Shmita Ritual’s Seven-Year Switch

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The Shmita year challenges us to reflect on our relationship to land, money and work.

This Rosh Hashanah marks a special moment in the flow of Jewish time, as we welcome in the Shmita year, the final year in a cycle of seven. A biblical tradition rooted in the land of Israel, Shmita is a year of “release” in which land is left fallow, debts are forgiven and other agricultural and economic adjustments are made to ensure an equitable, just and healthy society. Essentially, farmers don’t farm, debts are erased, all privately owned land becomes commons. And for one year, social hierarchies are flattened.

Shmita is referenced three times in the Torah, and each appearance reveals another dimension to the practice. The first passage places Shmita in between a commandment to not oppress the stranger, having ourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt, and another reminder to keep a weekly Shabbat, where everyone, including our workers and animals, are entitled to rest.

The reason given for the Shmita year in this text is so that the poor among the people will have food to eat, as will the wild animals. It described Shmita as a social policy to ensure the needs of all are met. In this context, Shmita requires us to address the way we relate to ownership and access resources.

The second reference refers to Shmita as a Shabbat for the land. Just as we need to rest, the land does as well. It forces us to look at our relationship to the land, and to see it not as a canvas for our own exploitation, but instead, understand that the land itself has rights. The third reference addresses economic issues by requiring that all debts be forgiven. We are challenged to reconsider our relationship to money and community.

In their entirety, the laws and practices of Shmita have major implications, not just in the seventh year, but actually in every year. If we are to survive without farming during Shmita, we will need to have developed a robust supply of perennial fruit and nut trees that will produce food without our help. We will need to store surplus grain for the community in the years leading up to Shmita. And we will all need to be familiar with the wild edibles that grow abundantly right under our unknowing eyes.

From an economic perspective, Shmita reminds us that we are not the true owners of our wealth, and that we must keep the needs of our brothers and sisters at the forefront of our priorities. Furthermore, we are challenged to reflect on our relationship to land, to money and to work itself.

As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine, wrote in his treatise Shabbat Ha’Aretz: “Life can only be perfected through the affording of a breathing space from the bustle of everyday life. The individual shakes himself free from ordinary weekday life at short and regular intervals — on every Sabbath. What the Sabbath achieves regarding the individual, the Shmita achieves with regard to the nation as a whole.”

While the counting of seven-year cycles has remained intact over thousands of years, the actual practices of Shmita remained obscure and somewhat irrelevant until last century’s large-scale return of Jewish farmers to Israel. Since the early 1900s, Shmita has been practiced in some respect by farmers in Israel, but there have been several rabbinic loopholes that were developed that enabled certain workarounds so that, to a large degree, Shmita wasn’t kept in its completeness.

But this Shmita year feels different for several important reasons. First, in Israel itself, there is a growing movement of farmers and social activists who are embracing Shmita with renewed enthusiasm toward the agricultural and economic implications of the practices.

The Israeli government, as well as a coalition of NGOs forming an umbrella called Shmitat Yisraeli (The Israeli Shmita Project) has launched several initiatives for the Shmita year, such as a trust to support farmers who seek to refrain from farming. It has established a fund of 70 million shekels — or $19.3 million — that will erase the debt of families in need.

In the United States, where the agricultural restrictions of Shmita do not apply, individuals and Jewish organizations are looking to this year as an opportunity to embrace Shmita metaphorically, by allowing the underlying values to shape our relationship to food, money and community.

What does it mean to let the land rest when you are not a farmer? What does it mean for an individual to forgive debt in a world of corporate banking? How can a nonprofit set seven-year goals?

Several interesting initiatives have begun to emerge and, more importantly, a rich and intriguing conversation is unfolding. The Lab Shul in New York City is using the Shmita Year to address our relationship to technology. The Pearlstone Center outside of Baltimore is giving all staff members paid days to do community service.

Locally, in my work with Hazon Philadelphia, Shmita is a major theme of our educational programming. And Jewish Farm School is using the Shmita year as an opportunity for reflection on our development and to build a strong, local foundation as we have now made Philadelphia the main focus of our work.

It is unclear where this conversation will lead the community in the coming year. It is clear that one Shmita year with increased consciousness both in Israel and here in the United States will not address all our social and environmental issues. But it is exciting and inspiring to see what it may bring — and then we get to start the cycle all over again.

Nati Passow is the director of Hazon Philadelphia and the Jewish Farm School.

INTERESTED IN LEARNING MORE?

Check out hazon.org/shmita for Shmita-related resources, including the “Shmita Sourcebook.”
The second annual Philadelphia Jewish Food Festival will take place on Sunday, Nov. 16, at Adath Israel, where Shmita will be one of the main to­pics: hazon.org/phillyfoodfestival.

 

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