Shmita Sourcebook Section II: Recalling Ancient Memory

Start at the begining, with section 1 of Hazon's Shmita Sourcebook.

Perhaps one of the first questions that might come to mind after learning about Shmita, is: Was it ever entirely observed? What historical knowledge do we have of Shmita? In truth, the evidence is sparse, which leads us to think that perhaps the tribes of Israel were not able to meet the high expectations of the Sabbatical Cycle. Below are a collection of sources (most are dating from roughly 1200BCE to 200CE, while the Rambam is writing later, but looking back towards that time) which recall the Temple periods of early Israelite culture when Shmita was and was not practiced, as well as the challenges and benefits it brought to communities trying to follow such a societal structure.
Looking back at the lives of our ancestors, can you empathize with their struggles? Or do you wish they had done better in establishing a Hebrew culture rooted in the Sabbatical Cycle?
Do you think Shmita, at its core, is primarily intended to be a symbolic spiritual methapor and value system? Or do you think Shmita is a cultural system that was intended to be followed strictly and literally?

1. The First Countings

(ב) ומֵאֵימָתַי הִתְחִילוּ לִמְנוֹת. מֵאַחַר אַרְבַּע עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה מִשֶּׁנִּכְנְסוּ לָאָרֶץ שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ויקרא כה ג) "שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְרַע שָׂדֶךָ וְשֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְמֹר כַּרְמֶךָ" (עַד שֶׁיִּהְיֶה כָּל אֶחָד מַכִּיר אֶת אַרְצוֹ.) וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים עָשׂוּ בְּכִבּוּשׁ הָאָרֶץ וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים בְּחִלּוּק. נִמְצֵאתָ אוֹמֵר בִּשְׁנַת שָׁלֹשׁ וַחֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת וְאַלְפַּיִם לַיְצִירָה מֵרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה מֵאַחַר מוֹלַד אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן שֶׁהִיא שָׁנָה שְׁנִיָּה לַיְצִירָה הִתְחִילוּ לִמְנוֹת. וְעָשׂוּ שְׁנַת עֶשֶׂר וַחֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת לַיְצִירָה שֶׁהִיא שְׁנַת אַחַת וְעֶשְׂרִים מִשֶּׁנִּכְנְסוּ לָאָרֶץ שְׁמִטָּה. וּמָנוּ שֶׁבַע שְׁמִטּוֹת וְקִדְּשׁוּ שְׁנַת הַחֲמִשִּׁים שֶׁהִיא שְׁנַת אַרְבַּע וְשִׁשִּׁים מִשֶּׁנִּכְנְסוּ לָאָרֶץ:

(ג) שִׁבְעָה עָשָׂר יוֹבְלִים מָנוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל מִשֶּׁנִּכְנְסוּ לָאָרֶץ וְעַד שֶׁיָּצְאוּ. וְשָׁנָה שֶׁיָּצְאוּ בָּהּ שֶׁחָרַב הַבַּיִת בָּרִאשׁוֹנָה מוֹצָאֵי שְׁבִיעִית הָיְתָה וּשְׁנַת שֵׁשׁ וּשְׁלֹשִׁים בַּיּוֹבֵל הָיְתָה. שֶׁאַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה וְעֶשֶׂר שָׁנִים עָמַד בַּיִת רִאשׁוֹן. כֵּיוָן שֶׁחָרַב הַבַּיִת בָּטַל מִנְיָן זֶה. מִשֶּׁבָּטְלָה נִשְׁאֲרָה הָאָרֶץ חֲרֵבָה שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה וְנִבְנָה בַּיִת שֵׁנִי. וְאַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה עָמַד. וּבַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִית מִבִּנְיָנוֹ עָלָה עֶזְרָא וְהִיא הַבִּיאָה הַשְּׁנִיָּה. וּמִשָּׁנָה זוֹ הִתְחִילוּ לִמְנוֹת מִנְיָן אַחֵר. וְעָשׂוּ שְׁנַת י''ג לְבִנְיַן בַּיִת שֵׁנִי שְׁמִטָּה. וּמָנוּ שֶׁבַע שְׁמִטּוֹת וְקִדְּשׁוּ שְׁנַת הַחֲמִשִּׁים. אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁלֹּא הָיְתָה שָׁם יוֹבֵל בְּבַיִת שֵׁנִי מוֹנִין הָיוּ אוֹתוֹ כְּדֵי לְקַדֵּשׁ שְׁמִטּוֹת:

(2) When did they begin to count the jubilees? Fourteen years after they had entered Eretz Yisrael. This is derived from Leviticus 25:3: “Six years shall you sow your field and six years shall you trim your vineyard.” (Implied is that each person must recognize that a specific portion of the land is theirs [which would require a division of the land to take place before the count starts.]) The people took seven years to conquer the land and seven years to divide it. Hence you may say [that they began to count] in the year 2503 after the Creation, from the new year following the birth of the first man, being the second year of Creation. And they declared the 2510th year after the creation, which was the 21st year [14 years to conquer and settle, 7 years of counting] after the entry into Eretz Yisrael], as the Sabbatical year. They counted seven Sabbatical years and then sanctified the fiftieth year which was the 64th year after they entered Eretz Yisrael.

(3) The Israelites counted seventeen jubilees from the time they entered the land until they left. The year in which they left, when the First Temple was destroyed, happened to be the year following the sabbatical year and the thirty-sixth year of the jubilee, since the First Temple lasted four hundred and ten years. As soon as the Temple was destroyed, this counting ceased. When it ceased, the land remained desolate for seventy years, and then the Second Temple was built. It lasted four hundred and twenty years. Ezra came up [from Babylonia to Judea] in the seventh year of its erection. This was the second coming [to the land]. From that year on, they began to use a different counting. They made the thirteenth year of the construction of the Second Temple to serve as shemittah (year of release), and counted seven shemittoth and hallowed the fiftieth year. Although no jubilee was observed during the period of the Second Temple, they counted its years in conjunction with the shemittoth which they did hallow.

Based on the Rambam’s source, we can calculate these following years of historical Sabbatical origins:
Year 2490 / 1272 B.C.E. - Enter into Eretz Yisrael
Year 2497 / 1265 B.C.E. - Begin dividing land with tribal boundaries
Year 2504 / 1258 B.C.E. - Year one of counting
Year 2510 / 1252 B.C.E. - Start of first Shmita Year
Year 2543 / 1219 B.C.E. - First Jubilee Year

Questions for discussion:

Why do you think the counting towards Shmita only began once we, as a nation, were fully settled, and each person had ‘recognized his portion of land’? What is the connection between Shmita and our relationship to being settled in the land we live on?

Why do you think the countings ceased temporarily once the First Temple was destroyed?

2. Shmita as a Marker of Time

(א) הָיוּ בוֹדְקִין אוֹתָן בְּשֶׁבַע חֲקִירוֹת, בְּאֵיזֶה שָׁבוּעַ, בְּאֵיזוֹ שָׁנָה, בְּאֵיזֶה חֹדֶשׁ, בְּכַמָּה בַחֹדֶשׁ, בְּאֵיזֶה יוֹם, בְּאֵיזוֹ שָׁעָה, בְּאֵיזֶה מָקוֹם.

(1) The court would examine the witnesses in capital cases with seven interrogations, i.e., interrogatory questions, and they are: In which seven-year period, that is, in which cycle of seven years within a jubilee did the event occur; in which year of the Sabbatical cycle did the event occur; in which month did the event occur; on which day of the month did the event occur; on which day of the week did the event occur; at which hour did the event occur; and in what place did the event occur.

(א) היא שצונו למנות השנים והשמטים שבע שבע עד שנת היובל... ומצוה זו כלומר ספירת שני השמיטה היא נמסרת לבית דין הגדול כלומר סנהדרי גדולה, כי הם שימנו שנה שנה מהחמשים שנה כמו שימנה כל איש ואיש ממנו ימי העומר... והוא שימנם השנים ביחיד ונמנה השבועות עמהן שבע פעמים.

We are commanded to count the years and the Shmita-years, seven times seven years, up until the Jubilee year... And this mitzva of counting Shmita years is the responsibility of the Beit Din, i.e., the Great Sanhedrin [Jewish Court of Law]; it is they who count each year of the fifty in the same way that each individual counts the days of the Omer… and it involves counting the years [of the Jubilee cycle] separately, as well as counting the Shmita cycles together with it.

Questions for discussion:

What might have been the effect of living in the Shmita Cycle and always knowing when the next one would start?

How might your perspective of time be different if you were considering each day as it related to being within the context of a larger cycle?

What other cycles do you use to mark time (kids ages, periods of education, physical development, etc.)? What periods of counting time do you experience in your own life?

3. Shmita, Exile & Return

(כ) וַיֶּ֛גֶל הַשְּׁאֵרִ֥ית מִן־הַחֶ֖רֶב אֶל־בָּבֶ֑ל וַֽיִּהְיוּ־ל֤וֹ וּלְבָנָיו֙ לַעֲבָדִ֔ים עַד־מְלֹ֖ךְ מַלְכ֥וּת פָּרָֽס׃ (כא) לְמַלֹּ֤אות דְּבַר־יְהוָה֙ בְּפִ֣י יִרְמְיָ֔הוּ עַד־רָצְתָ֥ה הָאָ֖רֶץ אֶת־שַׁבְּתוֹתֶ֑יהָ כָּל־יְמֵ֤י הָשַּׁמָּה֙ שָׁבָ֔תָה לְמַלֹּ֖אות שִׁבְעִ֥ים שָׁנָֽה׃ (פ)

(20) Those (of Judah) who survived the sword he exiled to Babylon (by Nubuchadnezzar), and they became his and his sons’ servants until the rise of the Persian kingdom, (21) in fulfillment of the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah - until the land paid back its Sabbaths [it's Shmita years which the people of Judah neglected]; as long as it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, until seventy years were completed.

If this text is read as a historical account of Shmita observance, it seems that the tribes of Israel eventually began to neglect the Shmita practice and did not celebrate 70 consecutive Shmita Years (which would accumulate to almost 500 calendar years). Does this change your perspective of Shmita at all?

Compare this text to section 1, sources 11 & 12.

Questions for discussion:

How do you understand the relationship between Shmita and exile? What is your take on this text, which implies that exile is a direct consequence of Sabbatical neglect?

(כט) וּשְׁאָ֣ר הָעָ֡ם הַכֹּהֲנִ֣ים הַ֠לְוִיִּם הַשּׁוֹעֲרִ֨ים הַמְשֹׁרְרִ֜ים הַנְּתִינִ֗ים וְֽכָל־הַנִּבְדָּ֞ל מֵעַמֵּ֤י הָאֲרָצוֹת֙ אֶל־תּוֹרַ֣ת הָאֱלֹהִ֔ים נְשֵׁיהֶ֖ם בְּנֵיהֶ֣ם וּבְנֹתֵיהֶ֑ם כֹּ֖ל יוֹדֵ֥עַ מֵבִֽין׃ (ל) מַחֲזִיקִ֣ים עַל־אֲחֵיהֶם֮ אַדִּירֵיהֶם֒ וּבָאִ֞ים בְּאָלָ֣ה וּבִשְׁבוּעָ֗ה לָלֶ֙כֶת֙ בְּתוֹרַ֣ת הָאֱלֹהִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר נִתְּנָ֔ה בְּיַ֖ד מֹשֶׁ֣ה עֶֽבֶד־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וְלִשְׁמ֣וֹר וְלַעֲשׂ֗וֹת אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֺת֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֲדֹנֵ֔ינוּ וּמִשְׁפָּטָ֖יו וְחֻקָּֽיו׃... (לב) וְעַמֵּ֣י הָאָ֡רֶץ הַֽמְבִיאִים֩ אֶת־הַמַּקָּח֨וֹת וְכָל־שֶׁ֜בֶר בְּי֤וֹם הַשַּׁבָּת֙ לִמְכּ֔וֹר לֹא־נִקַּ֥ח מֵהֶ֛ם בַּשַּׁבָּ֖ת וּבְי֣וֹם קֹ֑דֶשׁ וְנִטֹּ֛שׁ אֶת־הַשָּׁנָ֥ה הַשְּׁבִיעִ֖ית וּמַשָּׁ֥א כָל־יָֽד׃

(29) “And the rest of the people, the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, the temple servants, and all who separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to [follow] the Teaching of God, their wives, sons and daughters, all who know enough to understand, (30) join with their noble brothers, and take an oath with sanctions to follow the Teaching of God, given through Moses the servant of God, and to observe carefully all the commandments of the LORD our Lord, His rules and laws... (32) “The peoples of the land who bring their wares and all sorts of foodstuff for sale on the sabbath day—we will not buy from them on the sabbath or a holy day. We will forgo [the produce of] the seventh year, and every outstanding debt."

This passage refers to the re-commitments that the Israelites took upon themselves, after returning to Israel from Babylonian exile. It was under the guidance of the community leaders, Ezra and Nehemiah, that the covenant of the “Law of Moses” was renewed, and the culture of post-first-exile Judaism began to take shape in Israel.

Questions for discussion:

Do you think these returnees had a new sense of relationship to the land, after going through a forced exile? How might this have affected their understanding of Shmita?

4. Comprimise Within Shmita

Shmita, as a law, was specifically practiced within the designated land of Israel. According to the next source, when the borders of Israel were being re-defined, upon return from the first exile period, certain cities were intentionally left out of the land of Israel so that the Shmita laws would have no effect there. In these locations, farming practices would continue without interruption during the Shmita Year.

אישתמיטתיה הא דאמר ר' שמעון בן אליקים משום ר' אלעזר בן פדת שאמר משום ר' אלעזר בן שמוע הרבה כרכים כבשום עולי מצרים ולא כבשום עולי בבל וקסבר קדושה ראשונה קדשה לשעתה ולא קדשה לעתיד לבא והניחום כדי שיסמכו עליהן עניים בשביעית

The Gemara answers: That which Rabbi Shimon ben Elyakim says in the name of Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat, who says in the name of Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua, escaped the attention of Yehuda: Many cities were conquered by those who ascended from Egypt to Eretz Yisrael, led by Joshua, son of Nun, and were not conquered by those who ascended from Babylonia to Eretz Yisrael in the return to Zion led by Ezra. Among those cities was Beit She’an. And Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi holds: The initial consecration with which Eretz Yisrael was sanctified during the era of Joshua, son of Nun, in terms of the obligation to fulfill land-based mitzvot, sanctified Eretz Yisrael for its time but did not sanctify it forever. Rather, the obligation lapsed with the exile to Babylonia. When those who ascended from Babylonia returned to Eretz Yisrael and sanctified the land, they left certain places unsanctified, so that the poor would rely upon them for sustenance during the Sabbatical Year, when produce is not plentiful. Since these areas were not sanctified, it is permitted to sow crops there during the Sabbatical Year, and the poor will not go hungry.

חד ספר הוה חשוד על פירות שמיטתה אייתוניה גבי ר' אמר לון ומה יעביד עלובא ובגי חייו הוא עבד.

A certain teacher was suspected concerning Sabbatical year produce [growing and then selling the ‘ownerless’ harvest]. He was brought before Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi. R. Yehudah Hanassi said to the accusers: ‘‘What can this poor man do? He did it for the sake of his life.’’

Questions for discussion:

What might have been the possible values and challenges in establishing such neighboring lands where the Shmita prohibitions did not apply? How might the economy and agricultures of neighboring lands impact the observance of Shmita in Israel?

From the original sources in the Torah (see section 1, sources 1 & 2), it seems a core intention of the Shmita Year is to allow for the poor of the land to have food. From these texts, what can we learn about the ways the Shmita Year may have realistically been taking shape?

Do you see these rulings as compassionate and caring compromises? Or as easy solutions to avoid the radical challenges that come along with Shmita?

What might we learn today from the flexibilities that were created around Shmita during the Second Temple era?

5. Between Shmita and the State

These sources offer a glimpse into the practice of Shmita during the Second Temple period, specifically under Roman rule. At one point, the Jewish communities were exempt from taxes on the Seventh year. When this decree was annulled, the Rabbis allowed the land to be tilled and planted, so as to provide resources to support the paying of taxes.

The Antiquities of the Jews 14:10:6

(6) Caius Caesar, imperator the second time, hath ordained, That all the country of the Jews, excepting Joppa, do pay a tribute yearly for the city Jerusalem, excepting the seventh, which they call the sabbatical year, because thereon they neither receive the fruits of their trees, nor do they sow their land; and that they pay their tribute in Sidon on the second year [of that sabbatical period], the fourth part of what was sown: and besides this, they are to pay the same tithes to Hyrcanus and his sons which they paid to their forefathers. And that no one, neither president, nor lieutenant, nor ambassador, raise auxiliaries within the bounds of Judea; nor may soldiers exact money of them for winter quarters, or under any other pretense; but that they be free from all sorts of injuries; and that whatsoever they shall hereafter have, and are in possession of, or have bought, they shall retain them all.

משרבו האנסין ומאי נינהו ארנונא כדמכריז רבי ינאי פוקו וזרעו בשביעית משום ארנונא

Once the tax collectors grew abundant it was permitted to gather the produce of the Sabbatical Year. And what tax did they collect? Arnona, which was a heavy tax on property collected both during the Sabbatical Year and in other years, placing pressure on those observing the Sabbatical Year. As Rabbi Yannai proclaimed: Go out and sow the fields during the Sabbatical Year due to the arnona that you must pay.

Questions for discussion:

Do you think Shmita can be observed within the context of separation of Church and State? How might Shmita present a unique challenge to this division?

Do you think Shmita can be observed without the support of governmental policies? If not, what types of policies would need to be in place to make Shmita possible?

6. Shmita as a Collective Agreement

Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi, also known as Rabbi, or Judah the Prince, was a 2nd century CE rabbi and chief redactor of the Mishnah. He was a key leader of the Jewish community during the Roman occupation of Judea, and served as the head of the Sanhedrin (Jewish Court of Law). In his time, he was known to rule leniently in regards to the laws of Shmita. (See source 4 for another example.) This interaction, between two leading figures, captures the subtle tension within the Shmita debate that must have been a fierce issue at the time.

רבי בעי משרי שמיטתא סלק רבי פינחס בן יאיר לגבי' א"ל מה עיבורי' עבידין א"ל עולשין יפות מה עיבוריא עבידין א"ל עולשין יפות וידע רבי דלית הוא מסכמה עמי'

Once Rabbi [Yehudah Hanassi] wanted to annul the Sabbatical Year. Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair went to him. Rabbi asked Pinchas, “How are your grains doing?” Pinchas said to him, “The endives [wild] are growing fine.” Rabbi once again said to him: “How are your grains doing?” Pinchas replied to him, again, “The endives are growing fine.” And by this, Rabbi understood that Pinchas did not agree with him about annulling the Sabbatical year.

מאן חכמים רבי יהודה דבאתריה דר' יהודה שביעית חמירא להו דההוא דהוה קרי ליה לחבריה דיירא בר דיירתא א"ל תיתי לי דלא אכלי פירות שביעית כוותך

The Gemara asks: Who are the Sages referred to here as the Rabbis? It is Rabbi Yehuda, as in Rabbi Yehuda’s locale they considered produce of the Sabbatical Year an especially stringent prohibition. Therefore, if a resident of that place was suspect with regard to the Sabbatical Year, he was certainly not trusted with regard to tithes. As in that locale, if a certain person would call another: A convert, son of a female convert, wishing to insult him, that person would say to him in reply: I have a blessing coming to me, as I do not eat produce of the Sabbatical Year like you do. This indicates that the accusation of eating produce of the Sabbatical Year was a great insult, since they treated the Sabbatical Year stringently.

(ג) וְאֵלּוּ הֵן הַפְּסוּלִין, הַמְשַׂחֵק בְּקֻבְיָא, וְהַמַּלְוֶה בְרִבִּית, וּמַפְרִיחֵי יוֹנִים, וְסוֹחֲרֵי שְׁבִיעִית.

(3) And these on the following list are the ones who are disqualified by the Sages from bearing witness due to their unseemly behavior, as they are considered wicked individuals guilty of monetary transgressions: One who plays with dice [bekubbiyya] for money, and one who lends money with interest, and those who fly pigeons, and merchants who trade in the produce of the Sabbatical Year, which may be eaten but may not be sold as an object of commerce.

Questions for discussion:

Unlike many mitzvot, which are based on individual personal practice, Shmita relies on both personal and communal participation. How does this affect the possibility of a successful Shmita Year?

Based on these texts, do you think the integrity of Shmita is only possible when the entire culture is following this tradition together, in collective agreement and with mutual responsibility? Or is a personal Shmita practice just as important even if the collective is not observing together?

What is the common link between the people listed who cannot serve as witnesses or judges in the courts? Why do you think a person who buys and sells Shmita harvests would be in the same category as the others?

7. Shmita as a Period of Challenge...

This historical text, about the struggles the community faced leading up to the victory of the Maccabees over King Antiochus (which is celebrated every Chanukah), clearly offers a recollection of Shmita as a period of drastic challenge.

The Antiquities of the Jews 12:9:5

5. But Judas, seeing the strength of the enemy, retired to Jerusalem, and prepared to endure a siege. As for Antiochus, he sent part of his army to Bethsura, to besiege it, and with the rest of his army he came against Jerusalem; but the inhabitants of Bethsura were terrified at his strength; and seeing that their provisions grew scarce, they delivered themselves up on the security of oaths that they should suffer no hard treatment from the king. And when Antiochus had thus taken the city, he did them no other harm than sending them out naked. He also placed a garrison of his own in the city. But as for the temple of Jerusalem, he lay at its siege a long time, while they within bravely defended it; for what engines soever the king set against them, they set other engines again to oppose them. But then their provisions failed them; what fruits of the ground they had laid up were spent and the land being not ploughed that year, continued unsowed, because it was the seventh year, on which, by our laws, we are obliged to let it lay uncultivated. And withal, so many of the besieged ran away for want of necessaries, that but a few only were left in the temple.

Questions for discussion:

When you imagine Shmita, is this a period of abundance or scarcity? What is the main challenge these people faced within this period of battle?

What conditions are necessary so that the observance of Shmita does not become a societal burden, for peaceful times as well as during drastic periods of challenge?

(יז) רַבִּי אַבָּהוּ פָּתַח (תהלים סט, יג): יָשִׂיחוּ בִי ישְׁבֵי שָׁעַר, אֵלּוּ אֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם שֶׁהֵן יוֹשְׁבִין בְּבָתֵּי תַּרְטִיאוֹת וּבְבָתֵּי קַרְקְסִיאוֹת. וּנְגִינוֹת שׁוֹתֵי שֵׁכָר, מֵאַחַר שֶׁהֵן יוֹשְׁבִין וְאוֹכְלִין וְשׁוֹתִין וּמִשְׁתַּכְּרִין הֵן יוֹשְׁבִין וּמְשִׂיחִין בִּי וּמַלְעִיגִים בִּי, וְאוֹמְרִים: בְּגִין דְּלָא נִצְרוֹךְ לְחָרוֹבָא כִּיהוּדָאי. וְהֵן אוֹמְרִין אֵלּוּ לְאֵלּוּ: כַּמָּה שָׁנִים אַתְּ בָּעֵי מְחֵי, וְהֵן אוֹמְרִים כַּחֲלוּקָא דִּיהוּדָאי דְשַׁבַּתָּא, וּמַכְנִיסִין אֶת הַגַּמָּל לַטַּרְטִיאוֹת שֶׁלָּהֶם וְהַחֲלוּקִים שֶׁלּוֹ עָלָיו, וְהֵן אוֹמְרִין אֵלּוּ לְאֵלּוּ: עַל מָה זֶה מִתְאַבֵּל, וְהֵן אוֹמְרִים: הַיְּהוּדִים הַלָּלוּ שׁוֹמְרֵי שְׁבִיעִית הֵן וְאֵין לָהֶם יָרָק וְאָכְלוּ הַחוֹחִים שֶׁל זֶה וְהוּא מִתְאַבֵּל עֲלֵיהֶם.

R. Abbahu opened his discourse with the text, They that sit in the gate talk of me (Ps. 69.13): This refers to the nations of the world who sit in theatres and circuses. ‘And I am the song of the drunkards’: after they have sat eating and drinking and become intoxicated, they sit and talk of me, scoffing at me and saying, ‘We have no need to eat carobs like the Jews ‘! They ask one another, ‘How long do you wish to live?’
To which they reply, ‘As long as the shirt of a Jew which is worn on the Sabbath’! They then take a camel into their theatres, put their shirts upon it, and ask one another, ‘Why is it in mourning?’ To which they reply, ‘The Jews observe the law of the Sabbatical year and they have no vegetables, so they eat this camel’s thorns, and that is why it is in mourning’!

Harvesting and eating the fruits of trees are permissible during the Shmita Year. Carob is a Mediterranean tree that produces seed pods which are edible and sweet, yet which are hard to process and have not become a traditionally mainstream food. ‘Camel’s Thorn’ is a type of acacia tree that produces excellent animal fodder, yet is less traditionally recognized as food for human consumption.

Questions for discussion:

Based on this text, and your own imagination, how do you think those who were going about their regular farming/economic activity would regard the act of observing Shmita? How would you feel as the one being observed?

8. ...And Shmita as a Period of Abundance

Biur refers to an aspect of the Shmita Year which adheres to eating a seasonal diet. When foods are in season, they can be freely harvested and stored. When they are no longer found naturally in season, in the wild, all harvests (fresh, dried and preserved) must be shared with the public.
For more on Biur, see section 3.1, source #5.

The Tosefta below was written in 220 CE (Mishna Period), recollecting times from the temple period.

(א) בראשונה היו שלוחי בית דין יושבין על פתחי עיירות כל מי שמביא פירות בתוך ידו נוטלין אותן ממנו ונותנין לו מהן מזון שלש סעודות והשאר מכניסין אותו לאוצר שבעיר.

(ב) הגיע זמן תאנים שלוחי בית דין שוכרין פועלין ועודרים אותן ועושים אותן דבילה ומכניסין אותן לאוצר שבעיר הגיע זמן ענבים שלוחי ב"ד שוכרין פועלין ובוצרין אותן ודורכין אותן בגת וכונסין אותן בחביות ומכניסין אותן לאוצר שבעיר הגיע זמן זיתים שלוחי בית דין שוכרין פועלין ומוסקין אותן ועוטנין אותו בבית הבד וכונסין אותן בחביות ומכניסין אותן לאוצר שבעיר ומחלקין מהן ערבי שבתות כל אחד ואחד לפי ביתו.

(ג) הגיע זמן שעת הביעור עניים אוכלין אחר הביעור אבל לא עשירים דברי רבי יהודה רבי יוסי אומר אחד עניים ואחד עשירים אוכלין אחר הביעור ר"ש אומר עשירים אוכלין מן האוצר אחר הביעור.

(ד) מי שיש לו פירות שביעית הגיע שעת הביעור מחלק מהן לשכניו ולקרוביו וליודעיו ומוציא ומניח על [פתח] ביתו ואומר אחינו בית ישראל כל מי שצריך ליטול יבא ויטול חוזר ומכניס לתוך ביתו ואוכל והולך עד שעה שיכלו.

Initially, agents of the court would sit at the gates of the city. Everyone who brought fruits in his hand would have the fruits removed and be given enough food for three meals in exchange. The rest would be entered into the storehouse.
When it came time for dates, the agents of the court would hire workers to gather them together, make them into pressed cakes and enter them into the storehouse of the city. When it came time for grapes, agents of the court would hire workers, squeeze the grapes, press them, enter them into jugs and place them in the city storehouse. When it came time for olives, agents of the court would hire workers to prepare and press them in the oil press and enter the oil into jugs and place them in the city storehouses. These products would be distributed on the eve of Shabbat, every person according to the needs of his household.
Someone who has fruit from shevi’it (Shmita) when the hour for biur arrived distributes the fruits to neighbors and relatives and people he knows. He then goes out and places the fruits on his doorstep and says, “My brothers from the house of Israel, anyone who needs may come and take.” He then returns and enters back into his house and eats until they are gone.

Questions for discussion:

Why do you think there was a necessity for such a system of community storehouses during the Shmita Year?

How would you feel being dependent upon a centralized community storehouse that distributed foods to the public? Would you feel comfortable donating your harvests to this system, or would you rather keep your harvests private? What are some key practices of this storehouse that ensured a fair distribution system?

The person who shares his/her produce with the public, announces “…anyone who needs may come and take.” This declaration seems similar to the opening line of the Passover Seder, “All who are hungry may come and eat.” Do you see any connection?

Closing questions for discussion:

Shmita seems to be rooted in a series of ideals, which in practice had a wide range of consequences. What do you see as the greatest value of Shmita? The greatest challenge?

Do you consider the Shmita tradition more of a ‘religious’ observance or a ‘cultural’ observance? Is there a difference? If so, what? How might such a perspective shifted through history?

Does the historical observance of Shmita (or lack of it) affect or frame your own personal link to Shmita today? What can we learn from these historical accounts for the way Shmita re-emerges today, for ourselves, our families, our communities?

The discussion continues in section 3, part 1!