The Torah portion, Re’eh, talks about the Sabbatical Year—in Hebrew, Shemitah—the Seventh year. When the Sabbatical year comes, all loans are forgiven, and Jewish servants go free.
This is difficult to understand. Why would a lender forgive a loan just because it’s the seventh year in the Shemitah cycle? Why would slaves be set free just because it’s the Sabbatical year? Another question is why do we translate Shemitah as the “Sabbatical year”? Besides the fact that it is the seventh year, and Shabbat is the seventh day, what connects the word “shemitah” with Shabbat?
As Rabbi Yehoshua Steinberg writes in Biblical Hebrew Etymology, (see Re’eh: The Slippery Year? – The Wonders of the Holy Tongue), the three-letter root of the word “shemitah” – Shin-Mem-Tet – connote falling, collapsing, slipping, weakening, or disintegration. The two-letter core root – Mem-Tet – often means falling, collapsing. I will go hear with “collapsing.”
Note that in both instances – loans and slavery – the object/subject are in the state of superposition of the opposite states. When a creditor lends money to a borrower, the creditor believes that the money is his – he “owns” the money as it is owed to him. On the other hand, the borrower actually has the money in his possession and can fully enjoy it. The money, therefore, is in the state of superposition of being owned by the lender (in theory) and by the borrower (in reality). Comes the Shemita year and the “wavefunction” of this money is collapsed (figuratively speaking, of course). Which is the more likely state in which it is going to collapse? As the English saying goes, possession is nine-tenths of the law. Similarly, in Jewish law, the kinyan—the physical possession—determines the ownership. Thus, the money, which heretofore had been in the state of superposition of belonging to the lender and the borrower, collapses into the most natural state determined by actual possession with the borrower keeping the money.
Similarly, with the slavery. The person who bought the Jewish slave thinks he owns the slave. On the other hand, a Jew can never be a slave. After the Exodus from Egypt, Jews were freed not only from the Egyptian slavery, but they acquired the eternal freedom and can never be slaves again to anyone, but their Creator. Thus, in reality, a Jewish slave (who is the subject of this peculiar law) is not really a slave, but is in the state of indentured servitude. Thus, the Jew sold into slavery is in a state of superposition—on the one hand, he belongs to his master, on the other hand, he is essentially free. Comes the year of Shemitah and “collapses the wavefunction” to the most natural state—the Jew regains his or her freedom.
The last question was, why Shemitah is translated as Sabbatical Year – what is the connection with Shabbat? The root Mem-Tet usually means a low place. For example, mata means “below,” and mita means a “bed.” Perhaps, we can say that Mem-Tet connotes the lowest place – the minimum of a function. This explains the connection with Shabbat. Shabbat means rest. Rest is achieved when the energy reaches its minimum, as in the Least Action Principle. The root Mem-tet can also mean equilibrium. For example, mata means “staff.” A staff helps maintain equilibrium. A system in the lowest energy state reaches equilibrium (such as, e.g., thermodynamical equilibrium). Thus, this meaning also connects Shemita with Shabbat.
We can say, therefore, that Shemita is the time when all “wavefunctions” are collapsed, and everything returns from the state of superposition and ambiguity to its natural (and, therefore, most probable) place—money goes to the debtor who has physical possession of money, and Jewish slaves go to freedom. This is also why Passover is called in Mishnah “Shabbat,” as I explained in detail in my essay Passover – the Holiday of our Freedom.
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