Shmita Sourcebook Section IV: Rabbinic Voices and Visioning of Shmita — From Exile to Return

If you haven't yet, check out section 3 part 2 of Hazon's Shmita Sourcebook.

Traditionally, Shmita applied only in the land of Israel. It is not considered a halacha (law) to observe Shmita outside of Israel. In the more than 2,000 years since being exiled from the land of Israel, Jewish tradition continued to evolve and develop, forming a strong identity that did not include the practice of Shmita. Yet, throughout this time, Jewish sages and leaders carried the spark of this tradition, writing romantically and powerfully about this practice. In this section, we offer a few of these voices, ranging in time from the immediate post-exile period to the early settlements in pre-state Israel.
As you read these texts, consider how the Rabbis had the opportunity to explore Shmita and embrace its spiritual and moral values without also having to face the challenges it came with. How do you think this may have changed their relationship with this law? What do you think the intention of the Rabbis were, in teaching about Shmita, and keeping its memory alive, in a period when it was not being observed? And for those of us still living outside of Israel, how might these voices influence our own thinking about Shmita today?

1. Shmita as the Heart of Torah

This midrash below adds imagery and texture to a powerful moment in Jewish tradition: Following the revelation on the Mount Sinai, where the tribes of Israel received the 10 Commandments, Moses offered further guidance, while reading from the Book of the Covenant. Upon his conclusion, the tribes of Israel famously responded, “Na’ase V’nishma - We will do and we will listen.”

Mechilta of Rabbi Yishmael, Parashat Yitro, 3
“And Moses took the book of the covenant, and read so the people could hear; and they said: ‘All that God has spoken we will do, we will obey.” (Leviticus 24.7)

Rabbi Yishmael asked: From where did Moshe begin to read? “When you settle the land, the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field…but in the Seventh Year the land shall have a complete rest.” Shmita, Yovel, blessings, and curses. And how did he conclude? “These are the laws, statutes and teachings.” They said, “We accept!” When he saw that they had received it upon themselves, he said: “Behold, you are prepared. Tomorrow come and receive all the laws upon yourselves.” (4th Century)

Questions for discussion:

In what way do you think the commitment to enter into relationship with the Shmita Cycle would ‘prepare’ the tribes to be able to fully receive the Torah?

Why do you think Rabbi Yishmael chose Shmita as the archetypal commandment to agree to, which would symbolize and represent all laws to follow? Which commandment would you choose?

2. Shmita & Personal Strength

(תהלים קג, כ): גִּבֹּרֵי כֹחַ עֹשֵׂי דְבָרוֹ, בַּמֶּה הַכָּתוּב מְדַבֵּר, אָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק בְּשׁוֹמְרֵי שְׁבִיעִית הַכָּתוּב מְדַבֵּר, בְּנֹהַג שֶׁבָּעוֹלָם אָדָם עוֹשֶׂה מִצְוָה לְיוֹם אֶחָד, לְשַׁבָּת אֶחָת, לְחֹדֶשׁ אֶחָד, שֶׁמָּא לִשְׁאָר יְמוֹת הַשָּׁנָה, וְדֵין חָמֵי חַקְלֵיהּ בָּיְרָה כַּרְמֵיהּ בָּיְרָה וְיָהֵב אַרְנוֹנָא וְשָׁתִיק, יֵשׁ לְךָ גִּבּוֹר גָּדוֹל מִזֶּה.

“The mighty in strength that fulfill His word” (Psalms 103:20). To whom does the Scripture refer? R. Isaac said, “To those who are willing to observe the Sabbatical Year. In the way of the world, a man may be willing to observe a commandment for a day, a week, a month, but is he likely to continue to do so through the remaining days of the year? But throughout that year this mighty man sees his field declared ownerless, his fences broken down, and his produce consumed by others, yet he continues to give up his produce without saying a word. Can you conceive a person mightier than such as he?”

(5th Century)

Questions for discussion:

The Rabbis are designating respect and honor to those who are able to keep the Shmita Year. Do you think the challenges of the Shmita Year would be ones you would be able to deal with?

According to this midrash, what is the essence of the 'might' and 'strength' that characterizes the person who keeps Shmita?

Many of the mitzvot are challenging in their own ways. Why do you think Rabbi Isaac chose Shmita beyond all the other mitzvot to personify ‘the mighty in strength’?

מי שטרח בערב שבת יאכל בשבת מי שלא טרח בערב שבת מהיכן יאכל בשבת

One who prepared before Shabbat will eat on Shabbat; but one who didn’t prepare before Shabbat, what will he eat on the Shabbat?

Questions for discussion:

Replace the word Shabbat with Shmita, which itself is a yearlong Shabbat. What would be involved in preparing for Shmita? Do you think this work is a part of the 'might' and 'strength' that the earlier midrash celebrates?

What is the balance between faith and active preparation within the Shmita Cycle?

3. Shmita & Our Relationship to Land

אתא ההוא תלמידא א"ל מ"ט דשביעתא א"ל ... אמר הקב"ה לישראל זרעו שש והשמיטו שבע כדי שתדעו שהארץ שלי היא

A certain student came before Rabbi Abbahu and said to him: What is the reason for the mitzva of the Sabbatical Year? Rabbi Abbahu said ... The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to the Jewish people: Sow for six years, and withhold sowing during the seventh year, so that that you will know that the land is Mine.

Questions for discussion:

How might your relationship to land and other personal resources/property change when you release your own sense of control? If such a ‘release’ became a continual practice, how would this shape your sense of ownership?
What is the potential consquence of thinking property and resources belong to you? How might this consciousness be affecting our global environmental and social health today?

Rabbi Moshe Alshich

“When you come into the land” (Leviticus 25.2) implies no conquest but the acquisition of a legacy. This may foster the illusion that the Land belongs to Israel permanently and unconditionally, to be inherited by their children to be tilled and cultivated, and to reap the fruits of their sweat and toil. To counter any such notion, God says, the Land which I give to you, i.e. it is not a Land given as an irreversible inheritance, but a pledge renewed on condition that you merit it. However, if you turn away from Me, I shall take it away from you and give it to others.” (16th Century)

For the full text referenced here, from Leviticus 25.2, as well as its direct connection to Shmita, see section 1, source #2. And for a reference to the way land was valued in relation to the Jubilee Cycle, see section 1, sources #8-9.

Questions for discussion:

How does the practice of Shmita imply receiving ‘a legacy’ or a heritage?

Is there any piece of land that you have been in relationship with in such a way? What are some ways to ‘merit’ the opportunity to call a land home for generations?

(ט) גָּלוּת בָּאָה לָעוֹלָם עַל עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה, וְעַל גִלּוּי עֲרָיוֹת, וְעַל שְׁפִיכוּת דָּמִים, וְעַל הַשְׁמָטַת הָאָרֶץ.

(9) Exile comes upon the world on account of idolatry, sexual immorality, murder, and the failure to observe the Shmita. (3rd century)

Questions for discussion:

Why do you think the Rabbis chose these particular actions as a trigger for exile? What is the connecting link between them?

What is exile to you? How do you experience this in your own life and how might you sense it in the society you live in?

How is exile connected to our relationship with food and economy? How might these values of Shmita offer us a redemption from this sense of exile, and a return ‘home’?

4. A Return to Eden

Rabbi Saul Mortera, Sefer Giv’at Shaul

‘And the wolf shall lie down with the lamb’ (Isaiah 11.16) — this was how it was in the time of Adam and at the beginning of the creation, and we also know very clearly that the Earth is now cursed with thorns and thistles whereas it never used to be, and animals never used to tear each other up for food, etc. So as a reminder of the past and to serve as inspiration for the future, the Almighty has commanded the mitzvah of the Shmita Year which draws our attention to the time of the creation and the time of the coming of the Messiah…’And for your cattle and for the beast which is in the your land shall all the produce be to eat, etc.’(Leviticus 25.7), it is in fact a kind of promise, that is to say, if you do all of this, the time will come when cattle and beasts will eat together etc. For their abandoning everything in the year of the Shmita to the cattle and the beasts is a sign of what was and will again be, for no longer will they eat bread by the sweat of their brow, and the wild animals will not harm the cattle. So therefore, whoever observes the mitzvot which signify this, will be privileged to experience all of these things.” (17th Century)

Questions for discussion:

Do you see a correlation between the reality of Shmita and the utopia that is depicted in the Garden of Eden? Is this the ultimate ‘home’ Shmita will bring us back to?

What are the characteristics of this reality that Rabbi Mortera is highlighting?

Why do you think Rabbi Mortera is referencing ‘by the sweat of their brow’, as in the curse Adam and Eve were given upon being sent out of Eden? Is Shmita a rectification for this curse?

5. What's Mine is Yours

כי שנת השמטה גורם ג"כ ההקהל והשלום... כי אינו רשאי להחזיק בתבואת שנת השבע כבעל הבית, וזה בלי ספק סיבת השלום כי כל דברי ריבות נמשכין ממדת שלי שלי זה אומר כולה שלי וכל זה אינו כל כך בשנה השביעית כי בקום ועשה אין הכל שוים אבל בשב ואל תעשה הכל שוין וזה באמת ענין השלום

The year of Shmita…promotes a sense of fellowship and peace...for one is not allowed to exercise over any of the seventh year produce the right of private ownership. And this is undoubtedly a primary factor in promoting peace since most dissension originates from the attitudes of ‘mine is mine,’ one person claiming ‘it is all mine’ and the other also claiming ‘it is all mine.’ But in the seventh year all are equal, and this is the real essence of peace. (16th Century)

Questions for discussion:

If private acquisition and ownership creates a sense of ‘what’s mine is mine’, how does Shmita promote a sense of ‘what’s mine is yours’?

See source #2 in section 3.1 for more background on these topics.

ענין שמיטה ויובל הוא נגד המדות הנזכרות במס' אבות [פ"ה,מ"י] שלי שלך, שלך שלך.

The matter of Shmita and Yovel correspond to the way of acting, mentioned in the Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, 5:10): 'One who says "What's mine is yours, and what's yours is yours," [this is a righteous person'.] (19th Century)

Questions for discussion:

What are some moments in your life where you would rather say ‘what’s mine is mine’? And in what ways do you practice sharing of resources and property, rooted in the value of ‘what’s mine is yours’?

Do you think those who were keeping Shmita and being sieged by the army of Antiochus would have agreed with the Kli Yakar? (section 2, source #7)

Or how about those who were donating their harvests to the collective storehouses?
(section 2, source #8)

6. A Temple in Time

Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, Sefer Habrit, Behar

The Shmita Year teaches us further that the rich should not lord it over the poor. Accordingly, the Torah ordained that all should be equal during the seventh year, both the rich and the needy having access to the gardens and fields to eat their fill…Yet another reason [for Shmita]: in order that they should not always be preoccupied with working the soil to provide for their material needs. For in this one year, they would be completely free. The liberation from the yoke of work would give them the opportunity for studying Torah and wisdom. Those who are not students will be occupied with crafts and building and supplying these needs in Eretz Yisrael. Those endowed with special skills will invent new methods in this free time for the benefit of the world. (19th Century)

Questions for discussion:

What is the link between Rabbi Kalischer’s two reasons for Shmita? Is the ideal of a Sabbatical only a luxury the rich can afford? How could we create societal systems which would support the possibility of a Sabbatical for all societal classes?

Have you ever taken a personal Sabbatical? What was that experience like? If not, how would you fill your time if you had one year of rest from work? What goals would you have for this year?

From what you know of Shmita, do you think this period of time would create a sense of personal freedom?

Imagine if our society functioned in such a way that every career included one year off, every seven years. How do you think this might change the way our society functions?

The Seventh Millennia:

תניא כותיה דרב קטינא כשם שהשביעית משמטת שנה אחת לז' שנים כך העולם משמט אלף שנים לשבעת אלפים שנה שנאמר ונשגב ה' לבדו ביום ההוא ואומר (תהלים צב, א) מזמור שיר ליום השבת יום שכולו שבת ואומר (תהלים צ, ד) כי אלף שנים בעיניך כיום אתמול כי יעבור

It is taught in a baraita in accordance with the opinion of Rav Ketina: Just as the Sabbatical Year abrogates debts once in seven years, so too, the world abrogates its typical existence for one thousand years in every seven thousand years, as it is stated: “And the Lord alone shall be exalted on that day,” and it states: “A psalm, a song for the Shabbat day” (Psalms 92:1), meaning a day, i.e., one thousand years, that is entirely Shabbat.

Questions for discussion:

According to Rabbinic tradition, just as the cycle of seven appears in days, weeks, and years, so does it also appear in millennia. On the year 6000 of the Hebrew calendar, which marks the start of the seventh millennium, a radically new era will begin and the great thousand-year ‘Temple in Time’ will arrive. This period is associated with the Messianic era. Can you imagine Shmita as a microcosm of a thousand-year-long Shabbat? Based on the values of Shmita and Shabbat, how would you envision this time?

7. The Balancing of the Seventh Year

Rav Kook (1865-1935) was the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Palestine. He was a teacher, writer, and poet. His works were filled with the love of the land of Israel as a home for the spiritual maturation of Jewish tradition. He was known for his universalistic appreciation for humanity and creation, as well as his efforts to build relationships between the religious and secular communities in the development of Israel. He authored Shabbat Ha’aretz, which was partly a poetic, spiritual celebration of the importance of Shmita, as well as a detailed account of the laws relating to the usage of Heter Mechira (see section 5, source #2).

Rav Kook, adapted by Rabbi Chanan Morrison

The seventh year serves to rectify the social ills and inequalities that accumulate in society over the years. When poorer segments of society borrow from the wealthy, they feel beholden to the affluent elite. “The debtor is a servant of the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). This form of subservience can corrupt even honest individuals in their dealings with the rich and powerful. The Sabbatical year comes to correct this situation of inequality and societal rifts, by removing a major source of power of the elite: debts owed to them. (Early 20th Century)

Questions for discussion:

Do you see Shmita as a societal re-set, setting straight ‘societal ills’ and inequalities, as Rav Kook describes?

Do you agree with Rav Kook’s statement that debt has become ‘a major source of power for the elite’? If so, who are the elite? Do you feel empowered/disempowered in your role as lender/borrower? How might this relate to a teaching from the Rambam that lending is the highest form of charity, because, if done correctly, it truly empowers the borrower (Mishne Torah, Seder Zera’im, Gifts to the Poor, 10.7)?

How could and should we develop healthier models of giving? Healthier models of entering into debt?
(For more on Jewish practices of giving, see Appendix B.)

Rav Kook, Shabbat Ha'Aretz

What the Sabbath achieves regarding the individual, the Shmita achieves with regard to the nation as a whole. A year of solemn rest is essential for both the nation and the land, a year of peace and quiet without oppressor and tyrant…It is a year of equality and rest, in which the soul reaches out towards divine justice, towards God who sustains the living creatures with loving kindness. There is no private property and no punctilious privilege but the peace of God reigns over all in which there is the breath of life. Sanctity is not profaned by the exercise of private acquisitiveness over all this year’s produce, and the covetousness of wealth stirred up by commerce is forgotten. For food – but not for commerce.
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…

Questions for discussion:

What do you think Shabbat achieves for the individual, and how does Shmita transfer this to the nation, as a whole?

On a personal level, how might the practice of Shmita stir one’s own spiritual practice?

What changes about food when it is simply food, and not a part of commerce? How does the economy of food play in to the ‘coveting of wealth’?

(See section 3.1, source #2 and section 3.2, source #1 for more discussion about food and commerce.)

Closing questions for discussion:

Does the perspective of Shmita shift for you, when considering it simply as a system of values and ethics? Do you think Jewish culture could more deeply embody these values?
If so, how?

Do you think the Rabbis see the idealistic possibilities and utopian potential of Shmita as the core reason of its observance or as an added romantic layer? How do you think the fact that they were not actually observing Shmita affected their own personal perspectives?

The discussion continues in section 5!