaks of the seven levels of Heaven which symbolize stages of increasing sanctity. The seventh level is also called the "Holy of Holies."
Coming back to the physical world, we recall that there are seven continents and seven seas. The Jewish nation was established by three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and four matriarchs, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah, for a total of seven. The annual Day of Judgment falls in the seventh month of the Hebrew year, Tishrei. These examples, and many more like them, bring home the importance of the number seven, symbolizing the abstract or hallowed aspect of physical objects.
Seven represents the inner content of the material world, just as the Shabbat imparts inner meaning and purpose to the workdays of the week for the Jewish People. Without it, the preceding six days would have no permanent value.
The commandments we observe during the seventh year of the Shemitah cycle also belong to the array of 'sevens' which constitute the inner meaning of sacred Jewish rites. When we refrain from cultivating the soil during the sabbatical year, Shemitah, we are making a statement for all to hear: "The Land is not ours to do with as we please; we are granted the use of it, but only on the terms of its Owner, Who allows us to use it. He has commanded that we leave the land fallow on the seventh year. Likewise, He has ordered us to leave its fruits and produce to whoever wishes to come harvest them. By foregoing all signs of our ownership of the land, we are testifying that "The earth is the L-rds, and the fullness thereof."
This active acknowledgment that the earth is not our possession, but, so to speak, "on loan" from the Creator, can be effected only when the People of Israel are living in their own land. The verse tells us: "When you come into the Land, the Land shall observe a Sabbath to the L-rd..."
Why is the Shemitah mentioned, rather than other commandments which are performed only in the Land of Israel? It is as though to say that we should guard the Shemitah year as though G-d had given us the Land only that we might make this statement acknowledging G-d's sovereignty anew every seventh year.
Similarly, when a Jew refrains from doing creative work on the Shabbat, he is declaring to one and all that, as powerful, creative, intelligent, and resourceful as man may be, he is nonetheless subject to a Higher Power, the Creator. By emulating the Creator who ceased His acts of creation on the seventh day, the People of Israel again proclaim each week that their ultimate goal in life is to walk in His ways, cling to His qualities of mercy, kindness, justice, and much more, and bring them into their daily lives.
Here we again find a parallel between the Shemitah years and the Shabbat. Of the latter, we say in our prayer: "You sanctified the seventh day to Your Name, the end goal of the act of creation of the heavens and the earth." The Creator fashioned the heavens and the earth that they achieve their purpose, the observance of the Shabbat. It is for this purpose that G-d created the universe.
This principle refers to both Sabbaths, that of the seventh day of the week, and that of the seventh year of the Shemitah cycle. There is, however, a distinction between the two in that the obligation to observe the Sabbath day each week applies to the Jew regardless of where on the face of the earth he may find himself. The Shemitah, or sabbatical year, is obligatory only for a Jew who is living in the Holy Land. The Shabbat is the end goal for which the world was created; the observance of the Shemitah year is the purpose for which G-d brought the Jewish People to the Land of Israel.
A resident of Israel, and in particular, someone who tills the soil, must develop great self-discipline in order to observe the Shemitah year. Week after week, he sees his fields lie fallow – in fact, for a full twelve months – and lifts not a finger to cultivate them. By doing so, he gives eloquent testimony to the fact that it is not he who owns the land, but rather the Creator, who fashioned it in the first place.
Should the Jewish People fail to observe the Shemitah year, a special form of retribution will come about to make this declaration in another form. One way or the other, the Land will be granted its years of rest, as G-d prescribed. The Jewish People were warned that a failure to let the land lie fallow during the seventh year would result in exile, and so, indeed, it came about. For seventy years, the entire Jewish People was exiled to Babylonia.
While the people were languishing on foreign soil, "the Land rested its Sabbath years”, desolate and abandoned. Only after the soil had been compensated for the seventy years of rest denied to it were the People of Israel lead back to their homeland.
The Sabbath day is also the source of spiritual nourishment for the soul. Just as food strengthens the body, the observance of Shabbat renews our soul. Its spiritual values help the Jew to progress along the road to becoming a complete person.
A fundamental principle of Judaism is the conviction that the Almighty is aware of everything we do, and accompanies us wherever we turn. A person who surveys the events of his life will surely discern the results of this Divine Providence in several instances. This phenomenon is most easily observed in the Land of Israel. The Jewish People were commanded not to work the land during the Shemitah year. How, then, shall the nation survive? What will they eat?
The Torah answers this question:
If you say, "What will you eat in the seventh year, since we will not sow, and we will not gather in our produce?" I will ordain My blessing for you, and it will produce crops for the three years. And you will sow in the eighth year, and you will eat of the old produce until the ninth year; until the coming of the crop [of the eighth year] you will eat of the old [produce] (Leviticus 25:20-21).
The farmer working the soil of the Holy Land knows that he has a Divine promise of assistance. In the sixth year, his harvest will be three times greater than in previous, non-sabbatical years. This enabled him to provide for himself and his family during the seventh year, when he was not allowed to cultivate the land, and also during the beginning of the eighth year, until the new crops grew and were ready for harvest. The farmer who witnessed this miracle every seven years experienced Heaven's direct concern for his well-being. He did not cultivate the land, yet all his needs were miraculously met by a loving, caring Hand from Above.
If a benefactor undertakes to look after all the needs of a group of people, he has two options before him. One method would be to provide for their needs one day at a time. Alternatively, the kindly patron might choose to provide a vast stockpile of goods at the onset of the year, so that the recipients would have everything ready in advance for their long-term needs. The difference between the two methods lies in the degree to which the donor wishes to be directly involved in looking after the recipients' needs. When it is his own family and close relatives who are receiving the benefits, one is happy to be directly involved in providing whatever is needed. When there is no direct relationship, other than giver and taker, involved, it suffices to see that the goods are available, even for a whole year in advance.
We find a parallel distinction between the way G-d provides for the Jewish People living in the Land of Israel, and for the rest of His children, scattered over the face of the earth. The Holy Land is not blessed with a great many rivers and lakes. Nor do its rains fall the year round. Each winter, the Jewish People again lift their faces to Heaven, looking for rain, and raising their voices in prayer, beseeching their Father in Heaven to bless their land with sufficient precipitation to sustain the year's crop.
Not so in neighboring Egypt, for instance. There, no rain is needed. The mighty Nile River provides a constant, reliable source of water throughout the year. Why pray? Why turn Heavenward? The blessing of the Nile are a foregone conclusion. G-d provides for the people of Egypt no less than for the People of Israel, but in a different manner. This, too, is a sign of the Almighty's great affection for His people, Israel.