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Israel’s Sabbath year and what it can teach us about rest

10 February 2023 By Rachel Baarda

Resting isn’t just about the individual doing the resting, reflects Faith Today staff Rachel Baarda after a trip to Israel sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Tourism

Have you ever tasted a banana that is both firm and sweet at the same time?

At our hotel in Israel during a tour for Christian journalists last November, I casually bit into a banana at breakfast. Immediately I realized this banana wasn’t a regular imported Canadian banana, picked green and shipped thousands of miles from some more temperate location. This yellow banana was solid, yet with a surprising tree-ripened sweetness that reminded me of fresh Niagara-area fruit.

In the region of Galilee, our Orthodox Jewish driver drove us past lush groves of orange, mango and banana trees covered by shading nets. However, our tour guide told us that the Orthodox Jews had not farmed much of the land over the past year in observance of the Shmita.

The Shmita year refers to a biblical commandment urging Jews to leave the land fallow every seventh year to rest the earth from bearing crops. This Hebrew word Shmita means release, inspired by Deuteronomy 15, which asks the Israelites to release each other’s debts in the seventh year. 

God also commanded the Israelites to rest the land every seven years: “For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left” (Exodus 23:11). 

Modern-day Israeli Jews don’t observe the seven-year cancellation of debts, but during the Shmita year, Israel’s Orthodox Jews desist from farming their agricultural land. Instead, they buy their produce from markets with only Arab-grown produce or from nearby Arab cities. Some even grow their produce in hothouses to allow the fields to rest.

In the early years of the State of Israel, religious leaders created a heter or special dispensation to allow Jewish farmers to sell their land to non-Jews for two years. The non-Jewish farmers then farm the land during the Shmita year.

Learning about the Orthodox Jews’ faithful adherence to Shmita, as well as the loopholes that have been created along the way, I thought about the way we as Christians try (and often fail) to observe the concept of Sabbath.

Rest isn’t just for ourselves

Most Christians are familiar with the fourth commandment: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God (Exodus 20:8).

But the Exodus verse that inspired the Shmita extends the principle of rest beyond ourselves, telling us to rest “so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed” (Exodus 23:12). 

This verse broadened my understanding of God’s perspective on the Sabbath and made me wonder how well we incorporate others into our concept of rest. For example, many of us get a day off work on Sunday; but what about the staff at the restaurants we visit or the employees at the stores where we shop on Sunday? Does our habit of rest ensure those around us have a chance to rest, too?

Rest involves trust

Biblical rest also includes an element of trust. It is hard for a modern-day state to forego planting its crops every seventh year. As a result, the Shmita is not currently observed by the entire nation of Israel. Only select groups, such as Orthodox Jews and other Jews of the Sephardi ethnicities, adhere to this commandment. 

Similarly, thousands of years earlier, it was difficult for the ancient Israelites to keep God’s commandment not to gather manna on the seventh day. Exodus 16 recounts how God told the Israelites to gather twice as much manna on the sixth day. The Israelites needed to trust that this manna — which was usually infested with maggots by the next day — would stay fresh on the Sabbath. Still, the Bible tells us some Israelites went out to collect manna on the seventh day anyway, but found none:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions? Bear in mind that the Lord has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Everyone is to stay where they are on the seventh day; no one is to go out.” So the people rested on the seventh day. (Exodus 16:28-30)

Today, modern technology makes it even more challenging to just stop everything we are doing and rest. Mobile devices flash and notify us and tempt us to communicate at all hours of the day or night. The concept of rest seems to dissolve in the flood of constant communication. What habits can we cultivate to observe a practice of rest in our lives in a hectic age?

Rest is the culmination of work

One of the biggest theological difficulties in the Christian faith is reconciling the concepts of both rest and work in our theology. We know that trusting in Christ’s sacrifice for us is our only hope for spiritual rest: “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his” (Hebrews 4:10). Yet the next verse says, “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:11).

It is challenging to reconcile verses like these and others, such as “for it is by grace you have been saved, through faith” and “faith without deeds is dead.” In the story of the Israelites gathering manna for six days and resting on the seventh day, I noticed the Israelites were commanded to rest only after they had finished their “work” of gathering manna for six days. At the same time, God provided the manna, and God allowed the manna to remain fresh on the seventh day.

Perhaps the story of the Israelites in the desert was God’s way of creating a living parable for future Christians. Paul’s words are true: Christians who don’t make every effort to enter Christ’s rest will never enter it. The lack of spiritual fruit in their lives reveals a dead faith. But the Christian life isn’t meant to be an unending burden of doing works of service for an exacting God. We live out our faith through the power of the Holy Spirit. Just like the Israelites trusted God to miraculously supply manna each day, we can trust that the Holy Spirit will equip us with the strength each day to uproot the sin in our lives and bear lasting spiritual fruit.

Rachel Baarda of Ottawa is distribution and circulation coordinator for Faith Today. This article is sponsored by Israel Tourism.

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