Shmitah: A Sabbath for A Year Making a Difference for Your Lives

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Rabbi Thomas Louchheim

What if, all of a sudden the machinations of industry came to a screeching halt? What would happen if, starting today all the plows, combines were locked up in farmers’ sheds all across our nation? No harvesting of corn, wheat. No trucks or trains to carry produce to market. Nothing on the shelves of Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Basha’s or Safeway. Imagine the impact.

By tradition, that is exactly what is supposed to be happening starting today. We are in the seventh year of our seven-year sabbatical cycle, known as the shmitah year. In Leviticus, God commanded that every seventh year you will give the land “a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of God. You shall not plant your field, or prune your vines. You shall not harvest your crops or gather any grapes from your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for your land.”[1]

While standing at Sinai, our ancestors were also told: When you enter the land of Israel, “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat.”[2] From these two passages we learn that we are to give the land a rest and that we are to take care of the poor amongst us.

You won’t starve. Well, maybe a little. Jews may not eat anything planted or grown during the shmitah year. They may eat only from perennial plants or wild edibles — these are the vegetables and fruits you do not have to plant every year (fruit from trees, tomatoes, avocados, berries, and the like). Also, if anything happens to grow on your farmland anyone may take crops growing untended on those private lands. Finally, personal debts must be forgiven if the debtor so requests.

Okay, this is partly my fault. I should have warned you. I should have been like Joseph and told you to prepare and store away food during the year. What was I thinking last year on Rosh HaShanah when I spoke to you about a different way of thinking about God in your lives?

Actually, you are fine. This law only applies to Israel. This is how observant Jews in the Holy Land have observed shmitah for centuries. It is of some interest to note that Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar agreed to relieve Jews of taxes during shmitah.

Nor have Jews starved over the centuries every seven years either. This would also be bad for those who depend on produce from Israel to feed other European countries. Fruits and vegetables grown in Israel may be consumed and sold during the shmitah year when it is derived from five sources:

Produce grown during the sixth year, to which the laws of the seventh year do not apply.Produce grown on land owned by non-Jewish (typically, Arab) farmers in Israel.Produce grown on land outside the halachic boundaries of Israel (chutz la’aretz).Produce which grows spontaneously for the benefit of the entire community (otzar beit din).Produce grown in greenhouses or in hydroponic farms. They are not literally being grown on the land.

So Israel has found ways to observe the commandment without undue sacrifice. While planting is forbidden during the shmitah year, some watering, pruning and weeding is allowed. Seven years ago, some 3,500 Israeli farmers observed shmitah and rested 400,000 dunams (about 100,000 acres) of land, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Let me give you an example of how this is done on an orthodox kibbutz. Kibbutz Lavi (located in the lower Galilee) has divided its fields that grow wheat, corn, barley, chickpeas and citrus. Some fields are being left as is — left fallow. In a second set of fields the kibbutz has been planting wheat vigorously over the past month. This will be harvested during the shmitha year at the end of the Spring. A third category of land is sold to Arabs. Israeli Arabs are not restricted by shmitah. The farmers at Kibbutz Lavi will have time this year to focus on education, their families, and on fortifying their spiritual energies.

Different Jewish communities in the United States are looking at shmitah beyond the boundaries of the Holy Land and the agriculture restrictions placed on it this year. There are some Jewish leaders who are viewing shmitah as an opportunity to take another look at our relationship to the environment, property and social inequality. This year, not only in Israel, but in Jewish communities around the world, there will be a concerted effort in some circles to extend the principles of shmitah beyond the letter of the law.

Let’s take a look at it first just in terms of Sabbatical.  Just as the weekly Sabbath allows us the opportunity to renew ourselves and reminds us of our obligations to God, shmitah gives the land a chance to regain its strength.

The practice of shmitah reminds us that regaining the physical strength of the land is similar to the physical renewal our bodies gained through rest.

Similarly, as Shabbat is a celebration of the Exodus and of Creation, we are reminded both that we are free to rest because God redeemed us from slavery, and that we are partners with God in maintaining Creation.

In the same way that Shabbat calls us to take a break from the work week and recall our divine link, shmitah calls for a collective break from the race of modern life for a year. During that time we are to focus on community, culture and spirit. In this way, our yield — like the land — will become greater over the many years ahead.

Let’s consider how shmitah can open our eyes. It is a series of obscure, ancient concepts about how we relate to land, to food, about inequality in our community, the nature of work, rest in our lives, cooperation with those who are not our intimate friends, and our relationship to debt. Every one of those issues are central to our lives today in 2014. Shmitha can be a remarkable source of inspiration, impetus for change, and the medium for unprecedented cooperation for us this year.

Part of the value of shmitah is sharing. In the Bible you open up your fields in the shmitah year, and everyone can come and benefit. What grows on your farmland this year is not yours. You may not harvest it for yourself. It is to be shared by anyone who wants or needs it. Most of us don’t have fields, literally, but what is your field? What is your expertise, your source of your livelihood that you could share more widely?

We can envision a world in which our material and spiritual needs are met in a deep, reciprocal, sustainable, and satisfying way. This can be a year where we can rehearse, for one year, what it would be like to live a life of “enoughness” for ourselves and for our neighbors. And when the year is over, the sustainable practice need not be over. Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, co-founder of the Sova Project in Baltimore suggests in her February third Blog on this subject that we can “re-enter the other six years taking what we have learned and put it into practice in our everyday lives.” The significance of shmitah is not only renewal but that we have a break in our usual patterns. When we stop and examine our bad habits, we can then review what habits we value, and which ones suit our purposes.

Next week, on October 2, there will be a panel discussion on shmitah called “Give It A Rest,” taking place at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley. I don’t imagine many of you can make it, but perhaps we can begin our own shmitah discussion about what we need to “Give A Rest” to.

This year, Israelis are taking a fresh look at shmitah and how its emphasis on social justice can be more fully expressed beyond land and harvest restrictions. Earlier this year a group of activists led by a former Knesset member, Rabbi Michael Melchior, approached the Ministry of Welfare seeking about $27.5 million for debt relief for some 10,000 families. The request was approved.

In keeping with the environmentalist precepts behind shmitah, Israel’s Ministry of the Environment has proposed a yearlong moratorium on fishing in the Sea of Galilee to replenish depleted fish stocks.

I propose that each of us make New Year’s resolutions based on shmitah. Shmitah encompasses three areas of essential ethical behavior and unavoidable engagement: food/environment, money and people  — a daily encounter. So, I propose you make your resolutions in these three areas by asking yourselves two questions:

1. How is my behavior at this moment contributing to — or detracting from — a more equitable and enduring world?

2. What changes in society should we implement to bring about a more equitable and enduring world during the other six years?

Ever since Sinai, the observance of shmitah has largely been limited to the land of Israel. But this year, through a confluence of reasons — the growing crises of environmental degradation, climate destabilization, radical wealth inequality, the global obesity epidemic, global food insecurity and the false promise of the marketplace that having more things will yield more happiness — this year we must ask: How shall we, those of us guided by Torah, live a year of shmitah? How can we understand, honor and observe the deeper meaning and ethic of the shmitah year, both as individuals and as a community? This leap is difficult, I know, and that is why shmitah comes only once every seven years. The first step is to commit to living intentionally this shmitah year.

This Rosh HaShanah, as we prepare to welcome in a sweet new year by dipping slices of apples into honey (both organically and locally grown), this Rosh HaShanah I am inviting you to think deeply about developing a strategy about how to look differently at food/environment, money and people. This is the beginning of our shmitah conversation,

On Yom Kippur afternoon, our conversation is Being in Rythmn. I hope that many of you will be there to share your ideas on how we as a religious community can live with less and share more with others. Let’s be mindful of the values of shmitah and how its principles can inform each of us on how we can make a difference in the world. Shanah Tovah.

[1] Leviticus 25:1-7

[2] Exodus 23:11