“When you enter the land that I (G-d) am giving you, and the land shall rest a Shabbos for G-d. Six years you shall seed your field and six years you shall prune your vine, and you shall gather its produce. And in the seventh year, a sabbatical of rest shall be for the land” (Vayikra 25:2-4). Chasam Sofer (Chidushay Chasam Sofer) asks why the Torah mentions the Sabbatical Year (25:2, “and the land shall rest”) before the six years of working the land (25:3). After all, the cycle doesn’t start with Sh’mita (the Sabbatical Year) followed by 6 years of work, but by working the land for six years followed by Sh’mita (as evidenced by Sh’mita being called “the seventh year,” as well as by the 49th year being Sh’mita and the 50th being Yovel), mirroring the six days of creation/work followed by the day of rest, Shabbos. Why is the land resting mentioned before the six years of work if the work is done before the land rests?
Chasam Sofer suggests several answers. First (or at least quoted first in the Sefer) he says that once the nation entered the Promised Land, the land no longer produced things naturally. Rather than the produce growing based strictly on the laws of nature G-d set up and constantly maintains, once G-d’s treasured nation was there, the land’s production was the result of a direct spiritual pipeline from Above, similar to the physical manifestation of the Mun in the desert and the complete loaves of bread that, in the future, the land will produce (see Shabbos 30b). Therefore, the land did rest, from the physical “work” it had been doing before the nation entered the land, right away, even before the nation performed any manual labor for those first six years. (This was followed by an even higher level of rest, a “Shabbos Shabbason,” when the nation didn’t work the land at all during the seventh year).
Later (in the Sefer), Chasam Sofer suggests that rather than 5:2 referring to the land resting every seventh year, it refers to “the people who live on the land” resting every seventh day. If they rest every Shabbos, they will merit being successful during the six years that they work the land.
Another suggestion he makes (quoted in the 2 volume “Likutim”) is based on the land doing two types of “work,” growing food for us to eat and “accepting those who sleep in the dirt,” as we bury the dead in the ground. He says that in the future, when there is no more death (so the second type of “work” will no longer be done), the ground will still produce food, thereby leaving only one type of work for the land to do. Since the laws of Sh’mita were said at Sinai, and after we accepted the Torah “the angel of death had no authority over us” (Avodah Zara 5a), at that point in time there would have been no death, and therefore no need for burial. Rather, “the land will rest” from this type of work. The only work that applied would have been the six years of producing food, after which (during the seventh year) the land will rest from this type of work as well.
This suggestion is based on the assumption that when the verse says this was commanded “on Mt. Sinai” (25:1) it means during the first set of 40 days, before the sin of the golden calf (which brought death back). However, Ramban (25:1) says explicitly that it was taught during Moshe’s last 40-day stay atop Mt. Sinai, which was after the angel of death could once again create the need for burial. Nevertheless, Chizkuni (25:3) says that this section was taught before its parallel in Parashas Mishpatim (Sh’mos 23:10-11), making it possible that it was in fact taught to Moshe before the sin of the golden calf. [This ends my quoting of Chasam Sofer’s thoughts, and mine about them.]
Another possibility is based on Midrash HaGadol (at the end of the introduction to Parashas B’har) expounding upon the M’chilta (Yisro 2) regarding the importance of keeping Sh’mita in order to keep the land; “The Holy One, blessed is He, said to Moshe, ‘go and say to Israel that I only brought them into the Land of Israel on the condition that they accept upon themselves the mitzvah of the seventh 2017.’ How do we know this? From the way the verses read regarding [Sh’mita], “and G-d spoke to Moshe at Mt. Sinai, speak to the Children of Israel, when they enter the land, and the land shall rest a Shabbos for G-d.” It is the juxtaposition of keeping Sh’mita and entering the land that teaches us that if not for our fulfilling the mitzvah of Sh’mita we wouldn’t have been given the Promised Land, a message that could have been lost if the six years of working the land was mentioned before the refraining from work in the seventh.
Similarly, Moshav Z’kaynim says that if we don’t keep Sh’mita (in previous cycles), we will not be given the opportunity to “work the land” in upcoming cycles. This can be a result of becoming poor as a punishment for not keeping Sh’mita, thereby being forced to sell the land, or because we were exiled from the land for not keeping Sh’mita (see Midrash Tanchuma, B’har 1/2) or having to alternate years of working the land to let it replenish itself (see Ramban on 25:3), thereby working the land fewer than six out of every seven years. Either way, the ability to be able to “work the land for six years” is contingent upon “letting the land rest in the seventh year,” and since doing the former is contingent on doing the latter, the cause was placed before the consequence.
Malbim says that just as we are required to have our animals rest on Shabbos (see Sh’mos 20:10), the land is supposed to “rest” on Shabbos too. Although we aren’t allowed to work the land on Shabbos anyway (or have others do it for us), because of the work done for six days (including watering it and fertilizing it), the land still “works” (things grow) on Shabbos. In order to compensate for this, we give the land a whole year off every seven years, thereby letting it rest the same number of days over a seven year period that it would have had it been able to rest one day every week. It can therefore be suggested that the introductory “and the land shall rest a Shabbos for G-d” is not referring to the seventh year, but the seventh day of the week; since the land should rest every Shabbos day (5:2), but can’t, “you shall work the land for six years” (5:3) and refrain from working it the entire seventh year (5:4) instead.
[It should be noted, though, that working the land for six years and resting during the seventh being commanded before working for six days and resting on the seventh (Sh’mos 23:10-12) sort of undermines Malbim’s approach. However, if the Sh’mita commandment in Vayikra came before the one in Sh’mos (as Chizkuni says), it was already established that the seventh year is compensation for all the lost seventh days. Besides, it makes more sense thematically to put Shabbos (23:12) next to the holidays (23:14-17) and Sh’mita (23:10-11), when the poor can eat whatever the land produces (23:11) next to treating those less fortunate properly (23:6 and 23:9).]
Even though the commandment to rest on the seventh day (Sh’mos 20:8-11) also starts by telling us to keep Shabbos before mentioning the “six days of work” despite the six work days preceding the seventh day, the commandment can’t start by saying “you shall work for six days” if the whole point is resting on the seventh. (As opposed to Sh’mita, where there is already an introductory “when you enter the land,” so the “and you shall work the land for six years” can be part of the introduction rather than the beginning of the commandment.) And Shabbos had already been commanded (at Marah and regarding the Mun), so it was already a known entity. [The same can be said if the Sh’mita in Mishpatim was taught before this one.] Nevertheless, it can be suggested that just as we are supposed to keep Shabbos in mind the entire week, we should keep Sh’mita in mind the entire six years, as not working the land in the seventh year acknowledges that it is really G-d’s land, not ours (see Vayikra 25:23), something we should keep in mind while working it those six years. And this might be enough of a reason to mention the land resting during the seventh year before mentioning the six years of work that precede it. I will take it a step further though, and suggest that as important as it is to keep this in mind every year (not just in the seventh), it is that much more important to communicate this before the land was first given to us.
“When you enter the land that I (G-d) am giving you,” don’t work the land those first six years thinking that it really belongs to you, whereby having to refrain from working it during the seventh year is perceived as something being taken away from you. Rather, know from the outset that “the land shall rest a Shabbos for G-d” in a few years, because it is really His land, something to keep in mind even during the “six years [that] you shall work the land.”